Fashion is at once the most vacuous and the most vital, ever-changing cultural force. And rather than being all about handbags, high heels, sharp suits and frilly frocks, the amorphous animal that is fashion applies to everything we do.
And that includes driving cars and riding bikes.
The fashion industry itself has continually gotten into bed with the car industry – using the stylish resonance of certain cars and bikes to flog their own idea of style again and again.
No single item of fashion is perhaps as ubiquitous as the black leather jacket: and it has been the bikers of the world who have diffused the greaser aesthetic to the four corners.
The vast majority of owners of black leather biker jackets have never straddled a Bonneville. And of course, non-bikers adopting the look and attitude of Hollywood-imagined motorcycle aesthetic is nothing unique.
The high streets of our cities are full of kids rocking surf t-shirts and shades who have hardly set foot on the sand, let alone ride a barrel. And look at the Pennsylvania steel workers, clad in plaid flannels, selvedge jeans and Redwing Boots that stalk hipster heavy urban environs.
The urge to adopt a certain sartorial style always about messing with the field of time and space – that’s why the postmodern classicist in the Morgan Aero 8 will don a battle-of-Britain era sheepskin bomber on a Surrey blatt – and the road racing wannabe will ape Valentino Rossi’s luminous Roman look on a Sunday morning’ excursion to the Lake District.
It’s tempting to think that those of us more obsessed with transmission ratios, torque figures and pull-away times aren’t in any way slave to the rhythms dreamt up by clothes designers – but it’s easy to spot when someone makes a fatal error.
But style is not of course, just about the way you dress. It's about the way you hold yourself, and the way that you apply your values to everyday life. If you drive well it helps too, of course. But there have been many great drivers whom you would never hold up as style icons.
When it comes down to it the difference between doing something stylishly and doing something without style is, after all, the difference between doing something well and doing something badly.
There’s a good reason why DCI Gene Hunt drives the cars he does in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. Few things scream seventies louder than a golden-brown Mark III Ford Cortina, or eighties louder than a red Audi Quattro. Iconic, instantly-recognizable cars like this are easy cultural shorthand for their era. Stick one on screen and your eye is immediately drawn to it. And if you make the car the star, maybe the TV company has to spend a little bit less on props and street scenes to make its drama feel properly period.
Iconic cars represent their era, but they reflect it too. Much as we’d like the car to exist in a bubble, unaffected by the trends and crises of the outside world, it just can’t. The car shapes the world: along with the computer and industrialized warfare, the car was one of the biggest influences on the last century. Our lifestyles and our physical environment are organized around it, but it influences the culture too. The freedom offered by the internal combustion engine, whether fitted to a car or a motorbike, has energized music, art, literature and whole youth movements.
And in turn, the cars we drive are influenced by their times in exactly the same way as the clothes we wear and the music we listen to. Think of a fifties American car, and what do you see? A tail fin. What does a tail fin represent? The jet age: a period of intense technological and economic optimism – in America at least – in which speed and power were so venerated, and advancing so fast, that the cars started to look like planes, and the planes turned into the rockets that would take us into space. Car design of the period reflects that so perfectly that if you show someone a tailfin now, they’ll smell a drive-thru hotdog and hear a Chuck Berry record.
Look at the work of designers like Harley Earl at General Motors and Virgil Exner at Chrysler: one sounds like a rock’n’roller, the other like a character from a period sci-fi puppet show, but together they gave us some of the most exuberant car design ever seen, culminating in Earl’s ’59 Cadillac Eldorado, his final and most outrageous work. And what did we get in austere fifties Britain? A steady diet of grim, grey, porridge saloons, with the apologetically-befinned Ford Anglia 105E only arriving in the same year they launched – almost literally – that Cadillac. Case closed.
Same applies in the sixties. More than the Lamborghini Miura or the Jaguar E-type, I’d argue that the original Mini and Fiat 500 are the iconic cars of that decade: partly because their accessibility put millions more on wheels, but also because they reflect the classlessness of the time; a Mini might have been your first car, but the Beatles and Peter Sellers drove them too.
Seventies? Harder to identify an icon, but that just proves the point. Beset by recessions and oil crises, the car industry lacked the confidence it had in the previous two decades, and it shows in the cars it produced; there were some great supercars like the awesome, angular Countach, but from makers which lurched from owner to official receiver and often lacked the cash to put the wheels on. There was a definite seventies look – Hunt’s Cortina being the perfect European example – but few stand-out cars. Frightened by the price of petrol and the threat of the sack, people wanted reliability and affordability in everything; this was the quartz watch decade. In cars, in the US, this mood killed the big-block V8 engine. In Europe and Japan, it spawned the hatchback; VW launched the Golf, and Toyota’s Corolla broke out of Japan and began its ascent to become the world’s best-selling model.
Things were better in the eighties: greed was good, and made near-200mph supercars like the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959 both socially acceptable and economically viable. The Quattro and hot hatches made a little of that mojo available to those not in receipt of a Gordon Gecko-sized bonus.
Nineties and noughties? Maybe we’re still too close to spot the real icons, and what they say about the times. The nineties produced arguably the greatest car ever made in the McLaren F1, but recessions and economic crises in Asia and Latin America brought the uncertainty back: for all its incandescent performance, only 71 road-going F1s were sold.
Autocar magazine’s readers have just voted the current Range Rover the car of the noughties, but I’d disagree; by the time the decade ended the zeitgeist had turned so decisively against big SUVs that – for all its ability – I think it gets disqualified. Instead, I’d nominate the Prius. As a hybrid in a unique bodyshell, not only is it arguably green, but it’s obviously, visually green. That’s why diCaprio and Diaz are always seen in theirs. It tells other people you’re doing your bit, even though you’re still driving a car and probably haven’t altered the rest of your lifestyle much.
How noughties is that? Maybe, thirty years hence, when the BBC makes a retro cop-drama set in 2009, the lead character PC PC will drive a Prius, but decline to get into car chases because they’re ‘just not sustainable’.
First there’s the price: £425 for a plain colour, rising to as much as £600 for a pattern and more for a limited edition. The price may be a shock, but Ruby have elevated helmet design and manufacture beyond pure safety, and well beyond passing trends and fashion, to create a helmet that can be fetishised. On the surface, it’s a handsome, but optimistically priced open-face helmet, just like, on the surface, an Aston Martin V12 Vantage is a good-looking, two-door car. But hold a Ruby Pavillon in your hands, let it encase your head, and it becomes something different. It possesses the quality to convert sceptics. It converted this one.
Ruby is the life and love of Frenchman Jérôme Coste. He is a Hendrix-esque, 38-year-old, brought up wedged between the front seats of a Jaguar XK120 by young, hippy parents. When we meet, Coste has Lewis Leathers boots on his feet, the keys to a Yamaha SR500 street tracker in his pocket, a silk scarf around his neck and a halo of aromatic smoke.
Coste spent a decade and a half designing clothing and equipment aimed at X-Gamers, for American companies JT and One Industries. But by 2000 he had built up skate-, BMX-, Mountain Bike-wear company, Hold-Up. Then he ran it into the ground.
‘I thought I could do everything myself,’ Coste admits. ‘But I’m bad at managing the money stuff. Finally, I crashed the company.’
Perhaps it because he’s talking in a second language, but I like the fact he uses moto-terminology to describe business practises. He didn’t go bankrupt, he crashed. And what do you do after a crash? If you’re any kind of man, you get back on.
In 2001, at a crossroads in his life, Coste started thinking about creating a helmet, ‘The most beautiful and best helmet in the world’. By 2003, the project became all-consuming. By then the name, the ridged crest and overall look was set.
The ridge. At first it appears to be an attempt to differentiate a Ruby helmet from every other lidon the planet. But, after some contemplation, the lateral crest echoes ancient warriors’ helmets. More recently, it’s seen on the protective headgear of First World War French soldiers, modern day firefighters and Darth Vadar. But the ridge is just the start of these helmets’ appeal.
‘Why Ruby?’ echoes Coste. ‘Because it is four letters. It is feminine in a world of sweating, dirty guys. It evokes descriptions like precious, hard, passion... It is also the name of the engine that powered my father’s Sandford, the three-wheeled racing car he competed in when I was a boy.’
Pick up one of the company’s helmets and Ruby stares back, with her fingers crossed, from the crown of the lining. ‘She is your guardian angel,’ Coste explains. ‘She is hot and she is looking after you. And every time you put on your helmet she is wishing you “Bon Voyage”.’
If you don’t believe in the protective abilities of this curvaceous 21st century St Christopher, the spec of the helmet is of more interest. The shell is completely carbon fibre, like the bodywork of Ferrari’s FI cars or the fairing of a MotoGP bike.
‘Riding in a city is more dangerous than on a racing track, so people in the city deserve the same as a champion.’
The lining is a mix of an Alcantara-like synthetic suede and French lambskin. The standard lining colour is Cardinal Red, ‘Inspired by the interiors of British sportscars,’ says Coste. The leather goggle retaining clip on the back of the helmet contains a card the wearer is encouraged to write his medical details on. The rivets that fix the two halves of the strap to the shell look like jewels. The whole helmet, even the box it arrives in, is of a quality than makes you just want pick it up and inspect it, put it on and only reluctantly remove it.
Ruby helmets are made in China, a fact that I find a little at odds with the price tag of the entry-level Pavillon, but China is home to the only factory that make carbon shells to the quality Coste demands.
The helmet itself transcends fashion, but Ruby has collaborated with Maison Martin Margiela to create a limited-edition, white-washed Ruby Pavillon that has the Margiela design team’s signatures and scribbles scratched into the thin top coat of paint. French artist Honet and Anglo-Japanese designers Eley Kishomoto have created other limited editions, but the next collaboration is likely to eclipse them all – in terms of coverage is not style. Karl Lagerfeld used mink- and white rabbit fur-covered Ruby helmets in his Autumn-Winter 2009-2010 catwalk show. This led to Ruby and Lagerfeld producing 100 Lagerfeld-designed fabric covered Pavillon’s for (fair weather) riders and a further six each of the fur-covered Belvedere open-face helmets for collectors. The PETA-baiting helmets will go on the market for up to €5000.
While I’d rather risk riding without protection than resort to a €5000 mink-covered crash helmet, the whole Ruby experience remind me of the adage, 'if you have a €100 head, get a €100 helmet.'
The blogosphere is awash with paens to Steve McQueen as an icon of cool. Why is Steve McQueen such an important figurehead for (mostly) blokes who like cars and motorbikes. It can't be just about how good he looked, can it?
His was a hard life. You've probably heard all about it before. The absent father. The Alcoholic mother. He suffered struggles in education and run-ins with violent street gangs. He spent his youth hanging out with a coterie of whores, oilmen, lumberjacks and circus performers before landing himself a gig in the Korean-war era US Marine Corps. In a prescient echo of his performance in The Great Escape, he spent time in the brig for going AWOL, before stepping up to the plate and embracing the life of a military man and eventually distinguishing himself.
The 20 year old McQueen was honourably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1950 and straight away began to study acting in New York. At the weekends he would race motorbikes – and according to various sources he was so successful that he was able to live off the prize money to fund his drama training.
It wasn't until 1957, however, that landed his big break playing a tough, taciturn bounty hunter in a network series called Wanted: Dead or Alive. He went on to make his name for brilliantly studied performances – often playing marginal mavericks who managed to see to the heart of a situation – and, crucially – were able to act on that intuition to a certain blend of stylish triumph.
Throughout the sixties McQueen came to exemplify the complex and contradictory vision of manhood than many men share: one where the dark and the light co-exist and complement each other. An essence of the characters he played – from the steely PI in Bullitt to the American GT usurper in Le Mans and everything in between, shone through to his daily life.
"Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting..." When McQueen spoke those words in the trailer of Le Mans, you could tell the man really meant it, and similarly, when he was quoted by a journalist as saying "I live for myself, I don't answer to anyone" there was a self-evident truth in the utterence.
From today's perspective, such uncompromising candor coming from a major Hollywood star is hard to envisage.
Taking this reality to heart, it's hardly surprising that the fashion industry has taken great note of the outfits he casually wore and have sold his image back to us time and again. Take a close look at these pics and ask yourself if you've never wanted to step into Steve McQueen's shoes.
Anyone who has ever dreamt of the freedom glimpsed behind the wheel at speed can recognise the reality that lay beneath this apparently styled surface.
-Lemmy of Motorhead famously referred to them as ‘hairdryers.’ To him and his ilk, they are whining little machines whose performance an attitude are a joke compared to the brawn and substance of the classic piece of English Iron.
Hundreds of thousands, across the generations, have disagreed. For them, the modernists among us, the scooter is an iconic mode of transportation that is both functional and stylish. It's an enduring opinion. Last year, world wide scooter sales increased by an astonishing 41%. In contrast, motorbike sales declined by 7%.
It would seem that once again, the Mods have seen off the rockers.
The scooter is of course heavily associated with the Mods, that fashion obsessed 60s British youth cult that made this machine their official form of transportation. For the true Modernist, the scooter was perfect. Not only was it stylish and functional, it was foreign, sleek and colourful and it represented the future.
Moreover, its past was just as enticing as its present.
The scooter was born between the two World Wars. In 1919, Italian engineering companies turned their attention away from weapons of mass destruction and towards personal transportation. Within months they were producing early versions of the scooter. Over the years the Autoped became the Skootamota became the Unibus became the Autoglider became the Brockhouse Corgi. In 1947, the scooter arrived.
The man responsible for its classic design was an Italian named Corradino D’Ascanio. His boss, Enrico Piaggio, had surveyed the ruins of post war Italy and quickly realized that the population needed cheap transportation. His company already produced the MP 5 (nicknamed Paperino, the Italian name for Donald Duck because of its weird design,) but Piaggio had never been convinced of this bike’s qualities.
He challenged D'Ascanio to come up with a better product.
For his part, D’Ascanio hated the motorcycle. He thought them bulky and unsafe. Worse still the drive chain alone made for an extremely dirty riding experience. To eliminate these problems D’Ascanio put the gear lever on the handlebar, gave the vehicle a body that carried all the stress and created a seat which was far safer than that of the motorcycle.
When Piaggio saw D’Ascanio’s original designs, he exclaimed, ‘Sembra una vespa!’ - It looks like a wasp!
The machine had just been bestowed with a name which would become as famous as pasta. Such was the purity and strength of D'Ascanio’s original design, the shape and engineering principle of the Vespa has resisted change for nearly fifty years. Originally of 98cc capacity, it later evolved to 125, 150 and then 200 cc. Piaggio’s first run of the Vespa numbered just one hundred. Very soon, as demand outstripped supply, the company were able to leap into serious mass manufacturing.
Inevitably, they soon had a rival. In 1947, the Innocenti company of Milan unveiled the Lambretta scooter. Unlike the Vespa, the Lambretta was open framed and did not offer much protection against rogue weather elements. It didn’t seem to matter. By the early 1950s sales of both scooters had rocketed. Although other companies produced their own variations, Vespa and Lambretta led the way. Always have done, always will.
In England the first inkling that a revolution was taking place in Italy came through films such as Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. This very famous scene depicted the two stars, merrily scootering around the Italian capital. Soon UK advertisers of everything from clothing brands to coffee began using the scooter in their posters and commercials as a symbol of fun and adventure.
Britain was, of course, undergoing massive changes of its own. After years of post-war gloom and austerity, the economy was now starting to heat up and a new liberal sensibility was taking hold, particularly among the younger generation. The global cult of the teenager was born.
Smack bang in the middle of these cultural shifts came the Modernists. Their name was soon abbreviated to 'Mods;. Modernists were born just after the Second World War. To them Britain’s past was a land they had no intention of visiting. Instead, they demanded they own the future - and the exotic, stylish italian scooters would be an integral symbol of that future.
In keeping with their anti imperialist instincts, Modernists developed a outward-looking worldview that allowed them to look everywhere for inspiration. They listened American R&B and Post Bop Jazz. They watched Italian neo realist films as much for fashion tips as to get their groove on. And they of course spotted the scooter there too.
By the early 60s a huge demand for the Vespa had developed in the UK. Many Mods used the system of hire purchase to get hold of these expensive machines. In keeping with their desire to customise and make them their own, many Mods also added mirrors to their machines or painted on the names of favourite record labels, singers, bands, lovers, scooter clubs, etc.
But they didn’t just use their scooter to zip round town being fashionable – they also headed out of London to seaside resorts such as Margate or Brighton. Some of these jaunts ended in fights with rockers or the local motorbike gang. These incidents were totally overblown by the nationals but what this press coverage really achieved was to forever associate in many people’s minds the parka clad Mod with the scooter.
This obsession with image amongst the British mods lasted well into the eighties, inspired anew by Franc Roddam's 1979 film Quadrophenia, (which was based on the album of the same name from iconic Mod band The Who). Quadrophenia inspired a second modernist boom among the youth of Britain and to this day there are pockets of Scooter loving mods all over Britain and the world.
In Italy, though, a different story was taking place. The emergence of the small Fiat and Mini cars began to challenge the scooter’s dominance. However, the Vespa could resist such developments thanks to the huge worldwide orders they had received from America, Japan and of course, Europe.
In 1960 Vespa sales passed the two million mark; in 1970 it reached four million, and by 1988 could boats that they had sold ten million machines. Today, that figure is 16 million units sold.
In the mid 90s, the Britpop musical phenomenon, fronted by bands such as Oasis, brought the scooter back into vogue once more. The day after their historic Knebworth concert Noel and Liam Gallagher were photographed driving round town on their GX scooters, overnight doubling their price. By this time Vespa and Lambretta had been busy redesigning their machines for the 21st century. Many of their designs although safer and more efficient, lacked the style and beauty of the original. There is now a trend towards placing modern day engine within classic scooter frames to achieve the optimum in scootering. One thing is for sure, the appeal of the scooter, much to Lemmy's disgust, refuses to die.
The worlds of fashion and cars and bikes have always intertwined. Right from the early days of internal combustion, the car was seen as an accessory of style more than a purely utilitarian device.
While the industrial revolution was motored by the fixed steel roads of the railway, engineers tinkered away creating the first motorised carriages. Costs, and the lack of metalled roads of course meant that the car was rarely thought of as mass transport in the early days: therefore it became an item of style and of aspiration for the classes who could afford such indulgence.
Mass production and the needs of war economies changed all that in the first two decades of the 20th century, desire had been encoded into its ethos long before utility took hold as the dominant force. Between the wars motor sport tagged the car and bike even more resolutely with the glamorous image of danger, discovery and speed.
It was in the boom that came in the wake of WW2, though, that cars really began to represent aspiration, style and wellbeing as we recognise it today. The advertising and marketing industry as we know it boomed from Madison Avenue to Fleet Street, and soon cars and bikes were chrome clad, modernist ideals whose image was deeply interwoven with our world-view. We came to identify with cars as signifiers of who we were.
Even here in the 21st century, where the car’s image has been assailed by the politics of environmental imperatives, making the fume-emitting excesses of the last 100 years look indulgent and immoral: the car and the bike are still constantly referred to and used by fashion photographers and art directors to denote an image – a feeling: a desire that will ultimately translate to an economic exchange.
Here’s a few notable campaigns of the noughties and nineties.