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.