Exploring the Belstaff archive
Josh Sims speaks to Doug Gunn of The Vintage Showroom about building a Belstaff archive that pays tribute to the long history of the brand
Doug Gunn admits he has been tempted. 'We found this crazily coloured waxed jacket - it would have been bright red originally but it had this black patina. It made for a beautiful colour,' he recalls. 'That jacket was on my back for a good few hours before I thought long and hard and realised it probably belonged in the archive.' Five years ago, Gunn - co-founder of The Vintage Showroom, the London-based menswear archive inspiring designers all over the world - was charged with building up Belstaff's then-minimal archive, with a view to celebrating the brand's centenary in 2024. 'It seems strange now,' he says, 'but only 20 years ago brands just didn't value their history. But now it's such a crowded marketplace. Having been around for 90 years is valuable - it's something customers relate to.'
That's why a piece like the 1930s motorcycle coat that Gunn unearthed will have such resonance for anyone interested in menswear history. Gunn's expert eye allows him to describe it as a hybrid between the first aviation coats produced by the Air Ministry in the early 20th century, and the Senior TT coats made by Belstaff during the 1920s.The ongoing process of adding such pieces to this fledgling archive has required worldwide travel, considerable detective work and some good luck. It was, for example, Gunn's chance discovery of a trench coat with multiple labels that revealed that before Belstaff became a well-known brand it had operated under the names BMC (Belstaff Manufacturing Corp) and BIL (Belstaff International Ltd). This allowed for the identification of many pieces that otherwise could not with certainty be attributed to the company.
That was important because, as much as possible, we wanted to source garments from as far back as we could,' says Gunn. 'It soon became clear that Belstaff not only had a heritage in making, say, aviator clothes for the well-off during the 1920s, but hunting, shooting and fishing styles for the mass market. And for much of the 20th century the founding owners also had contracts to make clothing for the military, separate to that public image the company had as a motorcycle brand. Look closely and you can see how the Trialmaster has a military feel to it.' Those contracts - and the demanding performance requirements of the clothing - also made Belstaff a pioneer in the use of what at the time were considered advanced technical fabrics, the likes of Gore-Tex and Ventile. Motorcycle clothing became so successful for the brand that it overshadowed its other design and production work. This is now being brought into the light again - last year Belstaff put on a pop-up exhibition of archive pieces at the Isetan store in Tokyo, and will, for London Fashion Week, soon launch one for its London Bond Street flagship.
This will focus on its long history of working with leather, from basic motorcycle rider protection of the 1930s through to the cafe racer styles of the 1950s and onto more colourful and striped leathers of the 1970s that inspired the current spring/summer 2017 collection. There's no doubt, the archive will prove to be a powerful tool in shaping the look and feel of Belstaff's forthcoming collections too.
Certainly - inevitably, perhaps - some of the most impressive additions to the new archive find their backstory in motorcycling. There are the classic biker styles - the kind worn by the ton-up boys of the 1950s, pinned, badged and, half a century on, somehow more culturally resonant than ever; or the round-collared and diamond-quilted styles of the 1970s, with a touch more Barry Sheene about them, perhaps.
But then there are the less well-known yet more intriguing styles, too. As the 1970s was the decade when TV took off as a mass-medium - bringing American TV into British homes for the first time, too - western style, for example, would have its influence: so how about a fringed Plainsman jacket, for the riders of steel horses? Or, echoing the massively increased performance of street-legal motorbikes during the same era, a racing jacket and racing suit, both complete with 'Le Mans' stripes, identifying graphics lifted from racing car bodywork and applied to motorcycle riders themselves?
'There's been so much more to Belstaff's design history, but of course these leather motorcycle pieces stand out with regards to what the brand represents today,' says Gunn. 'We found all sorts of things - an amazing Belstaff tent, for instance, and pieces that showed the great diversity of Belstaff's logos over the decades. But there's no denying that these leather motorcycle pieces are historically significant ones for the company.'
Which is just as well. Because tracking down many of the less familiar, non-motorcycle garments has not been easy. 'We had seen all sorts of pieces in old catalogues, so knew they had existed, but finding, say, military pieces in particular was extremely hard,' says Gunn, who cites a canoeist's smock designed in the 1960s for the British Army's elite Special Boat Service. 'We've had an annual budget to spend, but Belstaff has always been keen to go the extra mile to get pieces with a special provenance, such as the Steve McQueen waxed jacket bought at auction. Thankfully when word got out that we were looking, people started approaching us with some great Belstaff garments. And as someone who's collected Belstaff for years, that's been very exciting. And occasionally tempting.'
Josh Sims writes for Esquire and Wallpaper