By the time I was a motorsport-mad teenager during the 1970s, automotive fashion was already spiralling towards its nadir. In the pioneer years, drivers wore practical, beautifully tailored coats and thick hide gauntlets, which gave way to the crisp white overalls and spotted neckerchiefs worn by gentleman racers in the 1930s and ’40s, and on to the graphically striped and smartly cut cotton, leather or suede jackets of the ensuing couple of decades.
By the turn of the ’80s, however, the catalogue of purpose-made driving gear had more or less polarised into a choice of nylon rally jackets in tobacco-firm livery emblazoned with sponsorship logos, or fogeyish sheepskin driving coats that were almost invariably worn with the ubiquitous cloth cap. As Isabel Ettedgui of luxury clothing and motoring accessories store Connolly puts it: “Everything suddenly went a bit ‘Del Boy’.”
Things began to improve in the early 2000s when Alfred Dunhill revisited motoring clothing and accessories as a throwback to its early-20th-century Motorities, a range of more than 1,300 accessories designed for automobilists that ranged from piston rings to motoring coats. The firm undoubtedly set the modern-day benchmark for wearable and stylish car clothing, but it’s only recently that drivers of today’s ultra-sleek, high-tech, high-performance supercars have had a wide choice of clothing that looks as slick away from the steering wheel as it does from behind it.
The new order was strengthened more than a decade ago when Aston Martin Racing (AMR) joined forces with the quintessentially British men’s outfitter Jeremy Hackett to create the Hackett x AMR collection. “It all started with a chance encounter with former Aston Martin chairman David Richards who, like me, believed the British core running through both brands made them a perfect fit,” explains Hackett.
As well as the original AMR products, aimed at racing fans and Aston enthusiasts in general, the brands have collaborated on a collection of more luxurious clothing, called Aston Martin by Hackett (jacket, £950), and AMR Pro, which is high-end performance wear inspired by the new sports-car line-up.
The AMR Pro range takes reference from different aspects of the car – such as the hexagonal shape found on the radiator grilles and the patterns of wheel rims – and uses more technical fabrics than the other Aston Martin lines. “We developed it in collaboration with vice president and chief creative officer Marek Reichman and his team during multiple visits to the factory, finally settling on a contemporary look that’s in line with how the cars are evolving,” says Hackett. “As a result, we’ve majored on durability, light weight and a high level of practicality, making the outerwear rain- and windproof.”
The association between the two brands has also led to Hackett creating a special edition of the Rapide four-door GT car, called the Aston Martin Q Rapide S by Hackett, finished in sky-blue paint and trimmed in a Prince of Wales check made specifically for the car.
Similarly, Maserati has, since 2013, been teaming up with Ermenegildo Zegna to offer specially designed upholstery that complements travel-inspired clothes and accessories. This season it includes a quilted gilet (€2,300) and driving loafers (€480) made using Zegna’s trademark Pelletessuta leather-processing method.
Maserati’s Italian stablemate Ferrari has taken a more elitist approach with its collaboration with the houses Loro Piana and Berluti. The collection of racing overalls, jumpers, gloves, scarves and shoes specifically for driving is available only to the individually selected owners of the limited edition Monza SP1 and SP2 single and two-seat Icona supercars (priced around €1.6m each) that combine state-of-the-art engineering with looks inspired by celebrated Ferrari racing models from the 1940s and ’50s, such as the 166MM and 750 and 850 Monzas.
More democratic, however, is the recently launched Belstaff x McLaren collection. Comprising 10 men’s outerwear items and three pieces for women, ranging in price from a merino-wool top (£160) to the leather Hybrid driving jacket (£1,195), the clothing is designed for all-round wear with flexibility and functionality at its core.
“The aim was to use modern luxury materials that are both natural and man-made and to combine traditional tailoring with digital craftsmanship,” explains McLaren Automotive’s design director Rob Melville. “I’m certainly not a fashion designer, but I found the process really fascinating – and Belstaff allowed us a great deal of input to ensure the form and function ethos that McLaren is known for was fully incorporated. The materials we’ve used are designed to remain fresh and crease-free after being worn in the car. The driving jacket, for example, features laser-perforated leather at the shoulders and back to allow air to circulate, and a raised collar to prevent the seat belt from making contact with the wearer’s neck.”
Ettedgui, meanwhile, believes much of the revival of interest in driving clothing is attributable to the fact that the type of high-end cars that might once have been attainable only by those in late middle age are now being acquired by younger people who want to look the part when driving them. “You could describe the latest car clothing as a very sophisticated form of sportswear – these are items that are practical to drive in but which also subtly demonstrate the wearer’s love of automobile culture,” explains Ettedgui. Connolly, located in Mayfair, majors on modern interpretations of classic automotive styles and stocks everything from leather driving gloves (£295) to a specially designed “drop back” car vest (£325) and a cashmere bomber jacket (£1,250) and matching trousers (£1,200).
Dunhill’s current offering for drivers also includes luxurious motoring wear such as the classic car-inspired Concours jacket (£4,395) and matching gilet (£2,595) as well as a more conservative-looking quilted car coat (£2,195).
But it’s not only fans of four wheels whose sartorial needs are being catered for. Motorcyclists, previously left to pick from a largely uninspiring choice of weather- and abrasion-resistant garments, now have an increasing array of designs to choose from that combine essential protective qualities with style and elegance.
One of the first to recognise that bikers often want more than the default black leather was UK fashion designer and motorcycle enthusiast Nick Ashley, who sold a range of carefully thought-out, practical and versatile kit from his eponymous Notting Hill shop from 1992 until 2005.
More recently, he has been working as the creative director and brand ambassador of sustainable UK clothing manufacturer Private White VC, developing pieces such as the cotton-canvas Twin Track riding jacket (£550), with features such as a zip-out front placket that can be removed depending on what’s worn underneath. Private White VC has also collaborated with Jaguar on a limited run Harrington driving jacket (£595), which has a two-way centre zip and removable quilted gilet.
“I’ve always tended to design clothing that’s multifunctional, so while pieces such as the Twin Track might be biased towards motorcycling, they can be worn for driving and are smart enough to wear to work,” says Ashley.
Following Ashley’s lead, the market for stylish and luxurious motorcycle kit is now being addressed by brands such as Berluti, which has entered the two‑wheeled fray with its biker boots (£2,730) and a soft leather jacket lined with shearling wool (£5,650). The Italian French-owned firm has also collaborated with Isle of Man-based Veldt to create a crash helmet (£2,840) made from lightweight carbon-fibre and covered in scritto-patterned leather.
There’s also Malle London, which was set up in 2012 by Robert Nightingale and his cousin Jonny Cazzola. Having pursued individual careers as design consultants, the pair decided to combine their love of two wheels with work by developing a range of high-end, handmade motorcycle-inspired luggage and clothing that’s tough enough to withstand being bashed about on a bike yet elegant enough not to look out of place when worn “normally”. The latest range is called The Lost Collection and includes pieces such as the Garment Duffell (£389), which can be flattened for packing before being zipped together to form a capacious cylinder, a range of backpacks (from £229) and the Parker raincoat (£399), all made from high-quality, British-made waxed cotton and canvas.
Similarly, young designer Ashley Watson began developing a range of exclusively British-made accessories for motorcyclists in late 2014 and perfected his Eversholt jacket (£535) in 2017, which evolved from a 4,000-mile ride around Europe that was undertaken in all weathers. Although it appears to be made from regular heavy-duty waxed canvas, the jacket is fully lined with an abrasion-resistant fabric called Dyneema that’s said to be 15 times stronger than steel, and is also fitted with subtly integrated padding and fully waterproofed.
Watson’s Hockliffe overshirt (£265) also offers impact protection in the form of removable armour, Dyneema panels and a heavyweight outer shell sealed with an Aquaguard zip. Hardened riders will appreciate the Hockliffe’s extra-long arms and long-cut body that prevent unwanted exposure to the elements caused by stretching for the bike’s handlebars. There’s also the ingenious Orkney Baffle (£85), a merino-wool neck warmer that seals the often-uncomfortable gap between crash helmet and jacket.
As a long-standing, long-distance rider, I applaud the strides these brands are making. I may never be as stylish as those pioneer drivers, but now I can begin to look the part.