How High Speed Took Over High Fashion

Motorsports-inspired leather jackets are everywhere. What’s behind our collective fascination with the turbocharged look?

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Images courtesy of Getty. GIF by Ashley Peña.

Few pop stars serve as a more precise cultural barometer than Rosalía — and her most recent album, Motomami, has proven to be an impeccably timed homage to one of the most definitive trends in post-pandemic visual culture: the alignment of high speed and high fashion. In 2021, engines began to rev on runways, and since then the sound of motorsport’s stylistic influence has grown into a deafening roar. Racetrack-ready looks have appeared in recent collections by Dior, Chanel, Balmain, Gucci, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Martine Rose, MM6, Celine, Balenciaga, Diesel, Stella McCartney and David Koma. And while designers have embraced everything from helmets to racing gloves and padded pants, one garment, in particular, has become inescapable on both catwalks and city streets — and in the digital worlds that reflect them: the leather racing jacket.

Rosalia performs at The O2 Arena on December 15, 2022 in London, England. Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage.
Rosalia performs onstage during her MOTOMAMI tour at Radio City Music Hall on September 18, 2022 in New York City. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.
@dualipa on Instagram

Top-shelf influencers like Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Dua Lipa, Hailey Bieber, Julia Fox and Kylie Jenner (who wore a matching racing look with Travis Scott last summer) have flaunted their racers on social media, making headlines in the process. Racing jackets have also made various high-profile appearances in the hip hop world: Offset’s Balenciaga racer co-stars alongside Bella Hadid in his music video for “Code,” and Metro Boomin recently graced the cover of GQ in a patch-embellished zip-up look by Givenchy.

The racer’s popularity spans both the gender and the price spectrum. Second-hand shoppers have prompted a surge in demand for vintage racing jackets, and fast-fashion giants like H&M and Bershka have, predictably, released a variety of cheap imitations. The influence of the hit Netflix show, Formula 1: Drive to Survive — which has placed the sport and its drivers at the center of pop cultural discourse — has been paramount in helping make the garb of daredevil athletes a must-have item for TikTok teens and Instagram baddies alike.

Rihanna in New York City, September 24, 2022. BACKGRID.
Kim Kardashian on March 03, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.
Hailey Bieber on November 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.
Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner on August 06, 2022 in London, England. Photo by Ricky Vigil M/GC Images.
Julia Fox is on November 01, 2022 in New York City. Photo by Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.
Bella Hadid on October 09, 2022 in New York. Photo by MEGA/GC Images.

Although words like “moto” and “biker” are often used to describe the jackets we’ve seen trending in the last year, the single-breasted, mandolin-collared toppers, which often include striping, color blocking, logos and patches, are descendants of so-called “café racer jackets” that were the 1960s standard. The cafè racer takes its name from its original target demographic: British motorcycling enthusiasts who raced each other from café to café. The café racer was designed to be a sleeker and more flexible iteration of its predecessor, the belted, double-breasted Schott Perfecto jacket, which was made famous by Marlon Brando and James Dean in the previous decade. The fashion historian and author of Making a Spectacle, Jessica Glasscock, emphasized the functionality of both styles: “Motorcyclists and racers wore these jackets for utilitarian reasons,” she said. “If you crash, you want more than denim between you and the street. Their popularity among subcultures was really a matter of pragmatism.”

Bikers wearing classic Schott Perfecto jackets and a shearling trimmed bomber jacket in 1960. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images.

When tracing the origins of the racer, Glasscock also emphasized that the aesthetics and culture of racing differs on either side of the Atlantic: “In Europe, we think of the glamor of the Monte Carlo racer. There, the racing jacket has a very luxe history that developed out of haute-couture ski wear traditions.” In the US, racing jackets became fashionable alongside a trend for drag racing itself, which boomed in the 1960s. “In America, the racer has a different, working-class history. NASCAR's origins are in the mountains of Appalachia, when moonshine bootleggers were running from federal police during Prohibition,” Glasscock said.

In the late 1960s, Betsey Johnson became one of the first designers to reimagine the racer, and in the subsequent decades, designers like Christian Lacroix, Fiorucci, Donna Karan and Thierry Mugler followed her lead, putting their own unique spins on the utilitarian piece. Glasscock cited Rick Owens’ designs in the 1990s and early 2000s as helping the racer transcend its subcultural origins and earn a more consistent place in the world of high fashion. In the 2000s, racing jackets became a mainstream street style phenomenon, thanks in part to their inclusion in generation-defining films like Fight Club and The Fast and the Furious. Maria Coleiro, a strategist at the trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops, suggested that the jacket’s resurgence in the 2020s is linked to the broader revival of Y2K and “cyber” style. While the racer’s popularity is in large part due to a fixation with the past, the sleek silhouette also has a futuristic appeal that complements fashion’s increasing obsession with exploration of new terrain and technology, including AI and the metaverse, according to Coleiro.

A take on the café racer appeared in Rick Owens' Fall 2002 Collection. Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage.

There is a certain poetry and pragmatism to the surge of the racer’s popularity at the tail end of a global pandemic. As we race back into the rhythms of daily life after two years of stillness and confinement, it feels fitting that many have swapped their sweatsuits for speed suits as we struggle to navigate a dangerous world. Chelsea Davignon, a fellow strategist at Fashion Snoops, also weighed in: “After seasons of masks and coverings for the purpose of survival, we shift toward armor-like silhouettes in a more playful way. These highly durable, high-speed jackets symbolize a protection parody of sorts, when we’re able to acknowledge our collective experience while finding footing in our new reality.”

Brad Pitt in Fight Club, 1999. YouTube.
Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 9. IMDb.

But our sartorial romanticization of the racer isn’t just about speed, it’s also about sponsorship. The branded aesthetics of racing, be it the international glitz of Formula 1 or the Southern flair of NASCAR, are dictated by the corporations that fund them. Monica Sklar, who is a professor of Fashion History and Merchandising at the University of Georgia, drew parallels between our admiration of racing style and the growth of influencer culture. “What’s the difference between racing for a brand and everyone dying to be paid to make a social media post?” Sklar asked. With an increasingly large percentage of the population yearning for digital sponsorships of their own, the corporate heritage of the racer has its thumb on the pulse of a new American dream. “This is also about what it means to power dress in 2023,” Sklar added. “Racing is a traditionally masculine pursuit, and this feeds into a cycle we’ve seen throughout history. When we feel the need to be strong and virile, we tend to dress like men.”

The racer may also tap into our fascination with a fictional archetype: the superhero. “The racing jacket is really a speed suit – and that has many heroic associations, which I think is a core tenet of its appeal,” said Glasscock. “Everybody wants to be a hero.” Sartorially, the racing jacket is an apt reflection of a moment in time in which “NPC” (non-playing character) is the internet insult du jour. The racing jacket’s mainstream popularity may have diluted its associations with danger, but the “main character energy” that it exudes in every stripe and seam remains ever so potent.

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