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Motorcycle Jackets Ride Back To Mainstream

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The earliest leather jackets to come out of the Schott NYC family factory in the late 1920s addressed the needs of motorcyclists by using pricey zippers and an asymmetrical flap front as protection from the wind. A few years later came bomber jackets with knit cuffs to keep the breeze from creeping up the arms of wartime pilots.

It's doubtful that the company's founders, the late brothers Irving and Jack Schott, could have imagined those functional styles to be popular four generations later among hipsters - but they are. This fall, tough-looking leather jackets are considered a must-have item.

A tour of the family business factory in an industrial neighborhood of Elizabeth yields one-of-a-kind handpainted graffiti jackets and others done in collaboration with edgy designer Jeremy Scott, covered in Keith Haring prints.

A hint of bad-boy style has been key to the brand's success since Marlon Brando wore a Schott jacket in "The Wild One" in 1953 - an image further enhanced by James Dean's affinity for the company's Perfecto silhouette. In the 1970s, the punk band the Ramones adopted it as part of its wardrobe.

"The Perfecto has a spirit of its own: It's for a bad boy, a rebel, an independent thinker. Even though everything here was designed for a practical purpose, it's all been reinvented by people wearing them," says Jason Schott, Irving's great-grandson and now the chief operating officer.

At one point in the '60s and '70s, there was such a strong association of leather jackets with antagonists that some schools banned them. Of course, that only made them more coveted by the cool kids.

To look at the Schotts, "rebel" isn't the first word that comes to mind: They look more like your suburban neighbors with the older relatives in slacks, the younger ones in jeans. It's hard to picture any of them in leather jackets (the company makes wool coats and Western jackets too), yet the business is in their blood.

"If it were my grandfather, he'd be doing this interview from under a machine," says Jason, who cut his teeth in the shipping department. Many of the 80 employees here also are second- or even third-generation, he notes, working side-by-side with older craftsmen.

Some of the machinery used here are originals, such as the turn-of-the-20th-century contraption that checks the weight of incoming hides as well as a 1960s fringe-maker, because there are no replacements. The Schotts hire a toolmaker to specifically make parts for them.

And yes, all manufacturing is done in the U.S. and sourcing, when possible, is also domestic.

Patterns are now drafted on a computer, but each piece of fabric is cut by hand with a knife. The Perfecto, for example, has 30 individual pieces that come together in about four hours.

While the spirit of the jackets never change, company president Roz Schott can tell the difference between decades, depending on the cut. Jackets were fitted in the early days, slouchier in the '60s, downright oversized in the '80s.

The popular shape now? Back to the original, narrower shape.

After supplying the military for World War II, Schott had to start catering to customers who have, at different times, put an emphasis on character, style and materials. Now, the demand is for authenticity, says Roz.

Roz, with her sister Barbara, brother-in-law Steve Colin and late brother Michael, were the sandwich generation that drove international growth. She says there was a conscious decision in the '70s not to move the operation overseas when so many competitors did. It turned out that the leather jacket was so closely associated with Americana, she explains, that stores in Europe and Asia were hungry for labels that said "Made in the USA."

It's what kept the factory of humming along, she says, and it seems as if the domestic consumer is paying more attention to heritage - and that is the company's specialty.

There have been detours along the way, following ill-conceived fashion trends and too-expensive luxury items, but there's now a mandate to stick to what the Schotts do best, Roz says.

"We've realized in the past dozen years, if it doesn't have Schott DNA, it's not worth us doing. ... Our history is our future," she says.

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