She's a motorcycle mama who rarely rides a motorbike. Still, even without her back to the wind, Ruth West comes about as close to the biker's life as a desk-bound artist can.
As a free-lance fashion designer for a company that supplies clothing and gear to the motorcycle industry, West makes her own hours--without bosses or time clocks--creating designs for jackets, full-body suits, hats, gloves, pants and patches. The clothes are sold to such firms as Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Harley Davidson.
A middle-aged mother of two ("Say I'm over 40; I always knock about 10 years off"), West began designing sportswear in 1965 after graduating from Philadelphia's Moore School of Art in fashion design. She started her career by launching her own ski wear design company, called Swing West.
In the 1970s, when day-glo colors and psychedelic designs began seeping into Middle America, West started creating ski outfits in bold, whimsical prints, which were featured in several fashion publications, including Women's Wear Daily.
"That's where I really made my name, with wild ski overalls and graphic designs," she says.
Soon after she was asked by Ocean Pacific, an active-sportswear company based in Orange County, to develop a line of swimwear, outer-wear and sweaters. She has also designed sportswear for Adidas, Sears, Hobie and Union Bay. And she designs clothes for Germany's Hein Gericke line, imported by Intersport, which is the company that buys and distributes all of her motorcycle fashions.
Some of those fashions may soon be seen in a retail store; Hein Gericke plans to open a shop called Speedwear in Orange County this fall.
Switching from ski and surf wear to clothing for bikers was not a huge leap, West says.
"I basically translated the ski look into motorcycle clothes," she says. "It was easy to take my experience with stretch fabrics and combine them with leather."
West, who lives in Newport Beach, now concentrates mostly on motorcycle clothes. Her business is called Wild Wild West, and her ideas are hatched in a studio overlooking Newport Bay on Balboa Peninsula.
Why motorcycle fashions?
"Because nobody else is doing it," she says, pulling sketches out of a giant portfolio. "There are a lot of things I'd like to do. I'd like to be able to use some of the real forward fashion leathers, pearlized finishes, patent leather trims, more hardware, stretch fabrics and texture, more creative use of studs."
West's styles are not of the outlaw variety: She doesn't sprinkle her designs with skulls and snakes or fringe the sleeves. Most of her pieces are traditional, long-sleeved leather jackets designed for comfort and speed. They're stylish and well-made in soft leathers and sturdy fabrics, the kind of no-nonsense clothes favored by serious riders.
Still, some of her tops and pants sport wild colors sprinkled with silver studs. And although her clothes are sold exclusively through motorcycle dealerships, she envisions a day when biker styles hit the fashion big time and are merchandised in boutiques and department stores.
With long, pink fingernails flying, she pulls out some of her jacket designs with bold graphics, electric colors and shimmering zippers. There is a lot of room to grow, she says, shaking her blonde hair to reveal large black-hoop earrings.
"Let's face it, you're selling mostly to the Midwest, and those people are not very fashion-conscious," she adds. "I would love to design for people out here that ride for the style of it. That's a whole area that nobody's touched."
West, who admits she likes to ride but doesn't own a bike, is drawn to the motorcycle world not only by the creative possibilities it offers her, but also by the freedom it symbolizes. She admires the independence of the biker's life--it's the kind of niche she's carved out in her career.
"I like my independence and individuality. I have a hard time working 9 to 5 at anything. I'd just as soon work in the middle of the night to get time off during the day."
Like many motorcycle riders, West has had to negotiate some tricky byways.
"It's been tough," she says. "You're always promoting yourself. You always have to worry about one job ending and filling the gap with another right away. It's the nature of this business. Even if you're full time, if the business falls on hard times, the designers are the first ones out the door."
Another pitfall is age bias, she adds.
"When you've been in the business for as long as I have you're competing with very young people, right out of school, who don't cost a lot. Employers don't realize the ones in the business are not making the mistakes the new ones are making; they already made them and have learned from them. There are economic advantages to hiring someone with experience.
"You don't know what it's like competing with these young kids," she says. "Or you talk to a design director and he's about 25 and thinks you can't draw. You know, just because you get older doesn't mean you lose your eyesight or can't draw. It just means you're getting better."