How the Per­fecto be­came an icon

Motorcyclist - - Front Page - —Max Prince

the schott fac­tory in Union, New Jer­sey, smells like leather, brass, and a hint of to­bacco, an aroma fa­mil­iar to any­body who’s ever pulled on a vin­tage mo­tor­cy­cle jacket. In­side the work­shop, riv­et­ers pump away be­hind an­tique ma­chin­ery; seam­stresses glide along cot­ton lin­ers; tai­lors and tan­ners pore over draft­ing ta­bles, cut­ting pat­terns, book-match­ing hide grains. This is how the Schott fam­ily made the orig­i­nal Per­fecto, the world’s first mo­tor­cy­cle jacket, in 1928. It’s how they still make it to­day.

Like all great func­tional de­signs, the Per­fecto was born of ne­ces­sity. Pre­war Amer­i­can out­er­wear was woe­fully un­spe­cial­ized; the ma­te­ri­als, usu­ally wool or mole­skin, were a night­mare for mo­tor­cy­clists. Leather waist­coats fared bet­ter, but con­tem­po­rary fits didn’t work in the rid­ing po­si­tion. Cru­cially, both used reg­u­lar but­tons on the bib and pock­ets, which, as the era’s gut­sier rid­ers found out, in­evitably blew open at high speed. Some­thing needed to change. En­ter: Irv­ing Schott. The son of Jewish-rus­sian im­mi­grants, Schott made rain­coats in the base­ment of a ten­e­ment build­ing on New York’s Lower East Side. Both a pat­tern­maker and keen mo­tor­cy­clist, he un­der­stood the rid­ing ap­parel co­nun­drum. In­klings of a so­lu­tion ap­peared in 1925, when Irv­ing and his brother, Jack, be­came the first cloth­iers to put zip­pers on a com­mer­cial coat. Three years later, Schott Bros. in­tro­duced the Per­fecto.

The jacket, named for Irv­ing ’s fa­vorite cigar cut, screamed util­ity. It was trim and snug, as to avoid bunch­ing when leaned over a fuel tank. It was hewn from heavy-duty steer or horse­hide, ideal for pro­tec­tion and dura­bil­ity. Sleeve length was care­fully con­sid­ered. The pièce de ré­sis­tance, an asym­met­ri­cal zip­per, slid di­ag­o­nally across the chest to al­low vari­able ven­ti­la­tion, dou­ble-breasted for ad­di­tional wind buffer­ing. Next to the era’s for­mal over­coats, the Per­fecto seemed bizarre. But en­thu­si­asts knew what they were look­ing at, and the rest of the world caught on soon enough. Slouched over a scar­let Tri­umph in The Wild One, Mar­lon Brando cat­a­pulted young mo­tor­cy­clists into the zeit­geist. Wear­ing a cus­tom black Schott Per­fecto, he also gave them a uni­form.

“It’s more about looks now, but we do still get bik­ers in here,” says Kat Perez, an as­so­ciate at Schott’s flag­ship store in Man­hat­tan. “Since we make every­thing by hand, cus­tomiza­tion and al­ter­ation isn’t a prob­lem. Buy a size up, and we’ll fit pock­ets for ar­mor and a back pro­tec­tor.”

But Schott isn’t com­pet­ing with mod­ern high­per­for­mance gear, just as the Em­pire State Build­ing doesn’t com­pete with taller sky­scrapers. The Per­fecto is sin­gu­lar, tran­scen­dent. It’s the Pla­tonic ideal of a leather jacket, im­mor­tal­ized in Andy Warhol prints and Ra­mones al­bum cov­ers, his­tory books and fash­ion mag­a­zines, cov­eted and cos­seted by mis­fits ev­ery­where. Still, af­ter 90 years, the de­sign re­mains syn­ony­mous with mo­tor­cy­cling be­cause of what it rep­re­sents: the bolder, braver, bet­ter ver­sion of your­self.

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