Ultimate emblem

Lewis Leathers’ Derek Harris talks mods, rockers, and reigniting one of Britain’s most history-heavy brands
By Matthew Whitehouse | Fashion | 18 November 2014

Jacket from LEWIS LEATHERS; t-shirt by STONE ISLAND

Taken from HERO 12: Darkness Falls, out now

Established in 1892, Lewis Leathers is one of London’s most enduring clothing companies. Synonymous with the social change of the 1950s and 60s, for many its distinctive biker jackets served as a passport out of the drab domesticity of Post-War Britain, a teenage ticket to an exciting world of street fashion, gang culture and all-night motorway cafés. Derek Harris has been the proprietor since 2003. A life-long Lewis Leathers wearer, his involvement with the brand began as a consumer, before his growing collection drove him to find out the real company history: a story of how the simple leather jacket became as much a symbol of rebellious freedom as the means of transport it was intended to accompany. Under his care, its central London shop, tucked just off Tottenham Court Road, has become the go-to place for people in want of high quality leather loaded with pride and glory, heroism and attitude; a genuine British heritage company that’s just about as far from fusty tweed and plus fours as you can get. Oh, and with jackets worn by everyone from Joe Strummer to Sid Vicious, Lou Reed to John Lennon, he knows all about Britain’s love affair with rock ’n’ roll too.

Matthew Whitehouse: What are your earliest memories of Lewis Leathers?
Derek Harris: In the mid-60s I lived on a council estate in Sussex which was constructed in a circle. We had mods and rockers on our estate – I’d often see them riding around – and I found I was more interested in the latter. I liked the jackets and the motorcycles were a bit more interesting to me at the time. Ten years later, in ’76, I was a punk rocker and the jackets came back. I remember members of The Clash bought Lewis Leathers and The Sex Pistols wore them on the Anarchy In The UK tour in the Autumn of ’76. It was kind of like this iconic thing had come back into my sphere of existence and made me want to get one. Researching, at that point, I realised how much they cost…

MW: Why do you think bands like The Clash chose Lewis Leathers as opposed to something cheaper?
DH: Well, I think they were a very authentic band and I think the jackets lent them a certain authenticity. They were sort of clued into cultural references as a group and whereas most motorcycle clothing makers sold exclusively to motorcyclists, Lewis would have adverts in NME and Sounds. So there was that pop-flavour to them. And they were very much influenced by The Kinks in the ’60s and the whole thing of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop which, pre-Sex, had been Let It Rock, selling teddy boy shoes and jackets, and Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, which actually was more of the rocker look with studded clothing and motorcycle badges on things.

Jacket from LEWIS LEATHERS; t-shirt by STONE ISLAND; jeans and boots by JOHN VARVATOS FW14

Jacket and belt from LEWIS LEATHERS, t-shirt by STONE ISLAND; jeans by JOHN VARVATOS FW14

MW: Would it have mattered if they had worn American jackets?
DH: I don’t think it would have mattered, but I thought it was great that they did wear British jackets because the British take on punk, as much as I love The Ramones and other American bands, had its own accent and flavour and so did the clothes. We’re in touch with Bernard Rhodes who was the manager in those days and he said he sent the band to the shop. He knew all about Lewis. He’d been on the street since ’52/53 and was very much aware of all the currents that went through British youth cultures.

MW: How did you come to be involved in the commercial side?
DH: I spent a few months in Japan in the Summer of ’91, went to see some friends, just hanging out. I’d been studying the language a little bit and one guy had a clothing shop out there that used to import a lot of stuff in from the UK – shirts, boots – basically clothing revolving around mods, punks, skinheads, teddy boy stuff. He explained how they had problems with suppliers over here who wouldn’t answer faxes and phone calls, deliveries and stuff like that and so asked if I could kind of keep an eye on things, push things through and maybe even source new items. One of the things they wanted was leather jackets so straight away I said, “Well, it’s got to be Lewis Leathers!” and got off to the shop. I hadn’t been there since the early 70s and, while they still had good stuff, it had changed quite a bit from what I remembered. Black lining instead of red. Chunky zippers instead of ball chain. After buying a few samples and thinking they didn’t look quite right in their modern incarnation, I said to the owner, “Look, would you be up for making sort of like a retro range?” and he said, “Yeah, why not. What do I have to do?” So I bought some vintage jackets from Portobello, where I lived, got them taken over to a pattern maker, brought to back to the shop and within six months we had about three pieces up and running. My understanding of the brand grew as we went along. I’d find old motorcycle magazines, old Lewis catalogues and start trying to figure out, for example, when a particular jacket first appeared, by looking through all the old adverts and whatever. I remember going to a book fair in Bloomsbury in 2001 and finding a whole pile of flying magazines from the 1920s and 30s and there was these adverts for D Lewis Ltd and so the goal posts shifted. What I thought was a mid 50s company suddenly went way back. And that just added more to the archaeological dig I was doing.

Jacket and belt from LEWIS LEATHERS;
t-shirt and jeans by STONE ISLAND

polo by JOHN VARVATOS FW14; jeans from 7 FOR ALL MANKIND

MW: What were Lewis making at the very start?
DH: The very first thing we had was a factory, funnily enough, in Whitechapel, making cut and sew clothing. Suits, trousers, overcoats which were sold in the shop at Great Portland Street. As time went on, from about 1907 onwards, that area gradually became known as Motor Alley. People would go down there firstly looking for cars, then motorcycles. Aviators also. If you owned a car, which was an expensive item in those days, there was a good chance you might also have a personal plane. So it was attracting a well-heeled customer base and I guess, naturally, people would drop into D Lewis Ltd and say, “What have you got for an afternoon’s winter motoring or to ride on my motorcycle?” And while Lewis were still a clothing shop, they shifted the emphasis of what they were making to motoring apparel. Most of it was pretty similar. You’d have a big, long coat for flying and motorcars but with the addition of straps to strap it to your legs so that it didn’t flap around if you were on a motorcycle. Gradually, motorcycle clothing evolved in a different directions from the flying and motoring kit because people found it was better to have a waist length jacket as opposed to a coat. But yeah, D Lewis moved with the times and served this new clientele until the outbreak of war when there was no civilian flying and motoring stopped because of the gasoline scarcity. When the war finally finished, of course, there was petrol rationing and motorcycling became the new popular form of travelling because you could go much further on a tank of petrol on a bike than you could in a car. So the motorcycle market was a big expanding market and that’s what Lewis moved into wholeheartedly.

MW: Who are your customers nowadays?
DH: I’d say 70–80 per cent of our customers, in the London shop anyway, are still motorcyclists. Mostly guys who’ve got vintage bikes. But we also still attract a lot of rock bands and their fans. We’ve had Arctic Monkeys, The Hives. They all came in a couple of years ago and got measured up for jackets they still wear on tour. They call it ‘rock ’n’ roll armour’.

MW: What does the Lewis Leathers brand embody for you?
DH: A brand with heritage. Like a pair of John Lobb shoes, a Savile Row suit, a good Harris Tweed, it’s something that you can say, “Wow, this has been around for one hundred, two hundred years.” You’re buying into that whole ethos. It’s something you feel you can trust. And they look great!

MW: Do you remember how you felt when you wore your first one?
DH: Well, I was very excited. I was in my early 20s and I’d had other leather jackets before – Carnaby Street were always making knock-offs of Lewis – but they just didn’t feel the same. To have one with Lewis on it made me feel like I’d sort of joined some elite, really. Even though I wasn’t riding a motorcycle I just felt that there was a lineage to it. It connected me to something that went all the way back.

Grooming by David Wadlow

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