On a recent (Spring of 2013) whirlwind trip to London and Paris, I had a chance to catch up with Derek Harris, proprietor of Lewis Leathers, the oldest motorcycle-clothing business in the world – founded in 1892. Derek is a breath of fresh air as proprietor of an internationally recognized ‘brand’, and the very opposite of today’s capitalist-opportunist-vultures who snag a dead name, creating Franken-brands stitched up from skins of the ‘cool’ dead, in the feverish pursuit of money money money. (Ask me how I really feel).

Derek Harris, who came to own Lewis Leathers in a most peculiar way. [Paul d’Orléans]
Harris is the reluctant proprietor of this iconic name in moto-gear, and never intended to own the company, yet had a curious relationship with Lewis Leathers before he ever worked there. He spent years researching – independently – lost patterns and designs from LL and its sometimes confusing web of related sub-brands (D.Lewis, Aviakit, Highwayman, S.Lewis), working as a mediator between super-hip Japanese clothing importers and various British brands, to satisfy a peculiarly Japanese hunger for English heritage clothing, and rocker gear in particular, during the late 1980s and 90s. [I played a small part in this story as well in 1989, modeling Rocker gear and bikes – my Velocette Thruxton – for ‘Nicole Club’, a Japanese company producing super-retro biker fashion gear]. Lewis Leathers had no ‘heritage’ division at the time, and was busy producing ‘non-iconic’ designs from the 1970s/80s at the time Harris approached them to begin remaking their older styles. As LL had no patterns for their older jackets, Harris conducted his own research, purchasing old Lewis Leathers and D.Lewis jackets and pants, and created new patterns for clothing made from the 1930s – 60s… all this while a non-employee, starting in 1991.

The Lewis Leathers archive goes deep…and includes Steve McQueen, who visited London before his participation in the 1964 ISDT. [Lewis Leathers archive]
Richard Lyon had owned Lewis Leathers since 1986, and was ready to sell the business in 2003, having larger interests elsewhere which required attention, and informed Derek not only that he was finished with LL, but had already sourced a buyer. Harris feared the loss of the company and the history he’d worked hard to preserve, and asked with sinking heart who the new owner would be…only to hear, “You.” With the help of friends and loans, Harris did indeed buy the company, and continues to develop and research the brand and its long history, while producing both an exceptional range of traditional riding gear, as well as cool contemporary designs, including a range of sneakers.

Discerning customers choose Lewis Leathers, the oldest motorcycle clothing shop in the world. [Paul d’Orléans]
The shop is something of a museum of artifacts from Harris’ years of collecting vintage Lewis Leathers riding and racing gear, and related paraphernalia. Harris has a rack of vintage leather, and the walls of the shop are festooned with old Rocker jackets. Several of these original jackets will be displayed at the Ton Up! exhibition I’m curating with photographer Michael Lichter at his gallery in Sturgis. The full story of Lewis Leathers and their relation to café racer culture will be explored in my book called Cafe Racers: Speed, Style, and Ton-Up Culture (Motorbooks 2014), based on the exhibition. If you’re in Sturgis this summer for Bike Week (2013), definitely stop in to see the show, and if you’re in London, you must stop by Lewis Leathers, which is just off Oxford Street, and stick around for a cup of tea. Just don’t ask to buy the vintage jackets!  [The subject was explored even more deeply in my 2020 book Ton Up! A Century of Cafe Racer Style and Speed – you can buy a signed copy from our Shop here.]
If the boots fit…trying on an all-Lewis vintage racing setup – jacket and pants from the late 1930s, boots from the 1940s, outside the Whitfield St. shop. Photo by Marcus Ross, from his London magazine Jocks And Nerds. [Marcus Ross]
One of Harris’ many vintage, original ‘rocker’ leather jackets on display; this one celebrating Rockabilly king Eddie Cochran. [Paul d’Orléans]
“We dice with Death.” Naming the un-nameable as a brash taunt and talisman of bravery. [Paul d’Orléans]
A 1920s catalog page for a full kit for Dirt Track racing, the most popular motorsport in the world in the late 1920s. [Lewis Leathers archive]
Harris collects vintage ephemera to research old Lewis Leathers ads and the riders who wore them; here is the late Father Bill Shergold, head of the 59 Club, on the very first issue of ‘Link’, the 59 Club magazine. Father Bill is wearing the classis Lewis Leathers ‘Bronx’ jacket. [Lewis Leathers archive]



Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


Related Posts

Adventures in Guzziland

Moto Guzzi built the most diverse, and…

San Francisco Art Deco Day, 2006

The Legion of Honor Museum of San…

Legend of the Motorcycle Attire

It was an event that changed the…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter