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BIKER BOOGIE

Designers have been revving up their collections this season with studded handbags, strappy boots, leather jackets and other items of “biker chic” -- fashionable, motorcyclist-derived clothing that allows women to look tough without actually throwing a leg over. As a longtime biker, I’ve seen this trend come and go over the years, and it always gets my hopes up. Maybe this time someone will design clothing that’s functional and more fashionable than the pinked and fringed schlock that’s normally offered up to female motorcyclists in the name of protective gear.

Helmut Lang leather jodhpurs? I’ll gladly saddle up. Ankle-chained DKNY boots? I’m happy to be shackled. Studded Brando jacket? I won’t rebel. Everyone, from Alexander Wang and Givenchy and Gaultier to Forever 21, Mossimo and H&M; is kicking biker style into high gear this season, and I was more than willing to try it out -- on a real motorcycle.

Little, if any, of this is actually intended for real riders, of course. Susie Crippen, creative director of J Brand and designer of its Racer X skinny pant, summed it up best: “We’re not claiming by any stretch of the imagination that if you buy our motocross jeans that you’re going to be a better motorcycle rider or get a boyfriend who has a motorcycle. But you will look really good on a motorcycle,” said Crippen, a “nonbiker chick” who nonetheless loves bikes.

Anyone in pursuit of the current biker chic offerings would certainly be buying into a trend -- a classic pairing of sex and power -- that seems to crop up in the fashion world every few years.

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“It’s iconic and it’s classic,” said Sharon Haver, founder and editor in chief of the website www.focusonstyle.com. “It’s like a good pair of jeans. It just personifies cool, and it’s very American. Not that most actual bikers look that cool, but the fashionized version of it is very sexy. And timeless.”

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Safe but not so sexy

As for how might it “work” for a real-life motorcyclist? That’s a trick. Being both a biker and a woman is a balancing act. On the one hand, a biker needs to be safe. On the other hand, who doesn’t want to look great upon arrival, especially if that destination isn’t populated with biker guys who understand, and might even like, a girl whose hair is shaped like her helmet and whose lipstick is coated in soot.

Unfortunately, manufacturers of real motorcycle gear don’t make the “looking great” part easy.

In the 18 years I’ve been riding, I’ve collected a dozen pairs of motorcycle boots, an equal number of jackets, and several pairs of riding pants, most made by motorcycle apparel manufacturers. I wouldn’t say I genuinely love any of the “authentic” clothing because fashion takes a major back seat to function.

What’s needed in real motorcycle gear are: abrasion resistance, which is why jackets and pants, whether leather or textile, are abnormally thick; impact resistance, which is often in the form of hard, hockey-puck-like plastic on the shoulders, elbows, knees, hips and head, areas that are most susceptible to injury when a rider goes down; and wind protection, especially around the wrists and neck, which is why most jackets are tight, zippered or both in those areas.

Those safety requirements aren’t typically associated with looking feminine. The materials are too chunky, the protective elements too bulky. And the typical color selections of real motorcycle gear will never be associated with anything one might encounter in Italian Vogue. The predominance of light-pink, baby-blue, heavily patched, overly branded and floral-appliqued gear is girlie, but it isn’t at all sophisticated. In truth, most of what’s available makes female motorcyclists look like football players in drag.

The stiffness of leather items, in particular, “is a big turnoff to a lot of women, but it has to be that way to survive a crash,” according to Kurt Walter, design director for one of the top motorcycle apparel makers, Oregon-based Icon Motorsports.

As for the predominance of pink in Icon’s women’s wear: “Pink works every time,” he says, because men are buying the gear for their girlfriends and wives. The few times Icon has ventured into “weird colors,” such as the mustard yellow it used for a new jacket, the company got “burned,” he said.

That’s why the current biker chic is such a welcome trend, especially this year, when biker fashion is everywhere, from Saks on down to Kohls. I asked Melissa Magsaysay, a Times staff writer and styling expert, to help me pull together a few outfits to test, called Harley- Davidson to borrow a bike and spent a week on test rides in the hopes that something, anything, might actually cross over and have real-world applicability.

My first outfit was mostly from Diesel -- a brand I already like because it’s (1) Italian and (2) fuel-inspired, at least in name. I poured myself into a pair of jodhpur-style skinny jeans and a tank top, which was pretty much all that would fit under the company’s second-skin patchwork leather jacket. I pulled on a pair of Aldo biker boots, which, according to my colleague, have been pictured on Cameron Diaz. After completing the look with my own gloves and helmet, I fired up my ride and hit the road.

It’s been a long time since I felt so self-conscious on a bike. These clothes were so form-fitting I almost felt naked. While each piece looked great individually, wearing them together, I felt over-styled. Worse, I felt uncomfortable. Riding a motorcycle is not a static activity. On a Harley, in particular, one’s arms and legs are stretched forward, which meant the arm holes on my jacket were straining and the vehicles behind me were getting a view that’s normally associated with plumbers.

Safetywise, none of these things would have protected me had I hit the ground with any speed. The lambskin leather of the jacket and boots was too soft; it would immediately rip on impact. The many seams on the pants and jacket also made them vulnerable.

Arriving at my destination, however, this outfit got exactly the right reaction.

“Ooh!” were the first words from my friend Marne, followed by, “You look so skinny.” This is the same friend who saw me in $1,200 Italian racing leathers and told me I looked like an astronaut, so her reaction to this particular outfit was an improvement.

But, again, the designer pieces weren’t designed with real cycling in mind.

On to outfit No. 2: Mossimo boots with a studded, crisscross ankle strap; a distressed, buttery leather jacket from Alpinestars by Denise Focil; and Helmut Lang leather-and-textile stretch jodhpurs -- jodhpurs, apparently, aren’t just for equestrians but for girls who straddle rather than step into their vehicles.

Each of these pieces looked great individually but were a bit much altogether. (Corroborating my instinct that a little biker chic goes a long way, my 6-year-old son told me I looked ridiculous the moment he saw me in this outfit.) To my eye, each of these items is best worn with something non-motorcycle-y.

When it comes to cycling, the Helmut Lang pants were comfortable, but the thin leather and patchwork made them a likely candidate for seam-burst during an accident. Mossimo’s knee-high “Kalena” boots offered good ankle support because they were low to the ground. But they’re faux leather, meaning they could rip or, even worse, melt on a hot exhaust pipe. While the slight texture on the sole offered decent grip on the pavement, there was no metal or padded reinforcement in the ankle area, meaning the bones underneath could easily crush under the impact of a large machine. Real motorcycle boots are made with thick leather that won’t rip and Vibram soles that won’t slip.

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Let’s be realistic

I’m not trying to be morose. Just real. There are 100,000 motorcycle accidents in the U.S. each year, 90% of which end in injury, 5% in death. To quote an oft-used biker phrase, it isn’t if you go down, it’s when. It’s happened to me four times, leaving me with knees that will never again be displayed with a miniskirt.

Still, I can’t get over the desire to be fashionable on a bike, and my closet offers proof. Some of my favorite riding gear wasn’t designed for riding. My favorite “motorcycle boots” are Frye. My favorite “motorcycle jacket” is a Gucci knockoff made from lambskin, and my favorite “motorcycle pants” are 1921 jeans -- all of which I love because they’re comfortable and good-looking, even if most of it would wear through to skin, then bone, in an instant if I hit the ground with any speed.

And yet, I wear it. Not all the time -- just when I really want to look good. Being a biker and a woman, sometimes the woman wins out. So far, the woman has been lucky.

I love the way this current biker chic trend looks. But it’s probably best worn under actual motorcycle gear, not as motorcycle gear itself. If only Alexander Wang could guest design for Ducati apparel, if J Brand could team up with Fox. If only biker chic worked for actual biker chicks. Maybe next time this trend comes around.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com


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