In literature, film, popular culture and in the consciousness of Joe Average in his red brick semi with 2.3 kids and 0.7 Golden Retrievers (or whatever the figures from the Office of National Statistics now say we all have) bikes have been a totem for rebellion.
Steve McQueen, James Dean, Marlon Brando and a strange obsession with back-patch bike gangs – bikes spoke to everyday folk of escape from the humdrum, of a refusal to compromise, of a determination to find one’s own path. Risk in return for kicks – the opposite of most people’s lives.
But of course they were also scary, dangerous, cold and wet, so Joe Average rarely bought one. In essence it worked like this: the average British man did not want his daughter to marry a biker, but he secretly wanted to be one every time he saw a bike.
But something’s changed. Bikes are suddenly extraordinarily cool…and that cool is driving a huge, new fashion and style revolution which you can see everywhere.
Today you can’t move for Hollywood leading men (and the odd leading lady) being ‘papped’ riding customs through Beverly Hills; and the “biker look” – more 1960s Steve McQueen than 2004 Valentino Rossi of course – is now crushingly fashionable.
Old British brands which once made bike kit have suddenly remembered this fact and are marketing themselves on that front mercilessly – see Barbour’s new flagship “motorcycle” store on London’s ultra expensive Piccadilly for example (not one member of staff rides – that’s not what the place is for, despite a scattering of off-road tires and goggles being included by the interior designer).
That bargain Belstaff jacket full of holes these days will be £400
Near where I used to live in south London there’s an old, weather-worn shop of little note from the outside. Inside, though, it has been, for two decades, a haven for motorcyclists. Ancient leathers and wax jackets from Lewis and Belstaff and other great names of the past; Bell open-face helmets, old doe-skin gloves. None of it cutting edge in terms of warmth or protection but all possessed of a certain style which, if you rode certain kinds of bikes, fitted nicely. On a good day you could part with £70 and be in the pub on the corner by lunchtime in possession of a lovely 80s Barbour bike jacket which, with some TLC, would be great for your summer commute on the machine you ran.
The shop’s still there, but now there’s an organic coffee bar in the back, complete with old motorcycle race posters and kit for the customers to lounge around amidst, looking hip, and that bargain Belstaff jacket full of holes these days will be £400.
What’s going on? Where has this come from?
Whilst it’s tempting to dismiss a lot of this as fashionista nonsense and presume that in six months they’ll be dressed as farmers or circus acts instead, there’s actually something fundamental behind it.
The biking scene – that’s the real one where people ride bikes, not the dressing up one – is changing, and it’s driving this look you see all around you now in so many other areas of style.
A new custom scene has grown up in sheds and under old railway arches across England, giving new life to humdrum old machines of the 1970s and 1980s.
Cafe racers, street trackers and brat bikes are the name of the game in this world and looking good is not a by-product of riding the machines, it’s an essential component.
This scene is not about badass outlaw bikers
This scene is not about badass outlaw bikers, but has been driven instead by those coming mainly from the creative industries; photographers, copywriters, brand managers and designers. They have found a shared love of combining their long-held passion for riding with the artistry of creating individual, unique and very cool machines. The aesthetics matter as much as the machinery.
Old skool “one per center” back-patch gangs dismiss them as rich kids playing at biking, but very few are that and most have taken huge financial risks to become builders. A lot simply won’t survive, but some will and the scene is now on the brink of breaking through to the mainstream as never before.
Spirit of the Seventies (here I declare an interest because they built one of my bikes), Untitled Motorcycles, Kevil’s Speed Shop, and East London Chop Shop are amongst the better known of the builders who are a little older and have started businesses after walking away from other careers, but already there is another culture within the scene – groups like Kingdom of Kicks and Black Skulls, made up of younger riders for whom the scene is less a business than a pure lifestyle.
This swirling, complex collective comes together under the banner of the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club, or BSMC, founded by Anthony “Dutch” van Someren (who was pictured beside David Beckham – the new face of Barbour – at his unveiling by the brand last year, so crucial is “authenticity” in milking the marketing miles out of the scene for big brands).
Last year BSMC held two shows, both in fashionable back-street art galleries in east London. They were tentatively testing the water. It was very warm – the response, both in terms of footfall and media coverage (including acres of print in mainstream, non-biking media), was staggering. Thousands came.
“Everyone in the scene wants to say it’s about the bikes not the style, but I think the reality is it has to be about both,” says Dutch, a brand director whose background is in television and publishing. “The scene keeps evolving. It was all about Japanese brat style bikes, which was picked-up and turned into the Australian beach biker/surfer scene, then café racers made a return. The start of last year saw an uprising in BMW boxer twins of all descriptions, and after the summer we saw bikes like the Honda CX500 and GT550 becoming head-turners, and now we’re seeing late 80s Honda Dominators and other big singles being turned into 70s style street trackers, which is where I think it’s going to go this year.
The scene will survive as long as we don’t codify it
“The scene will survive as long as we don’t codify it. Punk got codified. It was all about fucking things up and suddenly fucking things up became the rules. If we don’t let that happen it’ll still be here, in whatever form, in years to come.”
The runaway success of the two BSMC events last year, and the way the new skool custom scene has accidentally sparked a change in the world of fashion, has led to the group deciding to open a permanent venue in London – a mix between a gallery of cool bikes, a drop-in centre for the scene and those curious about it, a clothing and accessories store, a shop window for builders and a coffee shop/café. Investors, who’ve taken a look at Barbour/Belstaff’s desperation to cash in on the scene, are already coming aboard. “What’s crucial for us is that it’s not just about money,” says Dutch. “This has to be about working with people who want to be a part of this thing because they love it too.”
It’s also true that in 2013, the wider biking world, for so long obsessed by either bullet-nosed 1000cc sports machines or faux pan-African ‘adventure’ bikes suddenly woke up to this fact. Manufacturers, magazines and websites suddenly realised they’d missed a major trend.
John Hogan, editor of Superbike Magazine, and one of the few to see and predict what was coming, explains: “I think what makes these bikes cool, and the reason the mainstream biking public has missed them up until now, is that they’re not for the mainstream biking public. They are for the people who make them and who have, as a result, developed the whole scene. Often these people come from a different background to most bikers – they’re people who were in to their BMXing and skateboarding, outgrew those and were looking for something else which set them apart.
“What that’s bred is a whole new way of accessing biking. The customers for these machines are attracted as much by the style and the scene as they are by the concept of biking. That can only be a good thing.”
It’s the bikes, the builders and the sub-culture which have driven the mainstream
Hogan, too, thinks the scene is here to stay. “Part of what I think will make this scene stick is the fashion element – there is a ‘look’ which goes with it, an extension of people’s fashion taste and their character. The danger, of course, is like all sub-cultures it eventually becomes so mainstream that the people who created it start looking for something else to set themselves apart. It’s absolutely true though that it is the bikes, the builders and the sub-culture which have driven the mainstream – the clothing makers, the bike manufacturers and so on.”
Biking is not only cool again, it’s pretty much cooler than anything else. Across town you’ll see chiseled young things decked out in retro-tastic wax-cotton bike jackets, or battered leather ones, and everywhere you look bikes are being used to advertise something (except for bikes, of course).
Belstaff’s shop in Chelsea sells replicas of its (excellent) bike jackets. Why replicas? Well the real thing is heavy, full of armour and triple stitched…so ideal for riding a motorbike but less use for lounging about pretending to ride a motorbike. Actually, the replicas often cost more than the real thing. Belstaff knows both its markets.
And this reveals something more. The look people want is not ‘biker’ but ‘authentic biker’, which is why Barbour will (and I’m not making this up) sell you a £500 wax cotton bike jacket with fake plastic mud splatters on to match those on the 1960s version worn in pictures by Steve McQueen. The ‘authentic’ biker look without all the trouble of being an actual…er…biker.
John Hogan refuses to be chippy about it though: “The fashion thing, the fact that a fair number of people wearing the kit don’t ride the bikes, is fine. The more the merrier in my view. Look, I’ve got very little interest in standing around with a cup of coffee looking at other people’s bikes, I’d rather be riding. Riding’s a very private thing. If this whole fashion scene which has grown up gets 500 people on to bikes this year that’s fantastic. They’ll soon learn what it’s all about.
“Biking’s not and never has been one big brotherhood, so I’ve no time for the idea that people attracted to the scene though fashion are somehow less entitled to be here.”
Dutch agrees. “That was part of what BSMC was all about, not allowing things to become siloed. We’re all into bikes, and we’re all aesthetically-driven; these create a unifying theme. What I love is it’s back to analogue. There’s no health and safety, no digital. On an old bike you have to work the choke on a cold morning to get it started, and when you get to work your feet probably smell of petrol. You can look at it and think ‘I can fix that myself’.”
Deux ex Machina now sell bikes costing tens of thousands of pounds to the likes of Orlando Bloom
“I don’t think people mind [the way the scene’s become ‘cool’ in the mainstream for advertisers and manufacturers]. Lots of guys are in their mid-40s and come from creative industries. They understand branding and marketing and see it as a good thing. Of course some of the younger guys probably look at it and think it’s a load of crap and wish it would go away, but that’s as it should be.”
Yet some of the new skool brands already seem to have grown beyond the scene. Deux ex Machina now sell bikes costing tens of thousands of pounds to the likes of Orlando Bloom, have shops on three continents and enjoy a global online market in hugely expensive clothing. As a business, an undoubted success, but the gap between Deux and the scene it helped spawn is yawning to the point where the company may eventually suffer from becoming too big, too fast. Without authenticity, all is lost.
The thing which matters most in this scene though is all are welcome. Nobody has much time for turning people away.
Dutch again: “One of the guys who helps with the Bike Shed has become a good friend. The other day his wife said to me: ‘I’ve haven’t seen him so happy and content in years. He’s out there building things. He’s a nicer person to be around, I find him more attractive than before’. It’s like therapy.”
And so it is friends, so it is.
Guide readers are, by definition, style conscious. By all means buy your Redwing boots, your Dickies checked shirts and your Barbour bike jackets – enjoy them. But what I hope this article does, other than drawing back the curtain on the scene those clothes come from and showing you the people who made it, is also encourage you to think about spending £500 on an old Honda and finding your socket set. Trust me, the clothes feel better after a ride…
Bikes are cool
Guest contributor James Clark suggests not just that bikes are cool but that they’re driving a style revolution
James Clark is a PR director, former Sunday Times journalist and ex Press Secretary to three secretaries of state. Despite this glittering career he remains relatively young and handsome. His chief passion is motorbikes, but he also finds time to be obsessed with watches, Land Rovers and pleasingly obscure American alt-country and bluegrass music. In short, he has the soul of a redneck, trapped in the body of an English gentleman.
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