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The biker look in women's fashion

Motorcycle culture is reentering women's wear at full throttle. Do these clothes pass a road test?

November 08, 2009|Susan Carpenter

Designers have been revving up their collections this season with studded handbags, strappy boots, leather jackets and other items of "biker chic" -- fashionable, motorcyclist-derived clothing that allows women to look tough without actually throwing a leg over. As a longtime biker, I've seen this trend come and go over the years, and it always gets my hopes up. Maybe this time someone will design clothing that's functional and more fashionable than the pinked and fringed schlock that's normally offered up to female motorcyclists in the name of protective gear.

Helmut Lang leather jodhpurs? I'll gladly saddle up. Ankle-chained DKNY boots? I'm happy to be shackled. Studded Brando jacket? I won't rebel. Everyone, from Alexander Wang and Givenchy and Gaultier to Forever 21, Mossimo and H&M is kicking biker style into high gear this season, and I was more than willing to try it out -- on a real motorcycle.

Little, if any, of this is actually intended for real riders, of course. Susie Crippen, creative director of J Brand and designer of its Racer X skinny pant, summed it up best: "We're not claiming by any stretch of the imagination that if you buy our motocross jeans that you're going to be a better motorcycle rider or get a boyfriend who has a motorcycle. But you will look really good on a motorcycle," said Crippen, a "nonbiker chick" who nonetheless loves bikes.

Anyone in pursuit of the current biker chic offerings would certainly be buying into a trend -- a classic pairing of sex and power -- that seems to crop up in the fashion world every few years.

"It's iconic and it's classic," said Sharon Haver, founder and editor in chief of the website www.focusonstyle.com. "It's like a good pair of jeans. It just personifies cool, and it's very American. Not that most actual bikers look that cool, but the fashionized version of it is very sexy. And timeless."

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Safe but not so sexy

As for how might it "work" for a real-life motorcyclist? That's a trick. Being both a biker and a woman is a balancing act. On the one hand, a biker needs to be safe. On the other hand, who doesn't want to look great upon arrival, especially if that destination isn't populated with biker guys who understand, and might even like, a girl whose hair is shaped like her helmet and whose lipstick is coated in soot.

Unfortunately, manufacturers of real motorcycle gear don't make the "looking great" part easy.

In the 18 years I've been riding, I've collected a dozen pairs of motorcycle boots, an equal number of jackets, and several pairs of riding pants, most made by motorcycle apparel manufacturers. I wouldn't say I genuinely love any of the "authentic" clothing because fashion takes a major back seat to function.

What's needed in real motorcycle gear are: abrasion resistance, which is why jackets and pants, whether leather or textile, are abnormally thick; impact resistance, which is often in the form of hard, hockey-puck-like plastic on the shoulders, elbows, knees, hips and head, areas that are most susceptible to injury when a rider goes down; and wind protection, especially around the wrists and neck, which is why most jackets are tight, zippered or both in those areas.

Those safety requirements aren't typically associated with looking feminine. The materials are too chunky, the protective elements too bulky. And the typical color selections of real motorcycle gear will never be associated with anything one might encounter in Italian Vogue. The predominance of light-pink, baby-blue, heavily patched, overly branded and floral-appliqued gear is girlie, but it isn't at all sophisticated. In truth, most of what's available makes female motorcyclists look like football players in drag.

The stiffness of leather items, in particular, "is a big turnoff to a lot of women, but it has to be that way to survive a crash," according to Kurt Walter, design director for one of the top motorcycle apparel makers, Oregon-based Icon Motorsports.

As for the predominance of pink in Icon's women's wear: "Pink works every time," he says, because men are buying the gear for their girlfriends and wives. The few times Icon has ventured into "weird colors," such as the mustard yellow it used for a new jacket, the company got "burned," he said.

That's why the current biker chic is such a welcome trend, especially this year, when biker fashion is everywhere, from Saks on down to Kohls. I asked Melissa Magsaysay, a Times staff writer and styling expert, to help me pull together a few outfits to test, called Harley- Davidson to borrow a bike and spent a week on test rides in the hopes that something, anything, might actually cross over and have real-world applicability.

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