One of the favorite items inside Marc Alt’s (mostly black) closet is a custom made leather jacket, designed for motorcycle riding and a lifetime of wear.
Marc Alt is editor and founder of Open Source Cities, an idea marketplace for the future of cities. During a career dedicated to connecting design, technology and ecology, he’s worked with companies like BMW, MINI USA and Ogilvy Earth and is actively involved in a number of urban mobility and smart cities initiatives. He often travels presenting workshops on living systems, resiliency, ecological design and ancestral knowledge. It was during one of these trips that he acquired the perfect leather jacket.
“I think that the year was 2005. I was at a design conference in Boston, and I used that as an excuse to take a drive out to the coastal town of Fall River to visit the factory and headquarters of Vanson Leathers, one of the few custom leather shops at the time that was still working with horse hide. Since then, there has been a small resurgence of interest in horse hide, and other makers have introduced or re-introduced it as an option in their lines. But at the time, it was very hard to come by, and only one tannery that I know of, the venerable Horween in Chicago, was still processing it.”
“I have a special affinity to horses, having grown up around them as a kid, and now living among them in California. I’m studying ancestral knowledge and primitive technology in my current work and life, and leather has an important role in the history of human civilization. Leather is the oldest continuously used material known to man. Its use pre-dates recorded history. Since at least 2,000 B.C, leather was used in China as currency and for weapons and armor. It is referred to in The Bible, Genesis 3:21. The same qualities that made it valued by ancient cultures make it valuable in modern times. Many traditional cultures believed that by wearing the skin, horns or feathers of an animal they took on some of its characteristics and gained some of its strength. For them, wearing leather communicated that strength as well as purpose and identity.”
Leather has always been one of those divisive topics among environmentalists, but if sourced properly it is a material that will last for generations. And the value of true craft should never be underestimated.
“How we acquire and process leather in modern times is far less considered, sacred or ethical, and represents often a very shameful legacy. However, very often, garment leather is in fact a byproduct of another industry and using it is part of a natural cycle that would otherwise be wasted. I strive to source leather from known or vintage sources, but at the time I wasn’t as aware in my purchasing as I am today.”
“Vanson is not the oldest leather company in the U.S., they have been around since the 1970s, but they have a heritage and specialty of making custom leathers, by hand, to the highest standard, for the sport bike racing industry. At their cavernous building, they still perform drum-dyeing, tanning, finishing, waxing, cutting and stitching by hand. Drum dyeing is a process in which leather is tumbled for hours with a mixture of oils, dyes and hot water in 12 x 12 foot oak drums.”
“I wanted a simple, basic black leather jacket that would last me for life, and be an heirloom that could be passed down. I also wanted something custom fit for riding. Most of the off-the shelf leather jackets have sleeves that are too short and ride up your arm while riding a sport bike or café racer style bike. I wanted something a little longer in the arms and body. After I spent some time wandering through countless racks of garments in their warehouse, someone emerged from their sewing shop, measured me up and took my order. The jacket arrived a few months later and has been with me ever since.”
In this new weekly column, we’ll take you inside the closets of some of our favorite people, asking them to choose one piece that defines them in some way and also, to tell the story behind it. To us, style is not about being a follower of trends, coveting this or that season must-have, it’s about carefully selecting pieces that deserve to be in your closet because they represent you. Personal style is something that lasts through years and fads — just like that favorite piece in your closet.