Hell bent for leather: The Schott Perfecto and my journey into obsession.

July 30, 2013

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It all started when I thought I’d lost my beloved leather bomber jacket. I’d bought the coat from a vintage store in Hollywood while there on a shoot. (That’s me wearing it behind the camera, checking out the composition of a shot.) I would later find my coat but by then it was too late. My addictive personality had been ignited…

I began scouring Ebay for other, even better examples of old leather jackets. Searching for anternatives to my vintage Vietnam flight jacket opened a closet door inside my head that would require serious filling. Though I quickly found a suitable replacement, I could not let go my desire for more. Like all obsessions or addictions, there is both an upside (something new and exciting) and a downside (the inability to stop). Since I am still enjoying the high with minimal consequences I want to focus on the upside.

There’s something about a leather jacket. It speaks to me. I think of Marlon Brando, who made the biker jacket iconic in The Wild One. Strangely, I don’t recall ever seeing the movie (my bad) but I saw him. And I saw that jacket. I think every man born in the 20th century did. Him and it became truly iconic.


Still, it wasn’t until I explored replacing my brown bomber that the category (especially biker jackets) truly infatuated me. Interestingly, I grew up watching Happy Days on TV and Fonzie’s leather jacket (also iconic) did nothing for me, perhaps because I saw Arthur Fonzerelli as more of a buffoon than a man to be admired.

Again, here nor there, because a more personal experience did me in. Upon receiving my replacement leather I also became turned on. The feel of distressed, busted-up material, its grain and fortitude, it’s suppleness in spots, made me think of the story behind it. Who wore this jacket? What kind of man was he? Like all romantics, I imagined only the best. The owner(s) of this jacket was a true man, a badass with a rogue’s spirit. I imagined the pack of cigarettes in his pocket and motorcycle keys dangling by his side. I saw in him (and it) the man, for better and for worse, I could never be. Damn my self-awareness!

I also discovered that the brown bomber jacket, as cool as it is, has nothing on the black motorcycle jacket. Not to disrespect the brave men and women who fought in our wars but here was perfection. Like the Fender Stratocaster, nothing says original American awesomeness like a black motorcycle jacket.

A man and his Perfecto…

The perfect example was and is the Schott Perfecto. For those unawares, the Schott Brothers were Russian immigrants (like my great grandfather), who started a company in 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. Originally, they sold only raincoats but in 1928, they began producing biker jackets. Motor power was all the rage on American roadways and these feisty immigrants were all over it. Selling for $5.50 the Perfecto made its debut (fittingly) at a Long Island Harley Davidson dealership.

By the 1950’s (in part due to Marlon Brando’s break out role), the “modern” Perfecto was born. Embraced by the likes of James Dean (who seldom was seen without one) and rejected by high school principals everywhere, the Schott Perfecto became a symbol for rebellion, machismo and coolness.

Quoting from their website, by the 1970’s “Schott became synonymous with the punk rock movement. The current wave of rebellion came to the streets of downtown New York City through underground music venue, CBGB. The Schott Perfecto® was the uniform for rock stars like The Ramones, Blondie, Joan Jett and The Sex Pistols.”

The Ramones. Shaggy but oh so cool…

Oddly, when I was a teen-ager I did not own one. The 50’s seemed goofy to me (see Happy Days) and besides, I had the fashion sense of a nematode.

Ah, but what I wouldn’t give now for a 50’s era Perfecto. What few are available are either in terrible shape or can be had for two grand or more on the Japanese market. Thank God the Japanese are conspicuously smaller than we robust Americans or I’d likely have bought one. I have however found several fine examples from the 70’s and 80’s (far less expensive) and they now adorn a rolling rack in my garage.

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I lovingly washed and restored each one of them, replacing a star here and a belt there, careful not to diminish their character and patina. To learn how to care for these gems I made friends with leather craftsmen, like Al’s Attire in North Beach or my man, Misak at Tony’s Luggage & Repair in Mill Valley. I researched the brand. I became part of the Schott community, asking questions on their website, requesting hardware and advice. In short, I fell in love.

And now, almost every chilly San Francisco morning, I choose one and make my way into the world. For though I am a father and a copywriter, when I put on a black leather jacket I am Perfecto.


19 Responses to “Hell bent for leather: The Schott Perfecto and my journey into obsession.”

  1. I love my leather jacket. Got mine in West Hollywood about 15 years ago at a recycled leather shop on Santa Monica Blvd. It’s been my favorite jacket ever since – particularly because it’s distressed, busted up and supple.

  2. I still have my Schott jacket I bought in 1990. Still in great shape. They were definitely made to last.

  3. edub327 said

    I too have found the Schott Perfecto in a search for a quality jacket. I have been obsessed over getting one since. I greatly enjoyed reading your article.

  4. Job Vogel said

    nice, feel the same about them, but it seems that brando wore a Schlitz Jacket 🙂 at least so I was told!

  5. Ha van Vuong said

    Hi Steffan, I’ve just bought an early 80s Perfecto with no belt and I’m struggling to find a suitable replacement. Can I ask where you sourced the replacements you mentioned. Thanks

    • Steffan1 said

      Ha- Couple ways you can go… 1) have a belt made by competent leather shop. Black leather. Chrome buckle. Just choose a thickness and length commensurate w/ your jacket (so that it has extra length on each side) or 2) buy a belt you like (try HTC) in extra long size and use it. The third option is to buy a “Sam Browne” style which is what is often used w biker jackets. Good luck!

  6. Kathy Farr said

    I have a 1920’s early 1930s Schott original black motorcylce jacket with the Beck Label. Size 42. Horsehide.. black liner. Really good condition. Bought it at a used clothing store in Toronto in 1980. Hanging in my closet mostly for 34 years. If anyone interested emai me at farrsroofing@rogers.com

  7. Steve said

    What size are you? I got a little over-excited buying one for my boyfriend (ultimately he needed a 38 Long) and I got a 40 regular that doesn’t fit either of us. It has a bull & cactus black label, seems to be late 1960s and is in good shape–leather, liner good, sleeve zipper needs replacing but seems to be all-original hardware. I live in SF and paid $165 for it.

  8. Jonathan said

    I loved reading about your journey, I myself am going through something similar; albeit I am a tiny bit younger and not as well versed as I believe you to be. I have come to appreciate these few pieces of pure unadulterated Americana goods upto and including the fender strat you have mentioned. I have decided to purchase my third schott perfecto, or so I hope, but am not entirely sure it is entirely authentic. Please help with confirming it’s authenticity as much as you can, thank you very much for your love letter to American goods and for your advice on this matter.

  9. Bolin said

    Hi Steffan,
    I’ve got a great perfecto, though the stars have come off the epaulets. I actually have replacements from Schott, but any idea how to stick them on?

    • Steffan1 said

      Bolin- This is easy. Any fabric/button store has a simple punch tool you can use. Or you can just take a pair of pliers and carefully compress stars into epaulets. First find the feint indent and holes from original stars and place new ones directly over. Just use care not to smash star with too much pressure. Good luck!

  10. chaiestro said

    First, loved this post. I’m as sick as you – over a dozen and counting. I haven’t washed any of mine yet, but some of the vintage ones could certainly use it. How exactly did you wash yours?

    • Steffan1 said

      Ask your local cleaners – many have specialists who they take leather goods to. It’s a common request for them – not too costly. Good luck!

    • Steve said

      The one I finally found that fit and is a year or two older than me came very smoky. I paid through the nose at a good leather store to have it cleaned and the smoke didn’t change. At that point I was willing to take a risk and I dunked it in Mirazyme, an enzyme-based de-smeller that was originally designed for delicate outdoor equipment (hiking, backpacking, ski boots etc.). I let it soak the prescribed amount of time and then dried it pressed between really absorbent towels as much as I could, then hung it very carefully with some padding to hold its shape as it dried. The jacket is totally fine after all this, and less smoky. I also ended up using a lot of febreeze sprayed just on the internal liner to take out some smell.

      Do some research online of how to clean leather products, do everything by hand, don’t let it soak forever so the leather truly saturates, and air dry it carefully. These jackets are sturdy and can take a beating.

      • Steffan1 said

        Good stuff to know. Basically, my cleaner does a good job w leather – although one time they mistakenly dyed an old Perfecto thinking I wanted it “like new” again. That hurt.

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