We’ve recently taken consignment of a special piece: a one-off example of the Ralph Lauren Purple Label Randall Jacket. This is a fine modern specimen of the “cafe racer” style of leather moto jacket that became iconic through association with the British Rocker motorcycle gangs of the early 1960s.
Following the Teddy Boys of the ’50s, Cafe Racers were the latest in a succession of adolescent subcultures to be demonized by the mainstream as morally degenerate. In this case though, public hysteria was perhaps not entirely misplaced: the Cafe Racers were genuinely tough outcasts who lived for speed and extreme thrills. Indeed this very British brand of Greaser gained his name from the habit of holding illegal street races between “transport cafes” (i.e. truck stop diners), and gained widespread public notoriety due to frequent violent skirmishes with his arch-enemies, the scooter-riding Mods.
Cafe Racers lived for “the ton:” British slang for the number 100. Most commonly this means £100, but here a ton referred to the speeds of over 100 MPH that competitors would clock up on short stretches of road between cafes – such as the popular route between the legendary Ace Cafe on London’s North Circular road and the Hanger Lane junction.
With increased postwar prosperity, and mandatory military service abolished in 1960, British youths suddenly found themselves with greater time and money on their hands than any previous generation. Working in relatively well-paid jobs, and with access to cheap credit, much of their efforts now went into looking and feeling good. For many in ’60s London this took the form of Jazz and continental-inspired peacockery or tripped-out Hippy hedonism. But for the “Ton-up Boys,” it meant fast motorcycles, white American Rock and Roll, and aggressively macho stylings borrowed from Brando’s The Wild One – but with a cockney twist.
Most nights, the parking lot in front of the Busy Bee in Watford was host to a throng of roaring engines and transistor-borne rock ‘n’ roll. Although Cafe Racers only had access to regular, commercially available bikes, they would often heavily customize these for racing; installing more powerful engines in lighter weight frames, and stripping back all components to the bare minimum. The Busy Bee and the Ace were hangouts where Rockers would drink coffee, tweak their machines, and challenge their rivals.
Hugging the bike low behind dropped handlebars, and wired on caffeine and testosterone, Cafe Racers zigzagged through traffic at breakneck speeds – often on the wrong side of the road. Helmets were shunned for their tendency to mess up slickly pompadoured hair. Instead the uniform was light blue jeans, old black army boots, and Schott Perfectos or surplus flight jackets – often customized with studs, skulls, chains, and patches.
But with their more billowing silhouettes and fussy pockets, the ex-army jackets were not the most aerodynamic of designs. For the Ton-up Boy, whose reputation rode on achieving maximum speed, what was called for was a slimmer and more pared-back model to match his custom bike. Thus the cafe racer jacket was born.
Entirely cut and stitched in Italy from premium black hide, the Ralph Lauren Purple Label Randall leather biker jacket is a sleek and luxurious example of the classic cafe racer design. While totally faithful to its “burn up” street-racing origins, the Randall nonetheless features some subtle updates to the original pattern in the form of a more contemporary cut and curved reinforcing at the elbows and shoulders. This makes for a simultaneously rugged yet elegant look. Stylish black zippers on cuffs, pockets, and the front fastening further help to create a slick and minimalist impression.