How the puffer jacket took over the world

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How the puffer jacket took over the world Winter coats How the puffer jacket took over the world

Some trends can feel alienating, but the padded coat can be worn by anyone – from new dads to students and Theresa May to Alan Partridge

All for one and one for all … (from left) Balenciaga, Theresa May, the Off-White show, Alan Partridge, Balenciaga. Composite: Getty, BBC, Reuters, Shutterstock

It has become a truism that, if you wait long enough, something unfashionable will end up being in fashion.

It has happened to tracksuits, socialism and Céline Dion. And, for better or worse, it has happened to puffer jackets – you know, the catch-all term for those water-resistant, ultrapractical “technical” coats you might tackle Everest in. Or at least Storm Erik.

Winter has turned into spring, but it still seems we are never more than 6ft from a puffer. They are on your dad, but also in Whitehall (Theresa May regularly emerges from Downing Street – looking broken – in one of two versions of the same £750 padded jacket, and last weekend wore a more generic black version to church). They are on TV, too: in the US, Russian Doll’s Alan wears a Uniqlo one under his coat; in the UK, antihero Alan Partridge’s extraordinary – or “ludicrous”, if you are the Daily Telegraph – yellow padded coat is uncannily similar to something Balenciaga showed last season.

It was a trickle at first. In 2016, Demna Gvsalia’s first collection for Balenciaga featured a red padded jacket worn off the shoulder, in the style of Brigitte Bardot. Eyebrows were raised, but puffers appeared on the Balenciaga catwalk a year later and again the year after that. They were also in Topshop and Urban Outfitters. Late last year, Lyst, a search engine that tracks what people are buying according to clicks, reported a 59% year-on-year rise in searches. In February 2019, the rubicon was crossed: two puffers – one by the US outdoors brand The North Face and the other by the Italian company Moncler – were decreed second and sixth most desirable products in the world, respectively. For context, the most desired item was a pair of Nike trainers.

Charlie Barnett as Alan Zaveri in Russian Doll. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Charlie Barnett as Alan Zaveri in Russian Doll. Photograph: Universal Television/Getty Images

Lyst claimed it had something to do with “urban hiking”, a trend from 2018 that brought fleeces and Gore-Tex into fashion – they appeared at Tom Ford, Burberry, Givenchy and Gucci. By Christmas 2018, even M&S was selling hiking boots. At the last round of autumn shows, puffers featured again on the catwalk, at Sacai, Chanel, Versace and Sportmax (for women) as well as at Fendi, Iceberg, Off-White and Cottweiler (for men). A spokesperson for Patagonia recently told Business Insider that sales have quadrupled in the past 10 years.

That this winter’s surprise-hit garment was a rather banal, oversized, padded coat by Orolay, a brand that sells through Amazon, and that the bestselling item at Uniqlo for the past season has been an “ultra-light down” packable jacket, could be about the weather. But it could also be about something less tangible.

“A puffer’s shape and look are powerful, but also plain and almost spartan – and there’s power in riding that line,” says Andrew Luecke, a fashion historian and the co-author of Cool: Style, Sound and Subversion, a history of youth subcultures. Frankly, it is less about who is wearing a puffer and more about who isn’t.

A puffer from Sacai’s autumn/winter 2019 collection Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A puffer from Sacai’s autumn/winter 2019 collection. Photograph: Victor Virgile/Getty Images

If the currency of hikingwear is its nicheness, then puffers have become a more wearable byproduct, the embodiment of one of those moments when fashion and function intersect. Take May’s padded coat. She may have had a cold during the calamitous week of the no-deal dealing, but it wasn’t chilly enough for her Herno coat, which is designed for “protective warmth”, particularly given she wore it only from No 10 to her car. Patrick Fagan, a consumer psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, says it is about enclothed cognition and the idea that “what we wear has a profound psychological impact on how we behave”. These coats are genderless and double up as armour against the weather – or the day’s mood.

The padded jacket is relatively new, but has a varied history. In 1936, Eddie Bauer invented a quilted jacket insulated by goose down after contracting hypothermia on a winter fishing trip in Washington, setting the template for technicalwear. Two years later, the couturier Charles James designed an evening jacket that resembled a cropped quilt. He called it the “pneumatic jacket” and, according to fashion lore, predicted it would be a one-off. These were not the same coat and spoke to two different classes – indeed, the puffer/padded/quilted terminology is a little muddy – but they have the same DNA.

Michael Horsch, the product director at The North Face, calls the trend “outleisure”. He says: “It’s different to athleisure. This is stuff designed for survival in high mountains or difficult terrains, so with function in mind rather than fashion.” He zeroes in on the Nuptse jacket, which is one of the best-known coats in fashion, on a par with Max Mara’s camel coat. Large and cropped, this jacket has transcended trends, Horsch claims, to become “a cultural piece”, like Levi’s 501s or Timberland boots.

Horsch says the Nuptse jacket – which was designed in 1992 for mountaineering – began moonlighting as “urban kit” in New York. When lower-income families moved to housing projects in Queens, he explains, they found themselves crammed into small spaces accommodating several generations. “Imagine being a teenager in that environment,” says Horsch. The only spaces in which to socialise were the communal areas outside, he says, which necessitated – as anyone who has experienced a New York winter knows – a proper coat. The Nuptse jacket became the uniform of a specific New York aesthetic, the origin of what we now call streetwear; it was the item of clothing that later aligned this Queens subculture with the mainstream. By the end of the 90s, it was being worn by many US rappers, popping up in videos for Method Man and LL Cool J.

The puffer’s reprisal now seems obvious. After all, it is a coat favoured by winter-sport enthusiasts, who tend to be affluent. “The function attracts the wealthy, who imbue the puffer with lifestyle status, then other subcultures pick up on that,” says Luecke. Padded jackets have their roots in the 90s, streetwear, rap and New York, but they are also unplaceable. You could see one on a woman in a Chelsea tractor, a new dad or a fashion student.

The North Face’s bestselling Nuptse coat Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The North Face’s bestselling Nuptse coat. Photograph: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Where they fit now comes down to how we interpret fashion. (It is unlikely the padded jacket has anything to do with Brexit – although a friend recently bought one because he was moving to Berlin for that reason). But there is something in flagging your allegiance to clothes traditionally worn outdoors. It is not simply that hiking and camping have a virtuous reputation – you hike, therefore you care about the environment. Brands such as Patagonia and The North Face are “genuinely ahead of the game on environmental issues”, says Luecke.

Of course, this means parking the irony that an industry regularly accused of being one of the most polluting in the world – one that burns unused clothes – is behind a trend that send the opposite message. Patagonia went so far as to make a “Don’t buy this jacket” advert, to encourage its customers to think before they buy.

If this all sounds spurious, fair enough. Chances are you wear a puffer because it is practical. Besides, much of it boils down to what psychologists refer to as “exposure”: the more you see something, the more acceptable it becomes. My own puffer is red and enormous – too hot for the UK, even in winter – but I have worn it non-stop since November. When I put it on, I feel swaddled. Puffers can be seen as anti-fashion or accidentally fashionable, but if some trends can feel alienating then this is the opposite.

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