Schott NYC: Legends in Leather
Many specimens in the menswear pantheon are born of utilitarian necessity. Few become electrically charged with symbolic meaning through their decades of use and abuse.
The leather motorcycle jacket falls into both categories: assembled from logic and imbued with snarling attitude, thanks to being embraced by countless iconic antiheroes from Marlon Brando to The Ramones. No one knows this better than legendary leather-jacket manufacturer Schott NYC, whose founder, Irving Schott, invented the motorcycle jacket nearly 100 years ago.
Keep reading for our Q&A with Jason Schott (great-grandson of Irving and current Chief Operating Officer of the family business)—and to see the historical figures who have built Schott’s legacy by donning their incredible leather jackets over the years.
General George S. Patton
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: Tell us the origin story of Schott NYC.
JASON SCHOTT: “Schott was founded 101 years ago in 1913 by my great-grandfather Irving and his brother Jack, in the Lower East Side of New York. They started out making fur-lined raincoats and selling them door to door. Over time, they were able to move out of the basement and open a storefront. And then, in the 1920s, my great-grandfather invented the motorcycle jacket. He was the first person to put a zipper in a jacket. Over our 100-year history, we’ve been responsible for a few innovations, that certainly being the biggest. We’ve been heavily involved in making outerwear for the military since as far back as WWII. We’ve made police jackets for the New York City police and a lot of other municipal police departments throughout our history. Really all forms of Americana: land, sea and air.”
Did your great-grandfather, Irving Schott, have a background in clothing?
“He was a pattern-maker, so he was working for someone else. It was a very different time. The garment center of New York—there were a lot of very small clothing companies that were servicing that area. And he was just fortunate to be able to grow to the point where we got involved with a Harley Davidson distributor, and that helped to grow the business [because] they were sending out a catalog to a much larger area. You know, over 101 years, there were a lot of companies that started out making clothing, and there are very few of us left that have that kind of history.
“So [my great-grandfather’s] background was as a pattern-maker. [Later on], my grandfather got involved, and his specialty was more in fixing and building the machines. But throughout the four generations of my family, we’ve always had a primary focus on the production, on the factory—and there’s always a Schott family member in the factory, making sure the production is done the way my great-grandfather would have wanted it.”
Marlon Brando in 1953 film The Wild One
What does the name ‘Perfecto’ mean to you?
“I think one of the things that’s really important is just [that this is] the original. A lot of people consider this [style of] jacket a ‘Perfecto’ style, and they don’t realize it’s a term that was coined by my great-grandfather. [He thought], ‘No one’s going to want to wear a jacket with my name on it,’ so he came up with this label, ‘Perfecto,’ after his favorite cut of cigar. There are a lot of other companies that have adopted an asymmetrical motorcycle jacket, but no one can lay claim to the name ‘Perfecto,’ because that’s our name. And nobody else can lay claim to creating the original.”
Tell us a bit about the specific ‘Perfecto’ jacket that we’re selling as part of our current Pop-In @ Nordstrom.
“You’re looking at a current jacket that we’ve made to look old. It’s slimmed, and it’s a little bit longer than the original ones, but we’ve really taken a lot of effort to make it look a lot like the original ones would have looked, had they been worn for 10 years. We do a lot of hand-work to beat it up, give it some character. We’re building jackets to be worn by bikers who are going to spend 10 years beating up a jacket, breaking it in, and using it to tell a story. So what we’ve done is taken this jacket for Nordstrom and started the process—so you can look like you’ve been riding for 10 years in it, but you don’t have to do that. We give it a little head start for you. It’s based on a ‘One Star’ that was made famous by Marlon Brando in the ’50s, in The Wild One. It’s most famous from the ’50s, even though it’s a style that came from the ’30s, actually.” [Editor’s note: ‘One Star’ refers to the metal star detail that used to appear on the shoulder epaulets of certain Schott jackets. See the Brando photo above. The stars were later phased out, due to thieves ripping them off of jackets hanging in stores.]
James Dean (also pictured up top)
Why were motorcycle jackets banned from some high schools in the 1950s?
“[Laughs.] Because they were worn by a bunch of thugs. There was this fear by older generations that they were going to be taken over by thugs, and only thugs were wearing motorcycle jackets at that point. I think the thugs won out and became a part of popular culture.”
Your great-grandfather Irving invented the motorcycle jacket. Did he ride motorcycles himself?
“My grandfather rode motorcycles. [As for] my great-grandfather…You know, I think back in the ’20s, there wasn’t that much of a difference, really, in modes of transportation—between motorcycles, cars, and even airplanes. I think if you look at that period of time, in the ’20s, the flight jackets and the motorcycle jackets really started from the same base. It was that asymmetrical front. There were a couple of different reasons for that design, the main one being, when you’re leaning forward over the handlebars, it’s not going to pinch you the way that a zipper straight up the middle would. So there is a bit of technical design to that. But also, the zipper is a really functional piece of equipment. It was expensive to produce, but was very protective against the elements. Zippers were pretty rare, until the US government saw a need for them to protect their pilots and keep them warm. So it was around WWII that the US government saw a need to get zippers for their jackets, and they placed a bulk order for 250,000 zippers, and it was really the first time anyone could figure out how to mass-produce them. So that’s why the zipper became much more popular after WWII.”
What did it mean to your family and company to be contracted by the US military?
“I think it means a lot more now, honestly, than it did then. One of the themes that kind of runs through my family is just this desire to get the job done and a focus on the work, and not really spending too much time thinking about it while you’re doing it. My family has always taught and pushed this strong work ethic. While we can look back and be patriotic about the fact that we were involved in making jackets for the military, the truth is, that’s what everyone did. That was a different time, when countries shut down to support the war effort, and everyone supported America. People may have had different opinions, but everybody supported the war effort, and believed in it, and we just did our part.”
How did you get your start working with the family company?
“I started the way all my family members started: at the very bottom, sweeping floors and loading trucks, until they trusted me enough to get me involved in more of the production process. At one point, I ‘graduated’ and got to spend a whole summer running wool back and forth on the spreading tables. I think that’s the way it works in my family: Everybody has to prove themself and learn to do the jobs that nobody else would want to do. So that was my introduction. And I’m still learning.”
Do you have kids of your own? Future COOs?
“I have three kids who would love to be part of the company one day. Every now and then, we’ll have an event in the factory where my kids will come in, and they get excited. When I was a kid, it was just a play-land, to come in and jump into big rolls of quilting, and just run around and get lost. It was a great place to grow up, so it’s great to see my kids come and get to appreciate that same thing, and hopefully want to work here someday.”
Joan Jett (left) and Jackie Fox of The Runaways
Did Schott NYC work directly with the makers of The Wild One to provide Marlon Brando’s wardrobe?
“Some of our most famous ‘celebrity placements’ have just been fortuitous. We found some of our jackets that were painted by famous artists like Keith Haring and Basquiat—these were jackets that were out there in the world, that just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be painted by these incredible artists. But we didn’t know about those things, we didn’t plan those things, just like we didn’t know about Marlon Brando. We got lucky, I guess.”
It seems as though you do what you believe in, and the rest works itself out.
“We definitely try to stay true to ourselves and who we are, and let people find us.”
How large is the Schott NYC team today?
“We’ve got design teams and other partners in other countries, but the main US operation is a little over 100 people. A large majority of our production is here in the US, and everything we’re doing with you guys [at Nordstrom] for this season is US-made.”
When you mentioned earlier that your family ensures things are done “the way your great-grandfather would have wanted it”—what did you mean?
“My mother, who is our president, literally spends most of her time in the factory—inspecting the jackets, doing quality control, making sure everything is done properly. A lot of people don’t realize how much work goes into making clothing in general—but specifically, our jackets. There are a lot of people who are touching each jacket in order to make it the right way. There are about 30 to 35 pieces in this jacket; each one cut by hand, one at a time. We’ve got to make sure that the right leather is used, and that the right parts of the leather are used. It’s put together on these sewing machines that are up to 100 years old, that break down and need to be maintained. There’s just a certain handwriting even to the machinery that we’re using. You could take a lot of shortcuts, and we’re there to make sure that we don’t.”
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Our limited-edition Schott ‘Perfecto’ leather jacket is part of the current Pop-In @ Nordstrom: Heartbreakers Club. We have a few jackets left online—as well as at eight selected stores.
Pop-In @ Nordstrom is an ongoing series of themed pop-up shops curated by Olivia Kim. A unique experience awaits you online and at selected stores. Our current Pop-In, Heartbreakers Club, is the first to focus exclusively on menswear.