The First Wild One - The Genesis of the Motorcycle Jacket
American ingenuity is responsible for some of the world’s greatest creations. For instance, the cheeseburger is arguably the best all-around food ever, LSD is the epitome of drugs, and the internet is borderline godlike in its scope. The same goes for a garment that has been adopted by crusty gutter punks, beer-gutted bikers, and yuppies alike: the infallible leather motorcycle jacket. This timeless icon of utilitarian fashion came from the mind of Irving Schott, cofounder of a company now known as Schott NYC, who made history with his iconic asymmetrical jacket design, commonly called the Perfecto.
The scrappy son of Russian immigrants, Irving started his career as a patternmaker for clothing manufacturers in the early 1900s. In 1913, he opened a factory with his brother Jack under the name Schott Bros. in the dingy basement of a tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Irving’s first successful products were sheepskin-lined raincoats, which he peddled from door to door. Like any good business, Schott Bros. began to diversify its offerings, bestowing its top-of-the-line coats with the Perfecto brand name. Inspired by Irving’s favorite torpedo-shaped cigars, Perfecto labels were stitched on all of his best leather and wool-lined outerwear.
Stepping into Schott NYC’s Union, New Jersey factory is like going back in time. They use machines that date back to the early 1900s, employ men and women who’ve been making jackets longer than you’ve been alive, and emphasize quality above all else.
At the time, motorcycles were probably the furthest thing from Irving’s mind, considering they had only recently become commercially available and he didn’t even know how to drive a car. Irving was introduced to the world of boss hogs by a friend who was a member of the Beck family. The Becks were one of the country’s largest Harley-Davidson distributors and published a popular catalog of their wares that was available at motorcycle dealerships across the country. Schott Bros. began manufacturing outerwear for the Beck catalog in 1920, including early iterations of what would become the modern motorcycle jacket.
Up until this point, there wasn’t a single piece of outerwear on the market sturdy enough to be synonymous with riding motorcycles. Wool jackets lacked the ability to protect the rider from the cutting wind at high speeds, and the leather coats of the day were not designed for the hunched-over, extended-arm posture necessary to drive a motorcycle; this was compounded by the fact that wearing either type of jacket on a motorcycle almost guaranteed that anything in the rider’s pockets would be blown into the air while barreling down the road. The advent of the zipper solved these problems and became a key element to Irving’s design.