Langlitz Leathers follows the market into Japan

Langlitz Leathers follows the market into Japan

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Dave Hansen, general manager of Langlitz Leathers in southeast Portland. // Photo by Shaun Strickland
Family-owned Langlitz Leathers keeps a low profile in its retail and production shop in southeast Portland. For more than 60 years it has constructed high-end custom biker apparel that has attracted a global market more than willing to pay over a thousand dollars to look like Peter Fonda, circa Easy Rider.

General manager Dave Hansen started working at the business in 1981. A friendly, soft-spoken man who himself could have been an extra in that iconic 1960s movie, he points out during a tour of his shop a collection of jackets hung under a stack of rejected leather. A yellow elk-hide jacket stands out from the others. “That one has been to shows all over Japan,” he says. “I’d say it’s worth, oh, $25,000.”

Ross Langlitz was a motorcycle enthusiast who lost much of his right leg to a bike accident in the 1930s. He founded Langlitz Leathers in 1947 in his basement, where he whipped up jackets for friends. By the time Hansen married Langlitz’s daughter, Jackie, in 1981, it was a well-established shop for leather lovers. The shop relies on word of mouth to promote its product.

The word gets around. Sales exploded in the late 1990s following an article in the Wall Street Journal that featured the shop. “We had a backlog for almost two years,” Hansen says. But following the recent recession, sales declined and the average wait time is now around one month. In the past few years, the shop laid off two of its 15 employees. Despite its drop in sales, its custom jackets still attract customers with money to spare. “The top 1% of the world is a lot of people,” Hansen says. When Hansen bought his first Cascade jacket in the early 1970s, it was $75.  It now goes for $850.

Before the recession, Langlitz split its business between catalog and drop-in customers; now 80% of business is non-local. These catalog shoppers are from around the globe, most of them Japanese.

Hansen first started selling to the Japanese market in the early 1990s. “Two [Japanese] sailors came into the shop during the Rose Festival one year and bought jackets,” Hansen says, adding that he gets about one-third of his revenue from Japan.

Hansen credits foreign interest in his products to the rebel-without-a-cause Americana image of their jackets. “Folks like old American stuff made by old American companies.”

PETER BELAND