Here’s the first of the jackets we’re modifying to create something that’s actually safe, yet doesn’t make us look like Power Rangers. This is a Vanson AR2 fitted with Alpinestars Bio Armor. The ultra-thick, sturdy leather and strong construction will protect me against abrasion better than just about anything else out there and the high-tech Bio Armor exceeds CE standards by more than double. Yet, that armor doesn’t cause the jacket to bulge and I’m not slathered in logos. Remind me why can’t we buy something like this ready-made?

Photos: Grant Ray

Vanson, one of the oldest, most-respected leather makers in the US, makes the AR2 without armor for just $499, cheaper than most high-end, purpose-built motorcycle jackets. It’s made from their heavy-duty “competition weight” leather, which is far and away the thickest and stiffest I’ve ever worn.

More importantly, it’s constructed properly to work as a motorcycle jacket. That means seams which fold back over on themselves, covering the stitches with layers of leather to protect them against abrasion. That strength and that ability to slide without tearing apart is what separates fashion leather jackets from functional motorcycle apparel. A nice little detail is that the shoulder seems are reversed to fold backward so they don’t catch the air.

It’s also cut to fit comfortably while riding, with extra length in the sleeves and an elasticated gusset in the back to allow a forward stretch. The thick, stiff leather does restrict movement somewhat as it’s still breaking in, but not on a bike, where it counts. My arms are free to operate the controls and bars unimpeded.

According to Grant’s calipers the Bio Armor is less than 1.5cm thick and comes pre-contoured. The fact that it provides a large area of coverage and that contouring makes it really easy to fit into a jacket nearly invisibly as it conforms to your natural shapes as you move around in it. It also means that the armor fits in my regular jacket size — 40 — without the need to upsize to something baggy in order to fit the padding.

To install the armor, we took advantage of the standard Vanson jacket liner and the holes pre-drilled in the high-density rubber-like material of the Bio Armor. Unpicking the liner at the base of the back, through trial and error we located the ideal locations, pulled the sleeves inside out, then used sturdy braided, waxed cotton thread to attach it. Looping that material through 15-20 times provides more strength than the liner is likely to offer, meaning the armor will stay put as I take the jacket off and on all day, every day (I’m literally wearing this everywhere). In a crash, it’s the leather’s strength and tightness that provides more retention for those protectors. I’m confident that this method is at least as strong as the single-stitched pockets most armor is housed in on purpose-built jackets.

We chose the waxed cotton thread on the advice of a fashion designer friend. After purchasing Kevlar cord, it became apparent that it was so thin and strong, that it could actually slice the armor in half. Hopefully the multiple layers of this really thick thread won’t do that, while providing equal strength.

One downside to using a non-bike-specific jacket is that the sleeve zippers are on the outside of the arm, interfering with the location of the elbow/arm armor. No huge problem, but I did have to trim 1.5-inch slots in each to work around the zipper location.

I was also unable to find a way to attach a back protector to this jacket invisibly. That liner hangs from the collar, so hanging a protector from it, even a light D3O viper, pulled the collar down slightly, messing up the looks. I’m not clever enough to find a way of attaching the protector to the leather itself without that showing on the outside. The purpose of this project is to create jackets that look as good and work as well on and off the bike. So, I plan to wear a Alpinestars Bionic Air Back Protector separately, removing it when I’m off the bike. That back protector is thin enough not to show, very comfortable and unobtrusive, yet fits securely and is certified to the CE Level-1 standard.

I’ve now worn this jacket every day for several weeks (and slept in it a few times to break it in), including on airplane rides to and from Atlanta, through an all-day ride on the BMW K1600GT, in the rain, in the heat, to bars, concerts and fancy restaurants. Also while riding this new custom Hammarhead.

The end result is a jacket that looks and fits identically to the way it did before armor, is completely comfortable, works on a bike, will protect me in a crash and never makes me look like a refugee from ComiCon.

If that sounds like the kind of jacket you’d like to wear, you’re not alone. We’re doing this to show you how to create a safe, fashionable jacket yourself and hopefully demonstrate the demand for such a product so that someone will actually produce it. Plus, we were just tired of being forced to compromise either style or safety when riding. No longer. There's more to come.

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