The Belstaff All-Weather Archive
Josh Sims discovers the unearthed vintage Belstaff garments that show the brand's history of protecting men and women from the elements.
'I like heavyweight jeans and a heavy wool overcoat to protect me from the elements,' says Doug Gunn. 'These days garments are getting lighter and lighter - because of different demands, because of new fabrics. But I'm an old-fashioned guy.' That approach made Gunn, co-owner of vintage menswear experts The Vintage Showroom and the man charged with building Belstaff's archive, especially ideal to curate a new pop-up exhibition of the clothing brand's historic all-weather garments, to go on display this April at the New Bond Street store in London.
The exhibition includes a 1930s vulcanised rubber motorcycle coat, yellow oilskin 'Speedway' capes made for spectators at the races in the 1940s, cotton gabardine mountain parkas from the 1940s and 1970s, and there's even a shell mountain parka co-designed by mountaineer Chris Bonnington, who worked with Belstaff from 1976 to 1978 on the Great British Weatherproofs line of clothing. Look closely at its label and it reads 'weatherproofs for the great outdoors' - an apt summary for many of the garments Belstaff has made.
'The company really evolved out of weather-proofing fabrics - before it started to make clothing, before it came to be known as Belstaff,' notes Gunn. 'And because it ran a parallel business fulfilling contracts for the British military, you can see that some ideas would cross over. Certainly it meant the garments were of the highest specification - because the military invested so much in training personnel it tended to also have the biggest budgets to make garments to protect them in the field.'
Belstaff was often innovative in its use of rubberised textiles, vinyls or new tech like Gore-tex in the bid to make its outerwear not just waterproof but - just as crucial when it comes to the crunch - windproof too. Certainly some of the results were spectacularly heavy: that pre-World War II rubberised motorcycle coat weighs over 4kg. 'It was made using high frequency sealing on all the seams to be 100% waterproof,' says Gunn. 'It must have been incredibly hot to wear because there's almost no ventilation. But that was the kind of protection you needed when riding long distances on a motorcycle then.'
Not that dressing for such a journey left no room for style: the logo on one piece in the exhibition, a 1933 Senior TT Competition Coat made from vulcanized rubber - one of the earliest examples of this versatile model - proclaims that it is guaranteed stormproof and shows a motorcycle rider wearing not a helmet but his trusty tweedy cloth cap. Elsewhere in the exhibition some of the first-generation coloured Trialmasters from the 1960s and 1970s are showcased including an emerald waxed cotton two-piece worn by legendary motorcyclist Sammy Miller to a number of victories. And two similar professional waxed cotton Trialmaster motorcycle jackets: one that has worn to a deep burgundy from its original vibrant red and another that has transformed to a magnificent pale blue-green over years of hard use - its original emerald colour can still be seen though in revealing patches around the stitching and under the arms.
Indeed, in searching for garments for the exhibition, Gunn didn't necessarily opt for those in the best condition so much as those with most character. 'For me that means the ones with the most beautiful patina,' he enthuses. 'To me it's great when you have a jacket that would originally have been a bright green but which years of use - getting wet and battered - have made it now almost a pale grey. And yet the surprising thing is that these garments, although many decades old, are still functional. Over time leather is too easily mishandled - maybe it dries out and cracks. But these all-weather fabrications just seem to get better with age.'
Josh Sims writes for Wallpaper* and Esquire and is the author of the Icon of Men's Style.