June 2012

IMAGE: XY FACTOR Defiant One

A bad attitude isn’t enough—every rebel at heart needs a PERFECTO motorcycle jacket  by ADAM TSCHORN

  • Damian Lewis  2012
  • Marlon Brando  1953
  • Joey Ramone  1976
  • Sid Vicious  1977
  • Robert Mapplethorpe  1983
  • Madonna  1986
  • Michael Jackson  1987
  • George Michael  1988
  • Cindy Crawford  1992
  • Jay-Z  2010
  • Lady Gaga  2011

Mike Salisbury has made a career out of mining the mind of the American male. As a branding expert and creative consultant, the Venice resident created an aura of cool for Levi’s 501s, Triumph Motorcycles and Hot Wheels. He worked on movie marketing campaigns (Basic Instinct, Rocky IV) and helped shape the look and editorial direction of periodicals (Rolling Stone, Playboy and the Los Angeles TimesWest magazine, where he once served as art director).

And all the while, the black leather motorcycle jacket has been on Salisbury’s mind. It’s even been manifested in his work, as evidenced by the Suntory campaign in which he wrapped a liquor bottle in a tiny, form-fitting leather jacket (complete with zipper pull) and the Hot Wheels project for which he designed a flame-emblazoned version of the garment. He yearned to distill its meaning, trace its roots, know who helped propel it onto the pop-culture landscape.

Now after 14 years of obsessive research, Salisbury is releasing Rebel Rebel (Taschen), a photo book on the iconic leather jacket. There’ll also be a tour of Asia in support of Mr. Pop Culture, a tome on his life and work.

For Salisbury, no article of clothing in the American wardrobe is capable of telegraphing the same caliber of cool. “The black leather motorcycle jacket is ubiquitous,” he says. “Everybody wears it, and everybody has a memory of seeing someone wearing it.”

But not just any leather jacket. He’s referring to Marlon Brando’s Schott Perfecto in The Wild One: “That’s the one everybody wore.” Now 70, he says the 1953 film and its star were responsible for transforming an essentially protective piece of clothing (the leather shielded the biker from the road in the event of a tumble, and the double-breasted asymmetrical zip closure helped prevent air from getting in) into “a symbol of that wild, super-masculine-guy rebel thing.”

As a mantle of outlaw cool, the jacket passed from Brando and Steve McQueen to the next generations. “The Ramones adopted it as an honest homage to the hoody—as in, hoodlum—thing,” Salisbury says, pointing to the ’80s and ’90s as the jacket’s highwater mark.

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“Right around that time was when people like Madonna, Freddie Mercury and Billy Idol had it.” It’s a testament to the piece’s transformative powers that while Salisbury is quick to anoint Brando as the patron saint of leather-jacket cool, he’s hard pressed to identify a celebrity who diminished its street cred by wearing one.

“It’s almost impossible,” he says, “but [if pushed] I’d have to say someone like Pat Boone.” Seconds later, he singles out a worse offender—Cher, whose 1989 video for “If I Could Turn Back Time” had her cavorting on the deck of the USS Missouri clad in a black garter, black boots, fishnet body stocking and motorcycle jacket. “Cher on that Navy ship may be the worst co-opting of what [the leather jacket] means.”

With that, it would seem he would take an equally dim view of high fashion’s attempt to earn its merit badge in badass by incorporating elements of the motif into runway collections the way designers Rick Owens, Jean Paul Gaultier and Junya Watanabe—to name just three—routinely do.

Not so. “Does it look out of place or incongruous on the runway?” he asks rhetorically. “Absolutely not. Those elements—lapels, zipper, buckle at the bottom—are like the alphabet of that jacket. If you see it on the red carpet or the runway—maybe layered over a champagne-colored silk gown with spaghetti straps—it says something instantly. It says: ‘I belong to this group.’ ”

Isn’t that what branding is all about? “Yes,” the media guru says without hesitation. “It absolutely is.”

Lewis: Kurt Markus
Brando: Robert Coburn
Ramone: Gus Stewart
Vicious: Jorgen Angel
Mapplethorpe: Self Portrait/Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation/Courtesy Art+Commerce
Madonna: Herb Ritts/Courtesy Trunk Archive
Crawford: Neal Preston
Michael: Rob Verhorst
Jay-Z: Craig McDean/Courtesy Art+Commerce