COGGLES SPRING / SUMMER 13
Belstaff was founded in 1924 by Eli Belovitch and his son in law Harry Grosberg in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. Here Belstaff created the first ever waterproof and breathable fabric, a waxed cotton, with which they specialised in producing their all-weather motorbike jackets. Naturally progressing into making technical garments, windproof, waterproof and capable of withstanding heavy friction they were the pioneers for the rapidly growing trend of aviators and bikers alike.
With patrons such as thirties motocross legend Sammy Miller, the revolutionary Che Guevara, the desert legend Lawrence of Arabia and film idol Steve McQueen the jacket became a legendary fashion icon.
They are the sort of thing you might pick up from an industrial workwear outlet or an agricultural goods supplier: durable, sensible, practical, like a slightly less floppy version of a Barbour. Even the Belstaff Phoenix label looks disturbingly rough and ready and underdesigned.
Indeed Belstaff’s has a distinguished heritage, with its roll-call of starry enthusiasts (from George Clooney to the rappers Nelly and 50 Cent) and the fact that the hipper Italian kids wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else in winter.
But this, for me, is what makes Belstaff extra-brilliant. It’s hard. It’s manly, it’s proper, real clothing, like you thought they’d stopped making years ago. And they very nearly did. During the textile crisis in the 90s, the factory in Stoke-on-Trent, where the clothes had been manufactured since 1924, closed down, and after a brief move to Wellingborough, it seemed that Belstaff was doomed. Then in stepped Franco Malenotti who bought a share and promptly moved the whole operation to Italy, where it remains today in a factory near Venice.
Franco was a fanatical biker who, in the Sixties, was part of a superbike racing team with Honda and went on to design motorcycles for Laverda and Moto Guzzi. He had loved Belstaff since his teens, and when he came to London the first thing he did was to buy one of their jackets.
Vintage Belstaff jackets are now extremely collectable. First came the Trialmaster jacket worn by biking legends such as Sammy Miller (who won a record 1,250 victories). Then, in 1943, came the Black Prince motorcycle jacket, of which more than 40,000 were produced.
Rather like Levi’s, Adidas and Puma, Belstaff has cannily exploited the demand for all things retro by looking to its back catalogue. Its new Aviator range of beaten-up-looking leather and waxed cotton flying jackets looks just like the sort of thing fighter pilots might have worn in the 1930s. As indeed they did. Belstaff supplied the flying gear worn by the RAF and by Howard Hughes.
Despite the Union Jack on its labels, Belstaff’s biggest market by far is Italy. Typical, isn’t it, that it took an Italian to realise what a treasure trove we had on our doorstep...
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