How leather racing jackets became the most popular thing in fashion

Few pop stars serve as a more accurate cultural barometer than Rosalía — and her latest album, Motomami, proved to be an impeccably timed homage to one of the most definitive trends in post-pandemic visual culture: the alignment of high speed and high fashion. In 2021, engines began to roar on the runways, and since then the sound of the stylistic influence of motorsport has grown into a deafening roar. Runway-ready looks have appeared in recent collections from Dior, Chanel, Balmain, Gucci, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Martina Rosa, MM6, Celine, Balenciaga, Diesel, Stella McCartney and David Koma. And while designers have embraced everything from helmets to racing gloves and padded pants, one garment in particular has become indispensable on both catwalks and city streets—and in the digital worlds that reflect them: the leather racing jacket.

Top influencers like Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Dua Lipa, Hailey Bieber, Julia Fox and Kylie Jenner (who wore matching running looks with Travis Scott last summer) flaunted their runners on social media, making headlines in the process. Racer jackets have also appeared in various high-profile places in the hip hop world: Offset’s Balenciaga runner stars alongside Bella Hadid in his music video for “Code” and Metro Boomin recently graced the album cover GQ in Givenchy style with a zipper decorated with patches.

The popularity of runners spans both the gender and price spectrum. Second-hand shoppers have fueled a surge in demand for vintage racing jackets, and fast fashion giants like H&M and Bershka have, as expected, released a variety of cheap imitations. The influence of the hit Netflix series, Formula 1: Drive to survive — which put the sport and its drivers at the center of pop culture discourse — was instrumental in helping to make daredevil apparel a must-have for TikTok teens and Instagram villains.

Rihanna in New York, September 24, 2022. BACKGRID.
Kim Kardashian on March 3, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.
Hailey Bieber on November 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.
Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner on August 6, 2022 in London, England. Photo by Ricky Vigil M/GC Images.
Julia Fox is in New York on November 1, 2022. Photo by Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.
Bella Hadid on October 9, 2022 in New York. Photo by MEGA/GC Images.

While words like “moto” and “biker” are often used to describe the jackets we saw trending last year, single-breasted mandolin tops, which often include stripes, color blocking, logos and patches, are descendants of the so-called “café racer jackets” ” which were the standard in the 1960s. The café racer was named after its original target population: British motorcycle enthusiasts who raced each other from café to café. The café racer was designed as a sleeker and more flexible iteration of its predecessor, the Schott Perfecto double-breasted belt jacket, made famous by Marlon Brando and James Dean in the previous decade. Fashion historian and author Making a spectacle, Jessica Glasscock, emphasized the functionality of both styles: “Motorcyclists and racers wore these jackets for utilitarian reasons,” she said. “If you crash, you want more than denim between you and the street. Their popularity among subcultures was actually a matter of pragmatism.”

Bikers wearing classic Schott Perfecto jackets and a bomber jacket trimmed with hair in 1960. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images.

Tracing the origins of the racing car, Glasscock also emphasized that the aesthetics and culture of racing differ on both sides of the Atlantic: “In Europe, we think about the glamor of a racing Monte Carlo racing car. There, the racing jacket has a very luxurious history that developed out of the haute-couture ski tradition.” In the USA, racing jackets became fashionable along with the trend of drag racing itself, which flourished in the 1960s. “In America, the runner has a different working-class history. “NASCAR’s origins are in the mountains of Appalachia, when moonshine bootleggers were running from the federal police during Prohibition,” Glasscock said.

In the late 1960s, Betsey Johnson became one of the first designers to reimagine the racerback, and in the following decades, designers like Christian Lacroix, Fiorucci, Donna Karan and Thierry Mugler followed suit, putting their own unique twists on the utilitarian piece. Glasscock cited Rick Owens’ designs from the 1990s and early 2000s as helping the runner transcend his subcultural origins and earn a more consistent place in the world of high fashion. In the 2000s, racing jackets became a major street style phenomenon, thanks in part to their inclusion in generation-defining movies as Fight club and Fast and furious. The resurgence of the jacket in the 2020s is linked to a wider revival of Y2K and “cyber” style. While this runner’s popularity is largely the result of a fixation with the past, the sleek silhouette also has a futuristic appeal that complements fashion’s growing obsession with exploring new terrain and technology, including AI and the metaverse.

A café racer look appeared in Rick Owens’ Fall 2002 collection. Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage.

There is a certain poetry and pragmatism to the rise in popularity of runners at the end of a global pandemic. As we settle back into the rhythm of daily life after two years of silence and confinement, it seems fitting that many have traded in their tracksuits for speed suits as we struggle to navigate a dangerous world. Chelsea Davignon, strategist at trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops, commented: “After seasons of survival masks and headgear, we’re transitioning to armor-like silhouettes in a more playful way. These highly durable high-speed jackets symbolize a protective parody of sorts, when we are able to acknowledge our collective experience as we find our footing in our new reality.”

But our sartorial romanticization of runners isn’t just about speed, it’s about sponsorship. The branded aesthetic of racing, whether it’s the international glitz of Formula 1 or the Southern flair of NASCAR, is dictated by the corporations that fund it. Monica Sklar, who is a professor of Fashion History and Merchandising at the University of Georgia, drew parallels between our admiration for racing style and the rise of influencer culture. “What’s the difference between a brand race and everyone dying to get paid to post on social media?” Sklar asked. With a growing percentage of the population yearning for their own digital sponsorship, the corporate legacy of the racecar has its finger on the pulse of the new American dream. “This is also about what power dressing means in 2023,” added Sklar. “Racing is traditionally a male pursuit, and that’s part of the cycle we’ve seen throughout history. When we feel the need to be strong and masculine, we tend to dress like men.”

The Runner can also tap into our fascination with a fictional archetype: the superhero. “The racing jacket is really a speed suit – and it has a lot of heroic associations, which I think is the core of its appeal,” said Glasscock. “Everybody wants to be a hero.” The Tailored Racing Jacket is a fitting reflection of a moment in time where “NPC” (Non-Playing Character) is an internet insult du jour. The popularity of the racing jacket may have diluted its association with danger, but the “main character energy” that exudes in every stripe and seam remains ever so strong.

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