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Born to Be Wild . . . : . . . Or Dress That Way; O.C. Harley-Davidson Rides Crest of Biker Mania

OFF THE CUFF: This is another in a series of first-person columns that allows people connected to the fashion industry to talk about their encounters.

July 14, 1994

R ay Malzo bought Orange County Harley-Davidson in Santa Ana five years ago because he thought it could be lucrative. Not long after, the urban biker fad took off, and Malzo found himself in Hog heaven.

Not only have yuppies discovered motorcycles in the past half decade; Harley-Davidson has aggressively grabbed a share of the "motor clothes" market. The trend worked well for Malzo--he claims logo-ed clothing and accessories account for $1 million of his $8-million-a-year business.

"People want the motorcycle look even if they don't want or can't afford to ride," Malzo says.

People who buy Harleys are also buying a lifestyle that includes clothing and the chance to meet a diverse group of people. With a Harley, you don't ride alone; you're constantly meeting people from all walks of life. You see a guy at Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon, and you don't know if he's a CEO or a plumber. That's the release for the people who ride; they get to take a break from their real life.

The mystique of Harley-Davidson is you don't know if a guy wearing leather chaps is a cyclist or someone just dressing the part.

In 1987, Harley saw there was a niche to be filled with motor clothes that offered protection and fashion. Now there's everything from gauntlet gloves to designer helmets painted to match the motorcycle's paint scheme.

There are 24 different styles of jackets for men and women, everything from the traditional James Dean-type motorcycle jackets to the tapered French motif with braided epaulets and shoulder pads.

Intersport Fashions West in Orange designs a lot of the Harley-Davidson jackets.

All are made of durable riding leather. You can buy a leather jacket at Nordstrom for the same price--$200 to $500--but it may be made of lambskin, and, if you have an accident, you'll get road rash; the leather gets peeled back or scraped or scarred. Harley-Davidson leather becomes a protectant.

Zippers on the jacket's sleeves, pockets and the back are fashionable and functional. They look good and they keep things in your pocket from falling out from the vibrations of the motorcycle and wind. Zipped-up zippers on sleeves keep the wind out when it's cold and serve as vents when opened on a warm day.

All of the apparel has a logo, either the original one with a bar and shield that says "Motor" on the top and "Cycle" on the bottom and "Harley-Davidson" in the middle, or the classic one with the American eagle on it, which I think stands for "freedom." The logo is stamped subtly on buttons or zippers, embroidered on the back or filled with silicon as if embossed. Doc Harley construction boots have the logo at the ankles.

We sell 300 to 400 T-shirts a week. Tourists want to buy a T-shirt from every Harley outlet, just like they do for the Hard Rock Cafe shirts.

A quarter of our business is women's motorcycles and clothes. Women don't fear entering a dealership anymore because our shop looks like Nordstrom, not a greasy hole in the wall.

Clothing for women covers both bases: It's functional and sexy. It comes in leather and Lycra; the leather protects and the Lyra fits tight around the back. Most are black, but they've also expanded into browns and an orange/black combination. Black clothes are the sexiest.

Some pants unzip at the knees and become shorts to be worn with a matching vest and jacket, and there is a see-through bodysuit that has silhouettes of motorcycles on sheer fabric. Women wear it with a black bra underneath and shorts or jeans.

Men buy the clothes as gifts for their wives and girlfriends, and they love it. After getting over being initially afraid to ride on the back of a motorcycle, ladies prefer to have their own motorcycles because they'd rather be in control.

The men who ride are different than they were in the '50s and '60s. They're more upscale, probably because the motorcycles are pricey--a basic one averages $15,000--and there's limited production--there will only be 90,000 Harleys made next year worldwide.

I've been an enthusiast since my 20s, and when I ride I wear mostly Biker Blues, denim jeans with a functional boot cut and relaxed fit that gives me more room in the rise so when I'm straddling the motorcycle I don't feel cramped.

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