Derek Harris: “Lewis Leathers holds a place in the hearts of its old customers”

The owner of the oldest British motorcycle clothing company takes us through its archive, with some pieces dating back to the 1940s

Since he first got involved with Lewis Leathers some 25 years ago, Derek Harris has been restlessly archiving the brand’s products. Now with a substantial collection, Harris, along with his close friend, the photographer and journalist Rin Tanaka, have created a two-volume book titled Wings, Wheels and Rock’n’Roll documenting the company’s 125-year history in detail.

(Click on the gallery to see more images)

For Harris, the story began in 1991. On a visit to Japan he offered to help the owners of a clothing store import clothes made popular by mods, rockers and punks from the UK. The first thing they wanted was leather jackets and knew straight away to go to Lewis Leathers.

Back in London he discovered that the brand’s product had changed since his last visit to the store some 20 years ago. The jackets’ signature red lining was now black and there were chunky instead of ball chain zippers – as well as other differences. So he asked the owner at the time, Richard Lyon, if he wanted to recreate some vintage pieces and they got to work. The store closed in 1993 and the brand continued as a wholesaler. In 2003, Harris took over as the owner of Lewis Leathers and re-opened the store on Whitfield Street in 2009. Throughout his time at the brand, his knowledge of its history and collection of historic pieces has continued to expand.

“What initially began as a research project for the company in 1991 quickly became a passion as I began to notice the way the leather jackets had evolved for reasons of both practicality and style,” he writes in Wings, Wheels and Rock’n’Roll. “As well as jackets, I also collected old catalogues and advertisements for any clues on the history of the garments and this in turn led to an interest in the history of the company itself along with the people who had built it over the years.”

The book is thus a painstakingly accurate portrayal of a British brand whose history had remained fairly murky until now. We caught up with Harris to hear more.

Click on the image gallery to check out Harris's six stand out pieces from the Lewis Leathers archive

How did the book come about?

The book was first mooted by Rintaro Tanaka after I gave him a folder of photocopied Lewis magazine adverts from the 1920s to the 80s. This must have been 10 or so years ago. My research into the company was starting to take shape but there was still a long way to go. He then contacted me four years ago and said, let's do it. At which point I made a concerted effort to tie-up many of the remaining loose ends. The final year or so was great. With the deadline approaching, research efforts increased and I managed to dig up some great images from various photo libraries around the country.

When did you first meet Rin?

In 1999. He was writing for Japan's Free & Easy magazine back then and heard that Lewis Leathers was making something of a comeback and that I had a collection of old jackets. So he came over for an interview with the then-owner and also popped-over to see me and photographed some of my collection.

The book mentions Lewis Leathers’ 125 year old history ‘had been clouded in mystery for many decades’ and that many enthusiasts helped answer a lot of questions regarding the brand’s story. Could you expand on this.

Lewis Leathers had been owned by the original family from its inception until August 1980 when it was sold. It subsequently changed hands two more times with my predecessor Richard Lyon buying the company in November 1986.

I arrived on the scene in 1991 and one day took an old MotorCycle magazine advert into the shop to ask what had happened to the old Aviakit label which I remembered was in all of the jackets I knew. The staff were unaware of the name and actually found the advert funny with its Aviakit: Yours For Years! tagline. I also spoke with Richard Lyon and what he knew of the history was fairly scant and amounted to no more than a paragraph. So I began buying up old motorcycle magazines along with the odd Lewis Leathers catalogue whenever I could find one – always in search of more info on the brand.

Lewis Leathers holds a place in the hearts of its old customers and the many that I have spoken to have happily told me of their first shop visit or purchase. One day I was contacted by a grandson of one of the three brothers who founded D Lewis Ltd, the company's original name, and he was able to offer me some first hand information. Shortly afterwards two of his cousins also helped out.

In terms of detailed history, the research has been my own but we still have people contacting us who have heard that we are looking for old products and these are the enthusiasts who have helped out over the years. Mike Evans an ex-MotorCycle journalist was one.

During your research, did you come across any surprises?

I remember the pleasant surprise when I found a small advert in a 1929 copy of Flight magazine. There was a pile of these at a Bloomsbury book fair and they looked interesting, so I started leafing through one and there was an advert for a Flying and Motoring Kit by D Lewis. At this point, in 2002, I was unaware of this phase of Lewis's history and it widened my area of research. Another surprise was the discovery of a small two-sided D Lewis catalogue from 1966 which announced the BIG L Range of Leisurewear. Alongside the roll neck jumpers and denimwear were button-down shirts, polo shirts and even pyjamas.

The book looks and feels like a collectors item. Have you always been a collector?

Yes, its kind of like a hardback fanzine. As a young boy in the 60s, I used to collect American comics, which was difficult at the time, as distribution was random back then. In a way, this made the hunting down and finding of preceding and following issues more rewarding. I suppose I've been a hunter ever since – be it for information, records, books whatever. Influences were the comic artist Jack Kirby; Lee Perry for music, among others; books are pretty diverse but I have enjoyed Guy Debord's writing immensely over the years.

Over the years, the brand has both transcended and adapted to contemporary style. Be it D Lewis moving from aviation to motorbike clothing, or collaborations with designers like Rei Kawakubo, Jun Takahashi and Andrew Bunney.

D Lewis started out at the dawn of the century in men's fashion. As the shops around it on Great Portland Street gradually became motor car and motorcycle showrooms, Lewis adapted to the needs of the customers. During the Second World War, the company produced items for the RAF and post war increasingly targeted motorcyclists. During the mid-50s, a new breed of teenage riders frequented the shop and the Lewis Leathers brand name was created for a new range aimed at the younger, style conscious rider.

Jeremy Warshaw, one of the original D Lewis family members, worked at the shop on Saturdays during the 1960s and described it as having “…all manner of customer from the greasy biker, to the slick King’s Road type to the famous.” Even then, the shop was clothing non-motorcyclists.

You have modern contemporaries like Rei Kawakubo, Jun Takahashi and Andrew Bunney approach you to work with Lewis Leathers, D. Lewis first being a supplier of aviator and motorcycle apparel, the brand has successfully bridged into contemporary fashion. How has Lewis Leathers transcended style over the years?

It’s been very interesting working with the designers you mention. I am not from a fashion background and its been a learning curve seeing how these people work. Rei Kawakubo and Jun Takahashi are at the top of their trade and there is a great discipline in the way they operate. Working with people at the highest level in the garment business also helps us maintain and even improve our standards. It stops us from being complacent and is an enjoyable challenge.

We also worked with Gieves & Hawkes a few years back. Being asked to work with one of Savile Row's greatest names was also a great honour. To some, it may seem odd that Lewis Leathers works with with the fashion industry but I think it’s a compliment to our timeless style. While other companies have recently rebranded themselves as motorcycle-themed fashion labels, we continue to make our motorcycle jackets unaltered and in the time-honoured way: by hand and here in London. 

It must have been great reflecting on your own personal journey with the company. What do you feel has been your biggest achievement to date and where do you see Lewis Leathers in 10 years time?

Although the items produced by Lewis Leathers in the 80s and early 90s were great motorcycle jackets, I felt that the classic era of the 60s and 70s with the red lining, more tailored fit and the ball chain zippers were truly iconic items, to me. The people who wore them seemed to be risk takers and on the edge and the jacket was a symbol of that lifestyle. The changes that the jackets underwent in the 80s did not reduce their function or ability to protect in any way but somehow I felt that they had lost their magic. In 1991, I explained this to the owner and I told him how it would be great to try and imbue them with that classic quality again. Hopefully we have achieved it.