If you believe that the ominous, skintight "leathers" worn by motorcyclists are an affectation, listen to Ross Langlitz of Portland, Ore., the world's top custom tailor of sleek jackets and breeches for the vroom-vroom crowd. "Human epidermis," says Ross, "simply wasn't designed for road riding. Prime front-quarter horsehide, fitted like a second skin, should be there between you and the gravel."
For the past 22 years Langlitz has been high pasha of this esoteric sports fashion. Each Langlitz garment is a masterpiece of ingenuity fashioned by a man who first climbed on a motorcycle when he was in the eighth grade. Each is also a testimonial to a personal story of misfortune turned to good purpose. At 17 Ross Langlitz, a very promising kid racer, lost a leg in a crack-up. Despite that considerable handicap, he went on to win 47 cycling trophies in the span from 1938 to 1954, when he finally gave up competition for trail riding and began to think about designing protective garments. Road riders soon found him, and now English, Swedish and French racers know all about him. A good percentage of his business is with Europeans. He still has Clark Gable's measurement chart on file and those of just about every other motion-picture star who has discovered the sport. From time to time—often to the distress of Ross Langlitz, who recognizes one of his Cascades or Columbias at 90 paces—some of these suits turn up in films.
"They put them on the wrong people," he mourns. "I have never liked ornamentation of any kind on our jackets. The wolves' heads, swastikas, devils, stars, bars and studs distract from the fine quality of the leather. We will never put them on any garment here in the shop. We have never knowingly made a jacket or pants for any of the Hell's Angels. Movies have it all wrong. Hell's Angels wear war-surplus jackets, cloth Levis and that sort of thing."
Langlitz is concerned with a growing tendency among riders to order custom-made leather suits in impractical colors—lemon yellow, burnt orange, bright red, dove gray, cream beige and pale blue. He puts a warning in his catalog that makes his position clear. "We feel that colored leathers are strictly a luxury line and should be purchased with the knowledge that they will need replacing every two or three years," he advises. "No matter how fine the quality, within a matter of time when worn for motorcycling these leathers begin to look like hand-me-downs."
Langlitz leather garments are priced at around $50 each, give or take a few dollars for special linings, paddings, stripings and two-inch belts. The coverall costs $92.50 (with such extras as full lining, padded shoulders, elbows, knees and hips $12.50). Really fancy outfits with appliqué name on the front and such refinements as two-tone pants legs and jackets come $5 higher than the catalog prices for standard dark brown and black. The leather alone in a Langlitz garment costs $30. Langlitz won't expand beyond what he can do personally, and he won't sell through dealers. The address is 8220 S.E. Stark Street, Portland, Ore. 97216; phone: 503-255-3306.
"I never forget that what I'm making is not a style," says Langlitz. "It's a tough outer shell that can save a man's life."