If you really like leather, you already know about Vanson. If you’ve ever owned or just tried on one of these handmade garments from Massachusetts, you know it’s not a cheap-o fashion jacket you could get from a mall leather store. A brand-new Vanson is as stiff as a board, heavy as a Medieval suit of armor and notoriously tight fitting. Do not buy Vanson products if you want pajama-like comfort, but when it comes to abrasion resistance, the suits and jackets are legendary.
“Crashing in Vanson gear simply speeds up the breaking-in process, if only marginally,” said one rider on a local discussion forum. “I didn’t feel a thing last time I wrecked; in fact, my back felt better after the crash,” chirped another. Drag racer Korry Hogan reported a 246 mph crash and a 900-foot slide with minimal road rash. I personally have purchased used Vanson leathers for racetrack use, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a burst seam or leather that’s abraded all the way through on my suits, or anybody else’s.
That’s because Vanson uses a local tannery to make leather using a proprietary process. “We use pressure and heat to force a lot of waxes into the surface to flatten, smooth and strengthen,” Vanson’s Kim Van der Sleesen told me. “The wax makes it stiffer and more abrasion resistant.” The hides—mostly from USA-sourced cattle, when possible—are 3.5 ounce per square foot, which translates to roughly 1.4mm thick. The thick, glossy product is stiff and takes forever to break in, but provides legendary abrasion resistance, not just because of its thickness, but also because the slick surface resists ‘grabbing’ asphalt, which can turn a high-speed low-side crash into a painful, high-speed trip through the air.
We all know it’s not the fall that hurts, but the sudden stop. That’s why Vanson now offers a choice of CE-rated armor (upgraded with Vanson’s special elastic suspension system that helps keep the armor in place) in addition to its traditional hard-plastic-and-foam FAS armor (also available with CE-rated core material).
It probably took Vanson a long time to use CE armor because the company was around long before CE armor was even a thing. Back in 1974 Michael Van Der Sleesen and his buddy Jamie Goodson were making their way through college in France by working part time in motorcycle shops. There was a demand for English-style cafe-style jackets, so they reverse engineered some garments, hired a woman to stitch hides together and started selling their first jacket, the Model A. “It sort of happened by chance,” said Van der Sleesen.
By 1976, Vanson (a contraction of “Van” from “Van der Sleeson” and “Son” from “Goodson”) was established in Boston’s leather manufacturing district, making gear for local enthusiasts and racers. It wasn’t technical stuff, and “local racers wanted more protection and venting, so we listened and kept developing as we went along.” By the 1990s, Vanson was established as one of the big names in custom-made apparel for roadracers, flat-trackers and drag racers, and Vanson holds 10 patents in the areas of ventilation and armor protection.
My first big purchase in moto apparel was a Vanson Challenger jacket and Sportrider pants, which I bought at Bavarian Cycle Works in San Francisco long ago. I remember they were stiff, heavy and uncomfortable, but when they started to break in (which took at least a year of daily riding), were much more comfortable. After five years, I finally sold them, just to have something new to wear—I knew I could wear the same jacket and pants for the rest of my natural life (maybe even longer, if Russian Evil Genius Dimitry Itskov’s plan to transfer human consciousness into a cyborg by 2035 comes to fruition), but that’s no fun, right?
Maybe not for me, but some of us love owning heirloom-quality products. Exhibit A, of course, is Editor Edge’s Vanson Cobra jacket, which he’s worn in most of his action photography since the early ‘Oughts. But he’s not alone—the demand for made-in-USA stuff is growing, said Van der Sleesen. “In the beginning, everything was regional and local—you couldn’t get imported shoes or leathers. But then came the onslaught of imports—technical and affordable garments. We had to shrink, but now people want made in America again.”
Put me into that born-again Hipster box, I guess. I was at a local motorcycle shop when I spotted what looked like the quintessential San Francisco moto-head, c. 1999: jeans, boots, Timbuk2 messenger bag, Arai helmet and Vanson jacket. I mentioned I had an Challenger just like his, and he told me he was thinking about selling it and buying a new one. I made an offer on it right there and a few days later owned a used leather jacket.
It needed some repair—this era of Vanson often sports broken zippers and other issues, plus it had the old non-CE armor and the leather was looking a little dry. I shipped it back to Fall River, Mass. for some love from the mother ship. After identifying it as a jacket originally sold near Pittsburg, PA in 2002, Vanson’s craftsmen repaired a shoulder seam (I think it was a defect, as there was no crash damage evident near the seam), replaced zippers, Velcro and the sleeve logos and conditioned the leather with the same lanolins and oils used in the tanning process. Think of it as a tune-up for your personal protective equipment. Vanson will “alter, repair and maintain Vanson leathers whatever the age and condition so long as the finished product is deemed “safe”.” Vanson claims some of its original suits from the ’70s still see track use today.
Sure, you could buy brand-new imported leathers for less, but if you could choose what you were wearing when you crash, you’d probably want to be in something like a Vanson. The jackets and suits are pricey—about double what you’d pay for off-the-rack imported stuff, but if a Vanson lasts 10 or 20 years, how many cheap jackets will you buy in those decades? More than two, I’ll bet. It’s kind of the same argument your orthodontist will make. Pay now or pay later.
Custom-made Vanson race suits start at under $1200 and jackets start at under $500. The heavy-duty competition-weight jackets like Dirck’s cost over $700, but Kim wants to point out that “you get what you pay for. We build stuff to be repaired, to be handed down, and to be in style for years—plain, unadorned, and to last while fads come and go.”
Check out Vanson’s website for styles and more information, or drop by Fall River if you’re nearby. The factory is open six days a week and “we love visitors,” says Kim.
*Yes, I know Cordura and Kevlar are tougher than leather pound-for-pound, but Kevlar is hard to work with and Cordura can’t be woven thick enough to offer the same tear and abrasion resistance as “competition-weight” leather.