ANY YOUNG MAN who becomes interested in fashion quickly learns the value of a great leather jacket. It's both an entry-level piece of kit and a wearable power move—something with which our relationship changes over time. That's because the attraction of leather lies in its ability to completely shift states. The very point of owning a leather jacket is to wrestle with it. New leather is hard, unforgiving. Its toughness is why it's the preferred attire of adherents to so many subcultures—goth, punk, bikie, rock ’n’ roll. It offers nothing yet promises everything. It may fit well but it won’t feel comfortable, certainly not snug, like a second skin, for many years.
For Jimmy Barnes, few items of clothing come as fully loaded with meaning as a leather jacket. It’s part of a self-described “uniform” he’s been wearing for about half a century, but it’s so much more than that. “A leather jacket was an essential piece. It was as important as my microphone when I was growing up,” Barnes says in his Botany studio, where he’s laying down parts on what will be his 21st studio album as a solo artist. “I’d take a leather jacket with me most places because when you’re in young bands, you end up sleeping on floors or sleeping in cars. A leather jacket can be a pillow or a form of security. Someone knocks you down in the bar [and] you’re not going to get cut to bits by broken glass. You can hose it down after a fight.”
This is a story about Jimmy Barnes but really, it’s a story about toughness; how it saved him growing up; how he’s reimagined it as he enters his imperial era; and how to reckon with its antithesis, softness, as its own form of strength. Barnes is 67, an age at which certain things are starting to feel well-worn. He’s learned, through self-reflection, that starting out tough, whether by choice or necessity, doesn’t mean you have to stay that way, even if toughness is what people have always associated with your character.
“The thing is, now I have a fantastic biker leather jacket. It’s made by Balmain and it’s much softer, much better fabric. It’s more durable. You can wear it more often and it’s sort of dressy, as well, but it’s still that cut where you can turn the collar up, you can zip it up here to keep out the cold, keep out the rain.”
As Australia’s most beloved belter, former brawler and now-iconic working man’s rock star, Barnesy and high fashion are unusual, if not unlikely, bedfellows. But to hear him tell it, looking the part was tantamount to asserting his place on the mean streets of Elizabeth, the town (now a suburb) north of Adelaide in which he grew up. Back when he was still named James Swan, Barnes used to steal the clothes of his older brother, John, and wear certain items to school.
“And part of the reason we wore ’em, and part of the reason I wore them, is because we wanted to fight. ‘Come and say something I’ll have a go at you.’ My brother used to over time. Wear a kilt to high school so that people would comment and then fight with him, because he just liked to fight.”
RECENTLY, JIMMY BARNES put my own wardrobe to shame. Effortlessly assisted by his wife and fashion concierge, Jane Mahoney, he arrives at the Royal Automobile Club of Australia on Macquarie Street, Sydney for his Esquire photo shoot piled high with no less than 10 looks. Featuring legacy pieces from his personal wardrobe, each look has been thoughtfully selected. There are red velvet trainers. Sleek black blazers. His “gig boots”. Crisp white shirts. Ripped jeans. A smoking suit. This does not seem like the closet of a man who once battered his clothes so badly on stage he needed to have new ones made for the next night. Someone who, for a time, embraced PVC trousers because he knew they could keep their shape under copious sweat.
“I’ve always been fairly heavy on my clothes,” he laughs, recalling his debauched Cold Chisel heyday. “They need to be durable.” Barnes says his appreciation of the finer things comes with knowing how they’re made, which roughly mirrors his newfound appreciation of himself. He’s come to understand where his own seams are, as well as how they come apart and then mend themselves over time. This is something Barnes discovered through therapy. “For a long time, it was about measuring my own self-worth externally. You can tell I’ve been to a therapist when I say that,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. But writing his best-selling memoirs Working Class Boy (2016) and Working Class Man (2017) was another key part of this process.
It was around this time that he reckoned with an unhealthy level of perfectionism that had plagued him since he first stepped out on his own. “I would go out and I’d make solo records, score seven [ARIA] number-one albums in a row,” he says “And if the next one came in at number two, I was a failure. I kept going, No, this isn’t good enough. I’ve got to play hard. I’ve got to do more work. I’ve got to work hard. I’ve got to stay on top. And I think once I started to face my demons, I knew there had to be more [going on].”
The by-product of an abusive childhood that conditioned him to stay new-leather tough to survive, his self-loathing wasn’t easy to deprogram. But the great thing about spilling his guts onto the page was that it inevitably affected the way Barnes created music. “I would write songs that I thought people would want to hear—[about] standing defiant with your back against the wall. And then I started to write songs that were more vulnerable, and I started being more vulnerable when I sang. I found very quickly that my whole world opened up, and I became a better singer, a better songwriter and a better friend and father.”
Barnes’ changing relationship with fatherhood and family in some ways echoes the one he has with clothes. He grew up terrified of his grandfather, the legendary bare-knuckle boxer Pop Swan. Of his own dad, also for a time a professional boxer and one who’d regularly drink away the family’s savings, he wrote: ‘Dad didn’t know how to love us. His dad never showed him.’ Filial affection was a classic outfit that seemed like it should work, but never quite sat right.
“I started to reassess because I just didn’t want to make the same mistakes my parents had,” says Barnes, a father of seven. “Though I did find myself doing it”—he famously entered rehab in the early 2000s, after which he publicly acknowledged that his alcoholism had traumatised his kids—“and at stages when I was aware of doing [those same things], it was overwhelming. I had to try and make myself a better man for ’em.”
What exactly constitutes ‘better’ is something that Barnes, now a grandfather of 15, has been grappling with. His own father, he reflects, “just didn’t let anybody in”. “That sort of ‘be a bloke, don’t talk, don’t show your emotions, don’t show any weakness’ is how I was brought up. And as angry as I sometimes got with my parents that they didn’t look after me, I realised they didn’t have the tools. I think we have to teach children to feel, to think and to be open, because you’re allowed to cry. I cry every day now.”
EVEN BACK IN THE ’70s when Barnes was an angry young man, shredding his new Yohji Yamamoto threads during Chisel gigs, he was finding new ways to spin the tough shell he’d built up as a kid. Bon Scott of AC/DC introduced him to the legendary Madame Lash, a renowned bondage outfitter in Sydney, who made him an all-red leather motocross suit to wear on tour with Rod Stewart. In the early ’90s, Barnes recorded Soul Deep, which saw him covering Black soul singers like Little Richard and Tina Turner, many of whom came from impoverished beginnings and sang through their pain, just as he did. Soul Deep went 10-times platinum in Australia.
Relentlessly pushing himself to try new things, from designers to creative pursuits, has kept Barnes busy—and relevant—far beyond many of his peers. He nearly died on the operating table during back surgery to treat chronic pain a few years ago, winding up in intensive care (“The doctor said: ‘I’m going to give you ketamine’, and I replied, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve had it before’”.) For now, he’s working on that new album and has multiple upcoming tour dates across the country (the same evening of this photoshoot, he flew to Perth for a show). Barnes jokes that he probably has undiagnosed ADHD—he has, he says, the “attention span of a small soap dish”—but adds that the source of his drive runs deeper.
“I always wanted people to like me,” he says. “If they liked me and they thought I was something, that I was funny or I could sing, then they wouldn’t hurt me.” He says that performing was always the end goal of this pursuit to be liked and understood, what he calls “striving to become a better communicator” through a communion with an audience in which the love flows both ways.
“It’s a bit of showing off, but it’s not about that, really. When you get on stage, you push yourself, and the energy you get from a crowd drags you to places that you wouldn’t go to as a singer by yourself. So, you find new things, new ways to express what you’re feeling in your heart.”
Though he says he tackles one project at a time (“I have a mono brain”), the reality is he has a lot on the go. But as he closes in on 70 and works nearly every day, he still maintains that he’s time-rich, rather than the opposite. “Deepak Chopra is a good friend of mine,” he says of the famous New Age sage, “and part of his lecture is always that people who think they’re running out of time, run out of time.
“So that’s the way I am at the moment [believing there’s enough time for everything].”
HERE'S THE THING about leather jackets. We change with them. The pieces we love, the ones we keep for decades, are the ones that soften. That’s because leather is a natural fibre. It’s made from something living. And if you want to tame it, you have to live in it, too.
Jimmy Barnes has done a lot of living. Tough living. Even when he’s between outfits, you can tell the weight of history is something he always wears. But lately, he’s been thinking more about softness, and why it took him so long to find it within himself. In the past, when Barnes entered a room, the first thing he’d do was check for an exit. The second thing was to assess which guards had calloused knuckles, in case a fight broke out. Jacket on, collar popped, zipped up. Always ready.
Barnes says that Jane has helped him to feel comfortable in this new, softer skin. But the biggest turning point, he says, was becoming a father. Despite those early missteps, “I’m really close to my kids. I’m a soft touch. I would have them all around me all the time, which drives Jane a bit crazy,” he cackles. “She likes to let them be free. I’m a very clingy person, a bit of a helicopter. I like to keep them near, make it as easy as possible for them. And when grandchildren come along, they say all that stuff like ‘the great thing about grandkids is you can give ’em back’ and all that. I don’t want to give ’em back!”
In this respect, Barnes endeavours to be the opposite of his biological father, someone he rarely saw show any emotion except when drunk. “It was frightening. I could see people were terrified of him and my mum was terrified of him. He just didn’t let anybody in.”
Touring his Working Class Boy live show across the country a few years ago showed Barnes that, despite significant societal advances in redefining what it means to be a man, the toughness ingrained in Aussie guys hasn’t gone away.
“We’ve got that toxic masculinity so deep-seated and rooted in everything we’ve done and the way we’ve been brought up, in the way we’ve been schooled,” he says. “There’s a lot of people [for whom emotional honesty] is still very difficult. There’s a lot of things on the radio—[like] ‘R U OK? And we’re all there saying, ‘Yeah, we support it’, but not many people are actually doing it. We still have to communicate more. And as men, we don’t like to talk about things that are tough, but you don’t have to talk to your mates. You can talk to a therapist. You can talk to your partner. You just have to talk to someone.” Make no mistake: Barnes is still a stubborn bastard. He still gets in people’s faces and stands up for what he believes in—whether it’s LGBTIQA+ rights, the [defeated] Indigenous Voice to Parliament or even laid-off factory workers in Elizabeth. But he’s also learned that honouring your convictions and being angry are two very different things. It’s taken decades of work and unlearning for Barnes to enter a room and no longer try to ascertain how he’ll fight his way out of there.
“If somebody can see that you’re standing your ground because you believe in what you’re doing and because it’s the right thing, that’s incredible strength,” he says. “But if you’re just stubborn and tough for the wrong fucking reasons, then it’s a waste of time and nobody’s learning from it.”
JIMMY BARNES USED TO WEAR leather jackets for protection. For their hardiness. Now he wears them for pleasure and because they look good, a fact that he admits took a while to get used to.
“These days, I do have a Tom Ford bloody suede leather jacket, which, [if] you go out and you put it down on the chair next to you in the club, it’s ruined forever,” he says, grinning in the austere dining room of the Royal Automobile Club as he wriggles out of his jeans and into a black kilt—just like the one his older brother used to wear to get a rise out of schoolyard bullies.
Barnes is aware of the dissonance that comes with him—a famed working class man discussing high fashion. But he also figures that after 50 years of having to grind and fight to stay alive, he’s probably earned a few nice things. Like a nice suede jacket. Or designer kicks. Most of these items were picked out by Jane, but he always styles them as his own.
“I think I’m tougher now,” he says, referencing that softer brand of strength. “The difference is, I’m probably more courageous. It’s not about being tough; it’s about having inner strength and the strength to be able to say, ‘No, I’m not the hardest person in the room’.
“[Being tough] is probably one of the things that’s served me the best, but at the same time, you have to be able to know when it’s time to soften. And it took me a long time to do that.”
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the kilt is also made of leather.
Photography: Max Doyle
Grooming: Mia Hawkswell
Photography assistant: Will Taylor
Fashion assistant: Harriet Mills.
With specials thanks to the Royal Automotive Club of Australia.
This story appears in the December/January 2023/2024 issue of Esquire Australia. Subscribe here.