Can Harley-Davidson Roar Into the Fashion World?
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held annually in Sturgis, South Dakota, is the biggest gathering of bikers in the world. Every summer, some half a million gearheads roar toward the Black Hills for a week of communal cruising, a mass celebration of that eternal dream: the freedom of the open road. During the rally, Sturgis is basically Harley-ville, USA. Which is why, last summer, the hog-fest played host to an unlikely guest, one who made the pilgrimage to the beating heart of biker culture on a plane: the British fashion designer Louise Goldin.
“I didn’t know what I was walking into, but it was pretty incredible,” Goldin told me recently of the event. The London-born, New York-based Goldin is the first to admit that she’s not a motorcycle person. She does not own or ride one. But Goldin has a big job in the world of bikes. She was brought to Sturgis by Harley-Davidson, which hired her last February to be the company’s first-ever creative director, charged with turning its seemingly infinite cachet in the motorcycle world into globally relevant fashion. Sturgis was a research trip, a full scale cultural immersion amidst the highest concentration of Harley-Davidson gear on the planet.
“Everyone has a reaction when they think of Harley,” Goldin said. Most people think of the bikes she observed in Sturgis. But, arguably, they’re more likely to think of clothes first. Harley merch isn’t just ubiquitous among die-hard bikers. T-shirts emblazoned with the Harley shield logo are in the merch pantheon alongside Playboy bunny trucker hats and Rolling Stones-tongue-logo-everything. In 2022, Harley-Davidson did $270 million in clothing and gear sales alone, which means Harley’s apparel business is already bigger than many big fashion brands. Goldin’s job is to add a more modern layer of sophistication to the offerings. To make sure that the next time you think of the brand, you might picture something a bit more fashion-forward than, say, a tee with a screaming Eagle on it.
Perhaps something like what she was surrounded by on a recent afternoon in Harley’s new Tribeca design studio. Goldin, best known in the industry for helping Kanye “Ye” West build Yeezy from the ground up, was putting the finishing touches on Bar & Shield, one of three lines she is introducing with Harley in March as part of a project dubbed H-D Collections.
“It’s really about defining silhouettes,” Goldin said as she thumbed through a rack of all-black gear, most of which appeared bulletproof. “Simplicity. Drawing it back, rebuilding it, super muted, super dark.” According to an industry survey, the median age of motorcycle riders in the United States is going up, rising from 47 to 50 from 2014-2019. Goldin’s stuff is clearly aimed at a much younger demographic—not your patch-emblazoned-leather-vest wearing retiree, but a new generation of American style rebels, the kind who get around on CitiBikes but lust after Chrome Hearts. As young design assistants (several plucked from Central Saint Martins, the Harvard of fashion schools and Goldin’s alma mater) popped in and out, Goldin pulled out a group of leather pieces that feel both of the Harley world and squarely on trend: oversized black moto jackets cut from dense Vanson hides, alongside slouchy leather moto pants, not an embroidered patch on them. If normal Harley leather jackets channel a somewhat dated American soulfulness, these pieces are drenched with a modern, almost kinky attitude—like what a current day Robert Mapplethorpe would wear to an underground techno club. Which is also how many young fashion fans, whose wardrobes incorporate luxury fashion, streetwear, and vintage, like to dress today.
According to Harley-Davidson CEO Jochen Zeitz, the goal of the new project is to reach exactly this type of person. “By opening our brand to people that identify with the attitude and adventurous spirit of Harley-Davidson, whether they are a rider or not, we believe H-D Collections provides an opportunity of a first touchpoint to bring new consumers into the brand,” Zeitz said.
Every designer who has taken over a storied brand in fashion’s boomtime era has taken approximately the same approach: to dust off classic designs and graphics, making them feel new and modern. But there aren’t many brands with a history as rich as Harley’s, or designers with a resumé as zeitgeisty as Goldin’s. Goldin, 42, grew up in a fashion family in London: her grandparents were in the clothing manufacturing business, and her parents owned a series of retail stores. According to Goldin, her father was one of the first people to bring Versace to London. She embraced her birthright by entering the fashion program at CSM, studying under the famed starmaker Louise Wilson, before launching an eponymous line of futuristic knitwear in 2006. In a full circle moment, after showing a collection inspired by Gianni Versace at London Fashion Week, Donatella called, and Goldin began working with her on Versace collections.
Around 2011, Goldin’s line found fans in some of the biggest pop stars on the planet, like Katy Perry and Rihanna. But she would soon land in the design studio of another mega-artist with fashion ambitions: Kanye “Ye” West, as he was devising the disruptive force that was Yeezy. Goldin ended up staying as Ye’s creative right hand, helping define the monochromatic workwear that launched a new strain of casual street style. “That was a decade-long exercise of building something from absolute scratch, and seeing the evolution of that with incredible creatives,” said Goldin, who spent many of her days deep in the nitty gritty details of how to produce technical fabrics from scratch and overseeing construction and color developments. (“I’ve spent 20 years of my life in factories,” Goldin noted.) She also worked closely with some of the era’s defining designers when they passed through the Yeezy-verse, like Virgil Abloh and Matthew Williams. Goldin points to this period as something like her true fashion education. “Working with different factories, working with different visions, it kind of brings you into this expansive creative ability,” she said.
Harley execs saw the potential of Goldin’s unique and technical design background. “Her extensive research for a deep understanding of the construction, fabrication and end-use of a garment, combined with her drive for innovation, makes her an excellent fit to lead our legendary brand’s apparel forward,” said Zeitz. For her part, Goldin said she was drawn to the job by the appeal of Harley’s engineering DNA. (After all, peel away the attitude of biker gear and what you’re left with is serious technology.) “I love the fabrics that they use. The super cool weights and sensibilities of the riding fabrics is what I’m really inspired by,” Goldin said.
Though Goldin hasn’t extensively discussed her work for Yeezy previously, and didn’t seem eager to start in the Harley design studio, echoes of that experimental period come through clearly in the new collection. Which is, to be clear, a good thing. Yeezy was always intriguing and often good, in spite of Ye’s best efforts, and now that the line is all but dead, Harley presents a surprising opportunity for Goldin to continue developing that new sportswear aesthetic. A healthy portion of the line, inspired by the workaday garments mechanics might wear as they build their dream bike, will surely resonate with those who already (and likely unknowingly) own and wear her designs, like a sleek black button-down shirt and a three-quarter sleeve raglan tee in an au courant muddy brown hue that recalled the modern minimalism she honed at her previous job. And it’s all still very Harley in one important way: “Made in the USA,” Goldin noted.
The goldmine of iconic graphics that Goldin experienced at Sturgis, and in the Harley archives in Milwaukee, where the brand is based, will be fully explored in a separate line called H-D Originals, and in a new authorized vintage program. Everything will start releasing through regular drops via an H-D Collections webstore starting in March. Prices for Bar & Shield pieces, the most expensive line, start at around $95 for T-shirts and go to around $1,500 for leather jackets. For future releases, Goldin is eager to explore the seemingly endless amount of cultural history that Harley touches: biker tattoo culture, she said, is a particular fascination. After a year of immersion into a once-foreign world, is Goldin hoping to design—or maybe even ride—a motorcycle? “I think for now, yeah, it’s important to focus on the clothes,” she said. “But I am now obsessed with bikes, the idea of creating one. Maybe they’ll let me do a custom color for a bike. I’d love to do that.”
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