Not since Marlon Brando brought the leather motorcycle jacket to a surly sort of fame in The Wild One in 1954 has it been so chic to look tough. One after another, from Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby to Tom Cruise in the upcoming Days of Thunder, Hollywood’s hunkiest are going the way of Hell’s Angels and donning biker black. But to be hip, not just any zip-sleeved belted bomber will do. For bikers or for those just playing the part, if it’s leather, it has to be Langlitz. “Anyone who’s really into leather, who’s not just a poser in a bar, knows the name,” says Bob Sterne, the road manager who talked Neil Young into having some 50 band and crew members custom-fitted in Langlitz jackets for his most recent tour.
At the Hollywood boutique Leathers & Treasures, owner Dennis Pollicino sells vintage Langlitzes, at up to $900 each, to the likes of Bruce Springsteen (who owns five), Sylvester Stallone (who has three), Bruce Willis, Kiefer Sutherland. Michael J. Fox, Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder. “Each jacket has a character and a soul,” says Pollicino. “Ross Langlitz was a legend.”
Langlitz, the father of the motorcycle jacket in biker lore, died last year at 70, but the legend lives on. Fanning the flames in the tiny Portland, Ore., shop that Langlitz opened in 1947 is his daughter, Jackie Langlitz Hansen, 40. Jackie doesn’t share her parents’ love of motorcycles—her mother, Pinky, now 65, tagged along with Ross on her own Harley—but that hasn’t stopped her from catering to the biker trade. With her husband, Dave Hansen, 41—who owns 15 cycles—Jackie holds to the high, and costly, standards set by her lather. Each jacket is custom-fitted and then built (motorcycle jackets arc built, not sewn) by a seamstress (the company employs six) at the rate of only six a day. “Some companies sell in one day what we sell in a year,” says Dave.
Originally called Speedway Togs, Langlitz Leathers was founded by Langlitz—an avid biker who continued to ride even after he lost his leg in an accident at age 17—when he decided he wanted a better bomber. Like most bikers at the time, Langlitz wore what was available: a variation on the aviator jacket. But the design left bikers—who ride leaning forward—with the wind whistling through their knit cuffs and up their backs. Ross started to tinker. He designed cuffs with zippers, made the sleeves and back longer to accommodate a biker’s reach and replaced the straight front zipper with a weather-resistant diagonal. He also chose a leather heavy enough to protect shoulders and elbows when a biker hits the pavement. Little did he know that the jacket he designed, which he called “Columbia” and sold for $38.50, was to revolutionize the motorcycle jacket market. “Nowadays there is such a status thing with Harleys and leathers,” says Hell’s Angel Robert Sandy, whose own red-and-white death’s-head patch adorns a custom-made Langlitz vest, “but for quality workmanship and a fit that’s right for riding a motorcycle, not just walking around on the street, it’s Langlitz.”
A small supply and eager demand makes for an unrelenting backlog of requests for the company’s five jacket designs. From bikers to police agencies (Langlitz outfits officers in 40 police departments in Oregon, Washington and Nevada) to celebs, customers place orders knowing they will have to wait up to nine months for delivery. And, at prices ranging from $350 to $600, pay for dearly. No one seems to mind. As John Hartung, owner of a Portland vintage-clothing store and 20 Langlitz jackets, says, “It’s one of the few delayed gratifications left.”
As orders pile up and cultlike fame mounts, the family that Langlitz left behind is doing its best to keep the faith. “Our philosophy is still that you make the best you can possibly make with no thought to money,” says Dave. “We’ll never get rich making six jackets a day, but we live comfortably knowing we’ll never run out of work.”
—Karen S. Schneider, Susan Hauser in Portland