In 2006 a determined bidder paid more than $32,000 at auction for an old waxed-cotton motorcycle jacket once owned by the late actor Steve McQueen.
It was a British-made Belstaff, and the brand itself was acquiring it for its archives. The iconic black Trialmaster model, purchased by the King of Cool in the 1960s, was one of his most prized possessions. It's said the Bullitt star, automotive nut and certified wild man once canceled a date with Ali MacGraw, his girlfriend at the time, to rewax the jacket, which he wore in several of the motorcycle endurance races he vastly preferred to acting.
By the time of the McQueen auction, Belstaff had come to epitomize a certain sort of sporty British elegance and was well on its way to bonafide luxury-brand status. However, its beginnings were rather less glamorous. It was founded in Stoke-on-Trent, an industrial area in Staffordshire, U.K., in 1924 by Eli Belovitch and his son-in-law Harry Grosberg; the posh-sounding name is actually a combination of "Belovitch" and "Staffordshire."
What really put the new firm on the map was the novel idea of using waxed cotton to make waterproof apparel for avid motorcyclists.
The leather was also made more durable, and in its 90-plus years Belstaff has made all manner of jackets, including parkas for explorers and the Pope. Lawrence of Arabia and Che Guevara were just as fond of their Belstaffs as McQueen was of his, and in recent years the brand's gear has been worn by several A-list actors on-screen and off, including Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, and Johnny Depp.
Ewan McGregor and David Beckham have appeared in the company's advertising, with Beckham declaring that he was drawn to Belstaff because of the connection with McQueen, one of his lifelong idols.
This spring, the brand will open a flagship in Tokyo and launch its first range of eyewear as well as a capsule collection with Japanese streetwear label Sophnet. "All of this activity stems from the inspiration of our rich 93 years of history," says Belstaff CEO Gavin Haig.
"We have always been associated with speed, style, daring, adventure, and functionality. We have had links to aviation, military, naval, and moto through the ages and have always stood for innovation and protection in materials. At Belstaff, our archive is always the starting reference for collections and campaigns and has helped develop our shared vision within the company. We remain forward-thinking while paying respect to our history and allowing this to be a guide for the contemporary brand we represent today."
"The inspiration for each collection always originates from a past part of our DNA," says Delphine Ninous, Belstaff's collection creative director.
"We get a lot of inspiration from the antique pieces, whether it is the whole piece, a detail, a fabric, a graphic; [then] we apply a modern filter on it to make it contemporary. The way you style an iconic piece can make it very modern as well. The archive is very much at the heart of our collections, but we need to make it evolve to make it relevant and contemporary."
At its core Belstaff has always made what the Independent refers to as "old-fashioned British motorbike clobber," designed to keep riders warm, dry, and comfortable, even in the worst conditions. It just happens to be superstylish as well.
And while the lion's share of its customers these days may not be avid motorcyclists by any means, a Belstaff jacket can certainly make you look like you just climbed off a smoking, chrome-plated Triumph Bonneville. And that's proved extremely profitable.
In 2011, the Labelux group acquired Belstaff, and three years later the brand was fully integrated into its parent group, JAB Holding Company, along with its other assets, Jimmy Choo and Bally. In January, Ninous presented her first menswear collection at London Fashion Week, with certain pieces expected to be priced in the $1,000 to $2,000 range when they hit Belstaff stores on New York's Madison Avenue, London's New Bond Street, and other upmarket addresses.
That's a hell of a long way from Stoke-on-Trent—and we'd be willing to wager Belstaff has many more miles to go.
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