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Talking Leather Suits with arc-on Leathers

By: Andrew Harbron | Published 29 May 2009, 00:23 | Views: 6,875 | tags: products, protection, leathers, leather, suites, suits, arc-on, arc, english, ian gillett, matt bond, mist
Buying leathers is easy isn’t it? Just check out some magazine articles and nip down to the nearest bike shop to, ahem, finger the goods. Then slip a set on and if the price is right, bosh the deal is done.
Or perhaps not. If I am to spend the serious amount of money involved in a new set of leathers (and by god I need to) I want to know more about what I’m being sold. I'd like to speak to the manufacturer, to ask questions and look into their eyes as they answered. I did at Scott Leathers, far too many years ago, and that bespoke suit has done me proud. But they are in the North East, which is just too far.

So I’m wandering about at the Alexandra Palace show in January where I noticed a new name on a set of leathers, arc-on (intentionally lower case). After a bit of research on the internet it turns out that this is a very new outfit (pun most certainly intended) and based in London.

They came up again when Baby Polar Bear (Stace) was discussing his plans to get a bespoke suit made and once we’d talked about the usual suspects, I mentioned arc-on and it turns out he’d been doing some research about them too.

So it was clear that needed to check out this new player to the market, a market that’s pretty crowded and in this current climate they’d have to be pretty special to survive in it.

They are indeed a very new company, set up by a likeable bloke called Ian Gillett, from his base in Balham and arc-on sell their suits and gloves primarily over the internet, but also at shows like the Ally Pally and at some of the racing weekends.

It wasn’t long before Patrick, Garret and I were sitting around Ian’s kitchen table poking and prodding the gear so I got straight to it:

Now Ian, a little about the company and yourself if you will please?

“Right well I own the company, and there are 3 other people involved too. We’ve always ridden bikes and tested a variety of gear – I’ve always worn Teknic suits, my friend favours Dainese and my Father  Furygan as well as other brands in his time. About 5 years ago I was looking to get a bespoke suit (Ian is quite tall and slim) with my own design, kind of doing my own thing with it, so went down the line of getting some leather samples off various suppliers to check them out before spending a lot of cash.

Seeing all the samples made me think I could design something better. I’ve a friend who is a product clothes designer and has worked for Nike, Ernie Els’s clothes range (he’s a golfer) and way back in the day worked for Carl Fogarty when he was in Superbikes.

The pair of us set about designing a suit based on thousands of pictures and quite a few suits bought in from various manufacturers. We knew we weren’t going to be making thousands of suits but once the idea of selling them to other people was decided on, our samples would have to go for testing at a proper testing standards organisation – Satra in this case. We eventually found a company whose sample met our levels of performance so 2 years after starting, we had our supplier and our first complete suit was on its way.

This all happened about 21/2 years ago, then it was a case of getting the desired quality across the suit and across a reasonable (for us) production run before we could send a sample suit off to the armour suppliers.

Knox or Forcefield were the preferred choices, I wanted a known name so we went for Knox who would lend us, as a new company, that all-important large quality ‘tick’ in buyer’s eyes.”

They would never associate themselves with tat I guess?

“Exactly. They wouldn’t countenance supplying us until they’d had a sample to test, which is done in-house as you’d expect an armour company to be able to do.

Off the back of the Knox association and the Satra test results we were able to get funding to set up the company and start production”

So that’s arc-on, our new guides through the ‘land of leather’.

With Ian’s advice I drew up a list of what you should you look for when buying a suit.

  1. Perhaps most obviously a decent thickness of leather. 1.2 – 1.4mm is the standard thickness nowadays, too thin and the leather isn’t strong enough to withstand a decent slide, too thick and you won’t be able to bend in it. Could be a decision that proves vital the first time you visit the toilet in your new suit.

    New materials are coming to market all the time, Kangaroo has been around a while now which is very durable in thinner sections than cowhide and is normally used on palms of gloves where feel is important. It is expensive but apparently becomes stickier when wet, again useful on the palm of your glove. Kangaroo suits however, really only appear to offer a benefit in lightness over cowhide (helped by your wallet being lighter too…). Stingray is the latest animal hide to be employed as it is almost indestructible but it’s downside is a lack of flexibility. So cowhide remains the best option currently.
  2. Stitching should be doubled up for strength and the main seam stitching ideally hidden in some way so it won’t come in contact with the surface as you surf. Examine the back of the leather and you’ll be surprised at the complexity of folding and stitching on the main seams, a lot of thought and testing goes into these areas so they are strong, resilient yet remain comfortable to the wearer. Strong thread is also essential - most good suits are using some sort of reinforced thread like bonded nylon.
  3. Armour should be CE rated kit but is usually the item that manufacturers will economise on first. It is easier for production management to keep the basic suit to much the same spec across the range, but the armour stuck in it at the end of the production line is easy to change.

    Being honest here, my personal opinion only, but I’ve seen some pretty poor CE rated armour in suits. I’d say it’s very much the minimum standard to look for.

    Then it’s about the name and company reputation, Knox are indeed the biggest name in independent suppliers but some manufacturers use their own kit. How you measure the effectiveness of their equipment is purely down to trust in the brand name. We concluded after some discussion that perhaps pricing up a set of replacement armour from someone like Knox should always be factored into your budget. No matter how much you spend on a suit make sure you check what armour they’ve included?

    Next time I buy a leather suit I’ll be taking the armour out in the shop and comparing it to the Knox/ Dainese etc being sold alongside it. If the shop doesn’t want me doing so, or they don’t sell independent armour etc, then I’ll go elsewhere.

    It’s not just the quality of the armour either, but also the quantity of it. Hip and thigh shields are absent on most but the expensive suits, while the size of shoulder cups and knee/shin plates should also be compared to separately bought items. Back-protectors are always worth replacing with a separately bought item because (aside from obvious quality gains) they fasten to you, rather than being in the suit, so it stays put if it’s called into action. Ian happily admits that the back protector in his suits isn’t as good as a decent separately bought item, serious riding needs serious kit and since a lot of riders will already have a back protector, and it is reasonable that manufacturers won’t add £100 to a suit then try to sell you something you already have.
  4. Check out the panels cut into the suit. Ideally the leather panels should be as big as possible as no matter how well stitched a seam is, it is still a region of weakness. Manufacturers do have to compromise a little in this area for a decent fit and also flexibility (one area where the suits Rossi et al wear differ from ours), our suits have to be worn off the bike too and I suspect manufacturers will also want the suit to feel comfortable as soon as it’s slipped on so buyers aren’t put off.

    On a similar note, you want as much of the decorative stuff, stripes, badges etc, to be laid on top of rather than being part of the panels on your suit. Thus they are not compromising the strength too much (though too many extras weaken the panel simply by the amount of stitching involved).

    Shoulders seem to be an area where that statement is at odds with most suits, the current vogue for large plastic and often metal plates to form shoulders sees them being built into the suit rather than on it. But that region of the suit is always a big seam anyway so there’s no real compromise I guess.
  5. Finally, it must fit. Daft point I know but think about it. Would you really remember to go suit shopping wearing the kit you intend to wear under said purchase including your back protector? Are the sleeves going to get on with your current glove’s cuff. Likewise boots - does the shin protector rub on the top of your boot?

    It’s not just about colour co-ordination is what I’m trying to say!

    Finally, don’t forget to sit on a bike in it. Not necessarily yours but something similar in riding position. The width of the back and length of the arms is only tested when holding the bars.

    The make-up of the suit plays an important role in the fit. I’ll let Ian explain:

    “The reason most suits have very similar features is that there is kind of an industry standard for the right mix of functionality and protection. The stretch kevlar panels won't protect you as much as leather but they free up movement on the bike and allow some cooling air flow. It's always a balance between protection and wearability. That's why most reputable suits have similar spec: 1.2 - 1.4mm leather, stretch kevlar in groin, calves, under arms, back of neck; corrugated stretch leather around the knees, base of back, behind shoulders etc. Most reputable suits are similar in that respect, so then it comes down to armour quality, testing, and finally a style/colour scheme you like.

    Manufacturers that move away from this standard (notably people like Crowtree in the UK) tend to increase thickness of the leather used, which massively comprimises freedom of movement/wearability but basically ensures you'll never be at risk of road rash because the leather is about 2.5 -3mm thick.”

So, back to arc-on’s gear. Is it any good?

Well first of all the prices, and these are simply amazing for the quality of the suits. I won’t list them all, check out the website with the link below, but the main Corse race suit is £399.

Yes, £400. For that sort of money I would expect a suit from one of the 2nd tier brands (basically one whose suits you don’t see many racers at BSB level wearing) which I imagine would look the business, be equipped with ‘own brand armour’, and perhaps have a lesser grade and thickness leather. Ok for hacking about to the Ace or into town on a Friday night, but not really something I would want to go lashing around Silverstone in. I’ve seen cheap suits literally come apart after one off. My Scott suit has had three slides and is still unbroken, albeit being a tad too shabby now.

I’ll back that up by saying this arc-on suit was tested by Matt Bond at Brands Hatch Superbike weekend in April when he came off exiting Clearways at some 120mph and suffered no ‘suit preventable’ injuries. The handlebar did puncture the stretch panels but that’s just bad luck. Stretch panels can be made of as much Kevlar reinforced material as you like, but to stretch they can’t be rigid enough to prevent such high impact precise hits. The suit didn’t wear through and he suffered no burns, in fact his only injury was to his foot. arc-on don’t do boots.

The Corse suit is tough, fully equipped with Knox armour and has more product testing and manufacturing information than I care to repeat here. It’s all on the site for you to read – links at the bottom of the page. Ian isn’t hiding anything or making promises he can’t back up.

I mentioned Teknic earlier in the article, and they are a favourite of Ian’s as well as many racers – Steve Plater and James Ellison to name two off the top of my head. The three of us saw lab tests of this suit against a Teknic one, and the arc-on suit was proved to be better.

The Corse is only available in one style and colour choice, and you won’t find arc-on in the shops either. Ian can sell what is basically a £800 suit at half that price because he has no shop, no factory or warehouse. At the present time even a decent colour/style range would mean more cost so he’s not going there yet. There are no staff or other overheads to pay for. The suits are made overseas where the quality versus cost equation is clearly better as arc-on gear is made in the same town by a factory neighbouring those making the big name brands. The big players have done all the proving needed.

Alongside the one piece there is a decent choice of jackets from racer look to trendy retro type café ones. Trousers come in two styles, racer style or plain (but higher spec) black ones.

Cordura choices are also offered, indicating Ian’s commitment to those who don’t want to look like Power Rangers, from £65 to £160 depending on style and specification. Cordura comes in different thicknesses, graded like women’s tights in Denier, with the one modelled so well by Patrick in the gallery being a 600D thickness and it felt pretty good according to the Rukka level gear-wearing Patrick.

arc-on gloves are very nice, we spent a lot of time wearing a Corse racing glove which, for £75 felt a whole lot like the Alpinestar GP1s I bought ages ago and would be a great replacement for my aged and battered Racers. Gloves to me are all in the fit, and these seemed more tailored for the longer slimmer paw than the Italian manufacturers’ offerings. It took all three of us to get Ian’s sample off Garret’s hand after he formed a very strong bond with it, so well did it fit.

For you girls who want to ‘suit up’ well I’m afraid you may have to wait awhile for specifically designed suits from Ian. Market and commercial forces mean there just aren’t enough women out there (compared to men) for a very new company to gear up for. To do it right would involve a replication of product lines which requires a huge capital investment. Ian had plans to incorporate a women’s range in the future when it’s feasible to do so.

So that’s arc-on’s gear, limited in range but high on quality. They even do a made-to-measure option on the Corse suit, although be prepared for that option to take some time when demand is high.

But of course you won’t take my word for it, and nor should you. As I said above it’s all about seeing it, trying it on etc. and if Ian is an internet site, that’s tricky no?

Well here’s the best news of all. In return for us bringing arc-on to your attention Ian has agreed to come to somewhere like Borough Market one Wednesday with some kit so you can prod and poke all you like!

More details of this will follow, but now the weather has improved you can expect it to be soon.

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mightlife | 29 May 2009, 00:52
Nice one Adrew.
Yea, those gloves were nice, very light.

"those who don’t want to look like Power Rangers" - don't let the team members hear you say that! )

andrew&7 | 29 May 2009, 07:43
Well since I'm as guilty as anyone else, I feel I can say that! :-)

Lou | 29 May 2009, 13:46
From looking at the pictures the suit that took the crash seems (apart from being obviously scuffed and a handlebar puncture) to be in good condition. It gives a lot of reassurance to a consumer when something has been tested esp at high speeds. I know its not a guarantee that travelling at such a high speed will save your life but if you're ever in a situation where you do come off then I am confident I'll be ok. You guys certainly know your onions :o)

Arrghh - hurry up with the birds gear already! Keep me posted pls when they come into production. I feel some spends coming on :D

Great expose of arc-on

Nice one
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