From the archive: Harry Stedman visits Britain's best and oldest motorcycle clothier - Lewis Leathers
Parked outside the Lewis Leathers store on Whitfield Street is a beautiful 650cc 1971 T120R Triumph Bonneville. If you are there in the morning or evening you will see the owner - Hiroyuki (“Hiro”) Maeda - opening and closing the shop, and you can hear the exquisitely satisfying rumble of this machine echoing from the surrounding buildings. Hiro’s Bonneville (lovingly restored himself) is effectively a moveable part of Lewis' window dressing, and ties in neatly with with the vintage biking jackets and accessories on display in the window and around the walls of the shop.... Lewis Leathers was located in nearby Great Portland Street for over 100 years until 1993. Subsequently, there was a nomadic period in which the shop moved a number of times, before settling into its current premises in Whitfield Street just two years ago. The jackets, with their iconic bright red lining, are synonymous with their with two most natural communities; bikers and rockers. However, established in 1892 (as D Lewis Ltd), the Lewis brand was created to cater to the sartorial needs of the London gent in his formal and sporting pursuits. Soon after, Lewis supplied the growing demand for leather flying gear and for early motorists whose open vehicles lacked today’s climate control technology. An early customer was Alex Henshaw, a pilot, who in the 1930s set a world record for flying solo from England to South Africa and back again in four and a half days. There is an intriguing gallery on the Lewis website with pictures of celebrated pilots (including Henshaw), bikers and rockers (and other wannabes) wearing the jackets. As always, there is a fabulous picture of McQueen (Steve not Alexander), in a Universal Racer MK2 in 1963. Pictures of members of the Pistols and the Clash in jackets does no harm to the credibility of either party. The leather jacket, in all its stylistic iterations, has become a wardrobe staple for men and women worldwide. Most of the those wardrobes will likely contain cheaper imitations of the classic profiles, but for those with a little more style and money a Lewis Leather jacket is the real thing. The off-the-peg range are mostly well in excess of £600. In addition, Lewis offers a made-to-measure service and jackets can be further personalised with a range of colours and certain detail choices. For your money you get something with longevity and history. You also get a garment designed and made in the UK, which in itself provides something a little unusual. Small volumes, fine materials and quality craftsmanship also mean that if it stays in good nick, you might find it's an investment. The shop, as you would expect, is suffused with thick odour of the heavy, coriaceous jackets - familiar and arousing to the connoisseur of leather apparel, exotic and mildly intoxicating to the uninitiated. The jackets are augmented by accessories, particularly helmets such as the vintage-styled Superjet (made under Lewis’ sister brand Aviakit), and a variety of goggles. The shop layout and message to the customer is clear - here are racks of classic biking jackets for people who ride, or who simply love that look. Could the shop be re-designed? Could the internal brick work be exposed and the jackets draped artistically over bits of old jet engine? Could the leather boots be stacked up in a pile in the middle of the shop amongst old reclaimed oil cans from the 1950s? The answer to these questions is of course yes, they could. Do we think they should? No, the shop works just fine as it is. For more details head to Lewis Leathers Online or visit them in person at Mottram House, 3-5 Whitfield Street, London, W1T 2SA.