"I could have either sat on the couch in a psychiatrist's office for the rest of my life or just accepted that what I really wanted was to re-invent a British lifestyle brand," says Harry Slatkin, the founder of and now the CEO and president of , the revered British label best known for its waxed-cotton motorcycle jackets.
The "aha!" moment actually came about in Slatkin's closet. He and his friend Tommy Hilfiger had been brainstorming about the next brand ripe for reinvention when they hit on Belstaff. "We both had the Roadmaster jacket in our closets," recalls Slatkin. "We both said, 'This is it!'"
The legend of Belstaff began in Staffordshire in 1924, when British industrialist Harry Grosberg, exhilarated by the advent of automobile and motorcycle travel, began making outerwear with waxed cotton. His idea was that the breathable fabric could be water-proofed to protect against rough weather on the road. An iconic English brand was born, and a generation of speed demons was given the freedom to explore in conditions that previously would have been intolerable. Belstaff became the preeminent maker of performance gear for both men and women.
It didn't take long for adventurers like T. E. Lawrence and Amelia Earhart to adopt Belstaff for their bold expeditions. Their devotion to the brand inspired even more innovation: The Black Prince motorcycle jacket was created in 1943 and became the best-selling waterproof jacket of all time. By the '50s, the four-pocket Trial-master jacket had become the signature of motorcycle fanatics as disparate as racing champion Sammy Miller and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and George Clooney have all worn Belstaff, on and off screen.
Slatkin and Hilfiger, together with the Swiss luxury group , bought Belstaff a year ago and set out to revive the maker of technical outerwear. Their idea was to take the brand back to its British roots. To accomplish that, Slatkin hired Martin Cooper from Burberry to head up the design studio and to create the interiors of Belstaff stores. "Bill and I had a 35-minute conversation about hangers," explains Slatkin. "I needed someone who is as anal as I am about detail."
To mark the label's rebirth, the London flagship—known as Belstaff House—will open on New Bond Street in 2013. The New York flagship has just debuted on Madison Avenue. "It's a real sporting brand," says Sofield, who drew on periods like the 1930s and '40s, as well as the 1880s, for a look he calls Arts and Crafts meets S&M: "It's ferocious, elegant, and muscley."
Invoking the Belstaff themes of speed and authenticity, Sofield created a streamlined look for the display cases and laser-like lighting and paired them with rich materials like cork on the walls and rubber and black leather for the sofas. "There's a racing element to this," he says of the space. "It's austere, but it doesn't feel cold because of the materials and sense of history."
Even today, the thrill of the open road remains the Belstaff leitmotif. To mark the launch of the fall collection, the company plans to sponsor motor races, such as Britain's Goodwood Revival, to reconnect the brand to its unique past. "We're the Range Rover set," says Slatkin. "We're city and country—young but also heritage."
For the women's line, Cooper reinterpreted the motorcycle jacket in a sleek, cropped version. Handbags are decorated with a chevron pattern to evoke tire marks. In menswear, Cooper introduced a leaner version of the Trialmaster jacket, in addition to staples like linen pants and jackets. Not surprisingly, Slatkin is one of the best customers. "I'm more excited about it now than I was on day one," he says. "I want every piece—whether it's a jacket to take on the plane to London or a linen suit to wear to meetings."