CUSTOM & STYLE: Himel Brothers Leather Jacket Historic designs handmade from one of the world’s foremost leather-jacket historians.
Presumably you’re a motorcyclist, and if so, it’s 99 percent certain you’ve owned a leather jacket. Even if synthetics are superior for your two-wheeled beat, the track demands animal skin, and it’s good enough for me too. Besides, every leather jacket comes pre-soaked in a century of pungent associations, so no matter what style jacket you wear, you’re wearing Style. Fans of vintage leather recite the classics—the Café Racer, the D-pocket, the Biker—and know the roots of these styles run deeper than The Wild One, but few have bothered to dig into the history of the leather jacket industry. Nobody has dug deeper than David Himel, owner of Himel Brothers Leather Co. in Toronto, Canada.
“Motorcycle jackets evolved from cavalry coats, and started out three-quarter length, but got shorter and tighter as speeds went up,” says Himel. “They evolved to the classic ‘Biker’ style worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild One; a Japanese book concludes he wore a Durable brand jacket, based on photographs of the five Durables in my collection. But that design was perfected by Leathertogs in Everett, Massachusetts. Their designs had some sort of magic, and an incredible aesthetic, they really nailed down a few classic styles. Leathertogs disappeared in WWII, but its designs live on.”
Himel became the guru of vintage leather through the vintage clothing trade, and developed a sharp eye for obscure designs. Clocking a dirty ragpile as ultra-rare 1920s denim brought a decent income, and an international reputation.
“Between 1992 and 2008 I was selling high-end vintage clothing to dealers in Japan,” he says. “I started a blog in 2007, sharing all I knew about jacket history—I’d memorized just about every jacket made in the US and Canada, the construction and techniques.”
In 2000, Rin Tanaka (host of LA’s Inspiration show) published a landmark book, “Motorcycle Jackets; a Century of Leather Design,” and Himel recognized many jackets as ones he’d sold to dealers.
“It occurred to me I’d always be a picker if I didn’t get my name out,” Himel admits. “I’d sold all these amazing jackets, and had my own huge collection; my goal was to build a complete historical compendium of all the North American leather manufacturers. I started calling the old guys who’d made them—a limited number before 1950, as each city had two or three jacket makers.”
Eventually Himel amassed thousands of jackets in “vertical” series like a wine collection, showing changes to each brand over time, a university of leather evolution. He was still selling ultra-rare pieces to collectors around the world, but the Great Recession knocked the wind out of the vintage biz.
“In 2008, vintage was dying, and my wife wanted me to do something with all this leather,” Himel says. “I started researching the perfect bench-made ‘1930s sewing techniques’ leather jacket.”
While Himel’s family has deep roots in garment manufacture, he wasn’t raised in the trade, so had plenty to learn. “My idea was to create great modern designs using old techniques,” Himel says. With the help of veteran tailors, they deconstructed old leather jackets to discover lost construction methods, which take longer but produce a stronger jacket with more elegant seams.
Nobody in the industry uses such hand-sewing techniques anymore; skilled labor is simply too expensive for mass production. Himel explains the process: “Every piece is skived [thinned on the edges], so it doesn’t get bulky on seams. We’re using cotton thread with a tiny needle at nine stitches per inch, which slows sewing way down, but is much stronger. We notch every panel so there’s no puckering, and every seam is dead flat, as the allowance is taped down—there are no ridges under the liner, and the joins are extra strong.”
Beyond cool, historically based designs and revived techniques, Himel is committed to quality materials as an ethical choice. “Our leather is tanned using bark, and the wastewater is filtered to drinkable. The cost differential for organic leather is 10 times more than Third World chromium-tanned leather, but that cost means the animals were treated well, and have no scars. Most chrome-tanned leather has been cosmetically corrected as the animals have been injured, but my animals lived well.”
As you’ve gathered, a handbuilt leather jacket with perfect replica vintage Japanese lining and zippers, made from individually selected hides, is an expensive proposition and prices for a custom piece are north of $2000. But Himel’s goal is to make “lifetime” jackets, which will age naturally and acquire unique character with every owner. His designs, the leather, and the fabric choices make Himel Brothers jackets instantly recognizable in a world crowded with vintage and repro-vintage leather. “I want my jackets to make people feel like a rockstar, to get stopped on the street, saying ‘who are you?’ That’s the best marketing–people getting stopped and asked if they’re famous, and ‘that’s the best leather jacket I’ve ever seen.’ When that happens, you have a customer for life.”