The Ultimate Guide To Men’s Leather Jackets
Buckle up you bikers as we take you take on the journey of the leather jacket, from its military origins to the brands making the the best present-day iterations.
Marlon Brando in The Wild One. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones. Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. The common denominator? Well apart from them all being epic cinematic characters, the glues that ties them together are outstanding leather jackets.
Heroic masculinity and the leather jacket have been bed partners ever since the early 1900s and even though many brands today are eschewing real leather for vegan alternatives, the various styles of jackets have never lost their collective timeless appeal.
So buckle up you bikers, and zip into your bombers, because this article will take you on the journey of the leather jacket from its military origins at the turn of the 20th century to the brands making the the best present-day iterations.
History of the leather jacket
If we’re being pedantic, we would say that some of the earliest leather jackets were made by pretty basic means some 120,000 years ago when our earliest ancestors started to cotton onto the malleability of animal hides. We’ve come a long way from primitive Anthropocene leather thongs, but it took the best part of a millennium and change for our creative juices to spill into the design of a solid leather jacket.
That feat came in the early 1900s, and surprise, surprise, was catalysed by the necessities of warfare, much like every other piece of timeless modern menswear we wear today. One of the original styles to ever be made was the A-1 bomber jacket, worn by German pilots in the Second World War, and was created by French house Chapal in 1925.
They were typically made with sheepskin and were insulated with the fleece, which was pretty handy at those altitudes with only a glass cockpit to separate you from frozen mortality. Indeed, cold temperatures were the primary catalyst for these types of leather jackets (the Russian Bolsheviks also wore them), but it wasn’t until the 1950s that they became sought-after fashion items.
For that move onto Civvy Street, you can thank messrs Brando, Dean and McQueen – that overtly masculine trinity of movie stars who between them changed the direction of menswear to a much more expressive and rebellious path. It became known as the ‘greaser’ subculture, named after the film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.
The functional aspect of the jackets never diminished, hence why they were adopted wholesale by the motorcycling community who were ever thankful of the rugged protection the jackets afforded them. Irving Schott was the man who actually invented the leather biker jacket some years before in the 1920s, which he sold at the Harley Davison store in New York. He called it the ‘Perfecto’, after his favourite brand of cigars. The Perfecto is still, to this day, one of the most popular and imitated leather jackets you can buy.
Special mention must go to Elvis for his all-leather look he wore in his epic comeback concert in 1968. If the world needed a better advertisement for the rejuvenating masculine qualities of the leather jacket, they got it in spades thanks to the King.
The 70s and 80s saw the traditional silhouettes of the leather jacket – the flight jacket, bomber, and biker – morph somewhat into long-line trench coats of the type worn by David Bowie on the cover of Heroes in 1977, a sartorial marvel replicated by Morpheus and Neo in the Matrix films. The leather jacket was appropriated by any and every subculture who saw it, once again, as a rebellious statement against the status quo. Punks, rockers, skins… you name it, they wore it.
Fast forward to today and the leather jacket has less of the counter-cultural cachet about it – rather it is seen as an item of consummate luxury and skilled artisanship. Of course, there are plenty of cheap versions on the market, but the real investment pieces are more akin to works of art than everyday garments.
The most important leather jacket styles
Leather flight jacket
The original flight jacket has not changed much over the last century, which is testament to its timeless style. While the materials have gotten decidedly more luxurious, the silhouette has remained pretty much true to the original: big turn-down collar, zip front and ribbed waistband.
The more expensive styles will come lined with shearling but you can still find unlined versions that have more than likely been given a slimmer treatment.
Leather bomber jacket
An off-shoot of the flight jacket, the bomber is simply its trimmer, lighter cousin and generally comes unlined. It’s a great style for fall but probably wouldn’t get you through the depths of winter.
Typically coming in black leather, it’s a great heritage piece to wear with an all-black contemporary look.
Leather café racer jacket
The Café Racer silhouette came about in the 60s and was an evolution of the early leather biker jackets. Popularised by brands such as Schott and Belstaff, it was a cropped blouson with a mandarin collar and padded elbows and shoulders, designed explicitly for going at ungodly and wholly illegal speeds on your motorbike.
UK riders would travel from cafe to cafe attempting to get a ‘ton up’ along the way. The style is the same today as it was then, and provides a rugged biker edge to jeans and boots.
Leather Perfecto/biker jacket
Irving Schott is credited with inventing the Perfecto jacket, which he named after his favourite brand of cigars and was popularised by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The design is recognisable from a hundred paces thanks to those big notch lapels and asymmetric front zip closure and planted pockets.
Also known as a biker jacket, this silhouette is as legendary as it gets.
Leather blouson jacket
The minimalist leather blouson can be thought of as a modern iteration of the flight jacket, albeit much slimmer, neater and more sophisticated. The collar styles vary but typically it features a turn-down collar (sometimes trimmed with shearling), zipped front and a ribbed hem.
It’s the style you’ll likely see the most of today and the one that luxury brands tend to favour.
What to look for when buying a leather jacket
Over the years, the number of leather specialists has decreased dramatically as cheaper and easier fabrics have become the norm. So it’s highly likely that the same few specialists are making products for a number of brands along the price spectrum.
However, price is usually a good gauge as to the quality of the jacket, but don’t take it for granted. Jackets on the cheaper end of the spectrum will use ‘corrected’ leather. That’s because lower quality hides will have elements of scarring or other imperfections from when the animal was raised. Hence, these skins will be treated by various means, including sanding them down or pressing faux grain into the skin to hide the imperfections.
These top coatings will have a kind of smooth plastic handle to them, as opposed to the oily and textured nature of an uncorrected skin.
More often than not, you’ll find that most leather jackets are constructed from either cowskin, calfskin or lambskin. Lambskin is perhaps the softest and cowskin the most durable, while calfskin presents a perfect medium.
Generally speaking, full-grain leather is going to be better than top grain, because the latter is often corrected. Full-grain leather is unadulterated, hence why you can still see the natural skin pattern of the animal. Why is this good? Because this type of leather retains the natural pores and oils, making it more breathable, as well as soft, supple and less prone to cracking. Full-grain leather is thicker, too, making ideal for flight jacket silhouettes or shearling-lined styles for winter.
The alternative to full-grain leather is top-grain leather. As the name suggests, it comprises the top layer of skin, separated from the bottom layers, also known as the corium (which is what suede is made from). Top grain is a great option for lightweight jacket styles.
Corrected leather only ever comes from top grain, but that’s not to say that all top grain is corrected. In fact some of the most premium jackets on the market will be constructed from perfect top grain because it is preferred over the much thicker full grain.
Just as with suits, leather jacket linings can vary massively. Cheaper styles feature thin synthetic linings (which are not great for the breathability of the leather), whereas high-end designers tend to prefer more expensive silk, cotton and insulated linings such as shearling.
Zips & hardware
It might seem like an unimportant point but the type of zips and hardware used on the jacket can often be an indication of the overall quality of the jacket.
YKK zips are the most common type, whereas RiRi zips are shinier, stronger and very smooth. The latter are also about 10 times the price, so if the designer has bothered to pay the additional expense it’s usually a good sign – especially on something like a biker jacket, which has plenty of zips.
The best men’s leather jacket brands
With the biker heritage that Belstaff has, there’s no surprise that the British heritage brand boasts one of the best collections of leather jackets on the market. From the Trialmaster Panther and the Outlaw leather jackets to hand-waxed café racers, Belstaff predominantly uses soft lambskin or calf leather across its timeless silhouettes.
Some jackets already come waterproofed, too.
Berluti’s esteemed heritage has leather at its core, having been founded by Alessandro Berluti in 1895 as a luxury shoemaker. The house has since expanded to produce ready-to-wear of the highest standard, not least leather jackets, to which it applies the same patina approach as it does to its leather shoes.
The lauded French luxury house founded by Yves Saint Laurent has long been recognised for its expertise in leather jackets. From the Hedi Slimane era to present day, the Saint Laurent look has leaned on a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, making the Perfecto style one of its bestsellers.
Tom Ford rarely pulls any punches when it comes to luxury menswear, and his perennial leather jackets are no exception. Ford favours contemporary iterations of the classic A2 flight silhouette, modernised with minimalistic detailing, a slim fit and the odd luxury flourish (shearling tipped collars for example).
Now under the auspices of Hedi Slimane, Celine Homme produces a number of different leather jacket styles in both calfskin and lambskin. From an oversized Teddy silhouette to a classic Perfecto via a loose-fit blouson, Slimane’s penchant for luxury hide is writ large across Celine season after season.
Italian brand Diesel, founded by Renzo Rosso and Adriano Goldschmied way back in 1978, has always made leather an integral part of its seasonal collections, mixing up a moto aesthetic with a grungy urban denim look.
This means you’ll find plenty of dyed leather jackets in bomber and trucker silhouettes, both great for integrating into a streetwear wardrobe.
The originator of the Perfecto jacket, American icon Schott still produces some of the best and most affordable leather jackets on the market today, from Teddy jackets to bikers via flight jackets and blousons.
The iconic Perfecto is actually constructed from cowhide rather than calfskin, making for a very hard-wearing jacket that’ll likely outlive you, provided it’s looked after well.
Cromford Leather Company
While Cromford Leather Company will swing under most people’s radars, leather connoisseurs will be well aware of the gems this small company produces. With a ready-to-wear collection as well as made-to-measure and fully bespoke, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better quality anywhere else.
Its shearling-lined flight jacket – called the Douglas – should be in an art gallery. All the marks of greatness are there: thick stitching, RiRi zips and unique hides. Do yourself a favour and check them out.
Italian leather master Alfredo Rifugio specialises in made-to-measure leather jackets, so you can only imagine the level of quality and craftsmanship that goes into them. Alfredo was even commissioned to make the Pope a jacket he could wear on skiing and hiking excursions.
Handmade with leather from Italy’s finest tanneries, Rifugio’s designs follow a classic Italian mould, rather than the American silhouettes of the biker, bomber and flight jacket, so think lambskin sports jackets and deerskin blousons.
The original creator of the leather flight jacket, Parisian legend Chapal is still going strong today. Naturally, Chapal produces the whole gamut of leather jacket styles, from the iconic A1/2 and B3 flight jackets to faithful replicas of the best of the 1970s café racer blousons. They’ll even offer a bespoke service for those with deep pockets.
How to care for your leather jacket
A leather jacket can be a serious investment, so you’ll want to look after it correctly to ensure it lasts. Lambskin especially needs more care than calfskin since it’s very delicate.
The first step to increasing longevity is waterproofing your jacket annually. Leather is not naturally waterproof (even if cows and sheep do look unperturbed sitting out in the rain) so use a leather specific proofing spray such as Chamberlain’s Leather Milk Water Protectant Formula No.3 after you’ve cleaned the jacket with a leather cream.
Storage is important too. Use a padded hanger in order to retain the jacket’s shape, and never hang it in plastic or near a heat source otherwise the leather will dry out and crack.