Sunday, January 29, 2012


Jeff Decker is as famous for being a strong character as much as for his art, which is a shame, as he’s a truly gifted sculptor. Watching Decker shape clay is a quick dictionary lesson in ‘talent’; little blobs of nothing magically cohere under his fingers, and suddenly a shirt is rippling in the wind, cheeks pressed against a skull, a Cyclone cam drive -right down to the nuts- is released from its prison of moistened dirt. From humble clay and wax, later cast in bronze, come a the heady tang of exhaust, sweaty determination, the roar of engines and crowds, an evocation of lost eras of men wrapped over primitive machines, racing for their lives, sometimes losing them. As Frederick Remington did for the cowboys, so Jeff Decker does for motorcyclists.

His prodigious gift for sculpting men and motorcycles earned him an exclusive deal with Harley-Davidson to ‘represent’ HD in bronze, and a monumental flailing hillclimber greets visitors to the HD Museum in Milwaukee. His sculptures of Rollie Free’s 150mph Vincent stretchout and battling board track racers romanticize a lost era of dangerous masculine competition, a man-credo Jeff embodies with his gruff, opinionated persona and patch-wearing membership in the Sinners cycle club.

Decker’s moto-streak runs deep, and his passionate knowledge of the subject extends to a profound collection of biker club colors, paintings, and actual motorcycles, which he’s been collecting since they were cheap. He grew up surrounded by mechanical torch-bearers like his father, a collector of flathead hotrods and parts, a man with a good eye in the early SoCal hotrod scene, and whose buddies nowadays bring awe to young wannabes. Decker is the real deal, and isn’t afraid of anyone’s opinion, customizing revered brands like Crocker and Vincent to express his own lines. As expected for a talented artist, the results are harmonious while respecting the past, and lend the old warhorses a renewed super-cool.
 This article originally appeared in MCN's 'Retro' supplement to their Sept.2011 issue.
copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans/The Vintagent


Adjectives and metaphors; more than any other bike builder today, people struggle with words to describe Shiny Kimura’s handiwork. Is this retro future? Sci-fi film props? Blade runner Manga? Ultimately, our need to explain means we’re looking hard at his bikes, which speaks volumes; a motorcycle emerging from Chabott Engineering in LA is an object of universal curiosity.

Shinya is a hand-work man, mostly avoiding his English Wheel when forming sheet aluminum and steel; like Vulcan, he prefers a hammer, and like Rodin, his process is discovery. I don’t know what the bike will look like; I don’t imagine the finished design when I begin. I would get bored if I knew what I was going to make.” His hammer-marks, along with wrinkles, pores, and wavy folds, are Shinya’s poetry, a song in metal, the visible memory of a man bent in labor, caressing an unfriendly material into organic and insect-like shapes; imperfect, but glowing.

A motorcycle customizer from his first days on wheels (starting with a humble Suzuki OR50), Shinya’s reputation in his native Japan drew attention from investors, and he founded Zero Engineering, modifying around 300 Harleys in what is now a trademark ‘Japanese Custom’ style. Growing uncomfortable with business demands of production and expansion, he left Zero and moved to a remote spot in Orange County, where he and partner Ayu can work in peace, creating machines one at a time for lucky customers (Brad Pitt has been spotted riding a Shinyized ‘round case’ Ducati).

Kimura considers himself less a customizer than a “coachbuilder”, respecting the motorcycles on which he applies his art, in the tradition of the finest automotive body houses like Pininfarina or Fleetwood. The grand tradition of personalized bodywork appeals to Shinya; “The client is very important to me. I can’t make bikes without them.” He interviews customers about their taste in music, art, clothing – but takes no input on design, preferring his metal shapes to grow organically for each machine. “Every time I’m surprised.” And so are we! 
 This article originally appeared in MCN's 'Retro' supplement in the Sept. 2011 issue.
copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans/The Vintagent


Growing up in the shadow of custom culture greatness might be a burden, but Cole Foster shows no resentment of famous father Pat, whose showcars and drag-racing career made him a hero of Hot Rod magazine. While Cole idolized his dad, when he started customizing his own cars and bikes, he had to teach himself how to manipulate sheetmetal, weld, and build engines, as he spent limited time in Dad’s shop, and laments nowadays that he’s not as good as he’d like to be at any of these skills, but is confident his ‘eye’ is his best tool. Armed with this, in only a decade Foster has created a legend of his own, building the cleanest customs anywhere.

Dad provided an excellent standard, and it didn’t take long after Cole started messing about with his first ’56 Chevy coupe for his breeding to shine. By 2001, his ’56 Chevy F100 pickup won the Chip Foose award for excellence at the Grand National Roadster Show. That same year, he turned his attention to a big V-twin motorcycle for Custom Chrome, and the ‘Blue Bike’ raised the bar for a simple and elegant custom, on which every line seems perfectly placed. A speedway racer with thyroid issues, the bike is solidly Trad, but the skill of execution and blade-tight lines prove that the best of the old school is still a very appealing package.

Ten years later, ‘Blue’ still looks fresh and inspires a legion of copycats.Press frenzy over the Blue Bike launched Foster’s two-wheel business, part of his Salinas Boyz Customs, and subsequent machines have all been consistently clean, interesting, and perfect. Especially his ‘Moon Rocket’ of 2007, a drag bike with an alloy café racer fairing, a mix just odd enough to be spectacular, a peace-maker for two very different camps, and a clear statement that Cole Foster has earned his own place in the Custom pantheon.

This article originally appeared in Motorcycle News' 'Retro' supplement of Sept. 2011
copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans/The Vintagent

Friday, January 6, 2012


Tang dynasty Chinese alchemists began heating and mixing minerals and metals in order to find, just like their Western counterparts, a method of synthesizing gold; they were looking not for wealth, but a method of extending life, and the secret to immortality, adhered to a belief that gold created from myriad elements had life-giving powers, enough to stop Death in its tracks.  What they found in 850AD, among a lot of very toxic concoctions, was an explosive mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter; the discovery shortly destroyed the alchemists’ workshop, burning the discoverer; a Promethean warning.  By 904AD, Song dynasty armies began stuffing reinforced gourds with gunpowder and lead balls, strapping them to long lances, and blasting each other…the gun was invented. 
By 1127, the perfection of the gunpowder recipe (exactly as used today) meant reinforced wooden blast-tubes shattered; soon cast bronze mini-cannons aided warlords in dis-assembling peasants.  The oldest extant ‘hand-cannon’ dates from 1288, the Yuan dynasty, and the ‘secret unto death’ recipe for gunpowder leaked to Europe at the same time, likely by conquering Mongol Khans bent on subduing Europe.  Genghis found it ‘easy to conquer on horseback, but difficult to Rule’, and harder still to keep guns out of European hands.

Those earliest guns are crude, ugly, and plain. No skill was required, none was rewarded, there was no sport at all in the practice, while the gunner’s trademarks - sulfur, smoke, crackling flashes, and misery - tattooed them as the Devil’s companions.  It took refinement of the killing device before it deserved embellishment, and by 1375, the matchlock gun made accurate two-handed shooting possible, and with the joy of noisily launching projectiles at strangers (or cousins), affection for the lethal instrument grew, the love accompanied by increasingly lavish décor by wealthy owners. The firestick became glittering and beautiful, much like Eve’s snake, and as easily mistaken for a giver of good advice.  ‘Et in Arcadia ego’, quoth the rifle in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridien’, mingling lamentation and threat: Satan once lived in paradise, and will gladly embrace you too, via arms.  The magical power of life, sought by the alchemists, is inverted by their dark accident, and, dusting away layers of argument, the use of a gun has always been to kill something, or someone. 
The gun-as-machine was hand-crafted until the 1800s, its fit and finish dependent on the maker’s skill, with the very best craftsmen inevitably arming the rich.  Such gents worked in concert with metal artisans capable of transforming a plain steel tool into a work of fine art; hammer-locks bore dragon heads, gods frolicked on stocks, gilt stars on blackened barrels swore eternal night, and delivered.  The Golden Age of gun décor peaked mid-19th century, before mass-produced Colts with steel-rolled patterning wet the picnic, and the grand tradition of pretty guns became increasingly rare.  

A cadre of craftsmen brought hand-building out of extinction in the 20th century, but decorated weapons passed out of royal hands, to the new Lords, as in drug- and war-, whose vulgar embrace of the gilded gun reveals a potent mix of old ingredients; the promise of death to maintain power over the living, the urge for talismans against a nasty, brutish, and short existence, plus an egoists love for flash and sparkle as blinding cover for the ugliness of their endeavor.  In Mexico, fantastically lurid pistols and automatics, captured and presented by Federales in their usual failed warning, sit gleaming, fascinating, on confiscation tables: pistol butts graced with diamond Cholos or Virgins, Aztec jaguar stocks, old-school floral engraved and no-school gold-plated. These vulgar gems were clutched in life for protection against the very Devil’s instrument they held, and when diamond pavé failed to stop supersonic lead, it was not the Virgin whose hand they held, not even their mother’s, but the gun itself remained, their only comfort as they lay bleeding in a perforated and smoldering Chevy Suburban… the Faustian bargain fulfilled. A pretty gun gives poor advice, but a wise man understands its beauty, and the alchemical mistake which gave it power.

This article appears in Men's File #6 .
Copyright 2012 Paul d'Orléans

1795 / 1975

1794: Robespierre, the beheading heart of French revolutionary Terreur, stood interrupted on the floor of the Paris Commune on July 27, agape as young men clad in grandma’s drapes and pink silk knee-breeches called an end to the session. With them was Eros, her laughing head intact, corpulent and singing in the People’s Chamber…the death-party was over. These scandalous cousins of the recently-departed brashly entered the scene in death-on-sight garb, true fashion outlaws, and they looked Incroyable.  The gig was up for Robie-baby; any cake eaten tomorrow would fall to the floor…
After Revolutionary foreplay came the orgy of bloodletting, the mesmerizing fever of Thanatos, and haute Parisians were suddenly liable for crimes of behavior, thought, and attire. Laborer’s trousers and tunics were the mandated Utopian uniform – Carhartt’s by decree. But this was Paris, not Peking, and counter-revolutionary forces dressed, if not to kill, then to maim.  Packs of Incroyables roamed Paris, dandies in brash silk jackets with huge lapels, their hair cut a lá victime, rough- chopped and short at the back, a shaggy homage to the barbarous shearing prior to the Blade. They hunted down Jacobin Terreuristes with overgrown ‘Hercules’ walking sticks, silk-clad thugs with clubs kicking ass.  Clockwork citrus?  Two centuries early.
Les Incroyables wore a confusing mélange of approved workingman’s cloth (for cravats and vests), that hairdo, loud jackets and exaggerated style.  Reminiscent of the old days, but different - this was fashion, not theory.  Their gals, the Mervelleuses, wore sheer faux-Greek muslin dresses over skintone body-stockings; hoop skirts were out, skin was in.  Their discos were illegal bals de la victime, entrée gained by proof of severed relations, the hand-stamp a red ribbon for your neck, curtsies replaced by sudden downward drops of the head, morbid humor for black times.
copyright Charles Gatewood, used with permission
1974: The idealistic youth revolution of the 1960s had changed everything, and failed. The May ’68 Situationist fervor in France, the Students for Democratic Society in the US, marched the road of Thanatos, devolving into violent rhetoric, vicious infighting, and ‘political correctness’ (to quote Mao). Their numbers thinned as moderate changelings turned off to the Rules, and again, the People’s Uniform sucked.  Early 70s Robespierres robbed banks and planted bombs, hardening into a supercorrect core, attracting no-one at all. Eros descended center stage on a hydraulic lift, amid swirls of smoke… Glam had arrived, a leopard-glove slap to the Weather Underground, who could not believe the true face of Liberty– sexual, personal, artistic – was before them.
copyright Charles Gatewood, used with permission
Predictably, Glam was received with horror, as ‘counter-revolutionary’, ‘hedonistic’, ‘irresponsible’; in other words, a success! Eros laughed as Vidal Sassoon chopped Rod Stewart’s hair a la victime, in his suit cut from grandma’s drapes, with ultra-wide lapels.  Vietnam had quieted, the Pill was finally legal, and the lures of sex and fun drew young eyes young away from the previously cool -revolutionary chic- just as in 1794. It is the oldest story, repeated; the force of creation, Brahma’s eternal inventiveness, becomes codified and boring under the preserving hand of Vishnu, until Shiva gets angry and kicks the whole thing sideways, making space for Brahma’s next good idea.
Busy with continual discovery, Youth forgets, but History remembers, and the big wheel of samsara goes round.

Cue David Bowie!
This article appeared in Men's File magazine #5.   Copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans.



Felix Nadar realized in 1854 the glass-plate photos he used as throwaway references for political caricatures were in fact an amazing opportunity, and set about stealing the souls of his friends.  The black-draped ghosts we inherit were the crème of Parisian Bohemia, men and women on the outer banks of proper society, scandalous, sexual, brilliant, and remembered.  Baudelaire, Verne, Delacroix, Hugo, Bakunin, Bernhard, all present and looking sharp, if possibly syphilitic.
A recent exhibit of Nadar photography at the Chateau Tours provided ten rooms’ worth of sartorial splendour from 120 years back.  Male pattern haberdash was, with few exceptions, honed to an edge we could slip our arms into right now and thrill at the forgotten expectation of handmade quality.  Today, fatto á mano has vanished in favor of affordable prêt-a-porter (ie the Gap), but the shape and habit remains; flat, notched coat collars, cotton button-up shirts, fitted trousers brushing the saddle of polished lace-ups.

Surveying Nadar’s 50-year career like an unspooled film, one image burned: Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, ‘Explorateur’.  Not even NASA uses that job title anymore, how terribly capital R bromantic.  Knowing nothing of the fellow but the depth in his eyes, I thought, ‘ecce homo’ - behold a Man.  Explorer, wearer of chic boho headwrap, dead ringer for George Clooney, and snappy dresser, de Brazza in his double-breasted woolen overcoat and striped trousers might be walking down the Boulevard this very afternoon.  My iPhone revealed he was born an Italian count… de Brazza could have lived a life of courtesan blowjobs, peeled grapes, and slow degradation; the scandal sheets are full of such privileged Neverland boys, entitled dandies hell bent on dissipation - the only unexplored territory within the purview of their shotglass telescope.
And yet, our Man preferred to walk the dirt paths of middle Africa barefoot and nearly in rags, with two loyal friends and 22 African toutes, portaging trade goods and a made-to-order Louis Vuitton folding desk.  De Brazza was the advance man for French colonialism, ‘exploring’ a continent inhabited for, uh, ever, by a highly cultured society (ref: Pyramids).  

But the Man; true to that pacific visage, DeBrazza was a gentle conqueror, taking his sweet time to secure bonds with each village before moving up the path.  By the end of his travels along the river, French Congo was established. The inventor of Fair Trade, he insisted all commercial interests pay a fair wage to the Africans, with decent housing and working conditions. 
Across the Congo river lay the claim of King Leopold, viscous obsidian shadow of Manhood, the first modern genocidalist, and the inspiration for Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’; terror and subjugation were Leo’s tools.  The contrast on opposite riverbanks proved unbearable; Leopold’s smear campaign in the press forced deBrazza back to Paris, and within the year French Congo vibrated in dark harmony with its evil mirror across the river. Shortly, our man was quite dead, likely poisoned by agents of the devil himself, a Belgian.

What the Count sought in his explorations, what we all as men seek, is an Adventure, which must of necessity involve a bit of struggle, some righteous discomfort, the piquant armpit whiff of danger, and autonomy, under the intriguing cloak of mystery. The forge of great character requires an alchemical mix of the Unknown with the discovery of the True.  Which is exactly why deBrazza looks so damn good in a suit.
De Brazza's portable chaise lounge, custom-built by Louis Vuitton, seen at an exhibit of LV history at the Carnavalet Musée in Paris.
 This article originally appeared in Men's File magazine #4.  Copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans