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Bikers' Leather Shop Shifts Gears to Serve an Upscale Crowd

February 25, 1988|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

Black leather jackets with fringe. Snakeskin chaps. Everybody in Hollywood rides a Harley-Davidson these days.

"For years, if you rode a Harley, you were a murderer," said Robert Symms. "Now, it's the cool thing."

Symms has been riding a Harley for two decades. He has a leather shop in Van Nuys that is supposed to be for "real" bikers like himself--guys with grease under their fingernails.

But, somehow, his Tasty Leathers has become a boutique for Hollywood "bad boy" riders like Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage and ex-Sex Pistol guitarist Steve Jones. "All of sudden, they just started coming in," Symms said.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, three Beverly Hills schoolboys strolled into Tasty Leathers because they heard that Steve Jones shops there. They sported motorcycle jackets and creepers.

'The Trendy Thing'

"We've had these jackets for a while," said Jason Bernard, 17, who wore a Lenin pin on his jacket. "Right now, they are the trendy thing. People who have been riding Harleys for years must be pretty pissed off."

Said Symms: "The Hollywood crowd . . . eh?"

Tasty Leathers occupies a storefront off Sherman Way, next door to Vic's Custom Cycle, a Harley garage. The place is small, with space enough to hang jackets along either wall and put a few display racks down the middle. There's a room in the back where Symms can work on his bike.

When Tasty Leathers opened a year ago, its merchandise was pretty much limited to plain black motorcycle jackets and a few with fur collars for cold night rides on Interstate 15 east of Barstow. The chaps were made simply--for warmth, not style.

But the store's newly acquired reputation has left Symms and partner Keith Markowitz scrambling to accommodate a clientele that they barely comprehend. These two favor traditional biker dress--jeans, a T-shirt and black-leather vest. People have been calling their shop lately and asking for custom-spiked jackets and flamingo-pink chaps.

"We want to make them happy," Markowitz said.

Said Symms: "I smell money."

Expanded Selection

So the selection at Tasty Leathers has expanded. A jacket covered with metal studs hangs in the window. Price: $600. Customers can purchase a distressed-leather bomber jacket and have it hand-painted. Beside the cash register, yellow, green and red bustiers are displayed with $35 price tags.

Symms and Markowitz have gone so far as to mingle with the nouveau Harley-fashionable. The two men dress in full leather, get on their bikes and cruise Hollywood hangouts.

In a recent issue of Interview magazine, actor Mickey Rourke described an evening of such club-running with his motorcycle friends. "We have a good time. We holler at the girls. We scare all the phonies."

More accustomed to evenings at roadside taverns, Symms and Markowitz are a little uneasy about mixing with the Hollywood crowd. Vertigo, Club Lingerie--Symms mentions locales like these under his breath.

"We really don't want to be known as Hollywood club-jumpers," said Markowitz, a native of Philadelphia. "We go there to investigate."

"We wear the stuff and people say, 'Where did you get that jacket?' " Symms said.

But, they say, there is money to be made from those people. Steve Jones took to wearing T-shirts with flames painted on the sleeves; now those shirts sell for $17.50 at Tasty Leathers.

"All his fans come here," Symms said. "It's like a cult."

So there are plans to open Tasty Leathers shops on Ventura Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. These shops, Symms said, may attract the happening crowd, leaving the Van Nuys store to its original clientele: people like Big Ed, with long hair and beard, who came in to buy some leathers for a woman friend. The customers Symms said he likes best are those who have ridden bikes for years and never worn a helmet.

And, when two guys walked into the shop wearing slacks and shirts--"normal" clothes--Symms shook his head.

"Those are the two strangest guys we've had in here."

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