From Bomber To Biker: The Ultimate Guide To Leather Jackets

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From Bomber To Biker: The Ultimate Guide To Leather Jackets

Words by Mr Ayrton Reeves

15 November 2020

In the fickle world of fashion, what’s in favour one month might be cast aside the next. But every so often, you come across a garment that has a natural immunity to seasonal shifts in taste. The leather jacket is one such item – it’s a style that’s managed to outride the stately march of trends for the best part of a century.

If you’re in the market for one, we’re certainly not short of options on MR PORTER. Whether it’s a slick biker jacket from Schott or Blackmeans, a rugged-yet-refined trucker from TOM FORD or Valstar or a well-cut leather blazer from Gucci or SAINT LAURENT, we have just the thing. 

However, being spoilt for choice can quickly result in decision-making stalemate. And given that a decent leather jacket will always present a significant investment, it is wise to do your research before handing over your hard-earned capital. Luckily, help is at hand in the form of our comprehensive guide to men’s leather jackets, which should make recruiting your next wardrobe wingman a little easier. 

01. The leather bomber jacket

Although it might genuinely feel like you’ve left your soul behind after stepping off a long-haul flight, spare a thought for early 20th-century pilots, who had to endure open cockpits in aircraft that weren’t really much more than tin cans with wings. To provide some respite from the harsh conditions experienced at altitude, the military developed the bomber jacket as standard issue for their pilots.

While there have been a wide variety of models over the decades, it was the US Airforce’s A-1 flight jacket, introduced in 1927, that served as the prototype for the bomber. It was a silk-lined button-fastening design made of cowhide, with ribbed woollen cuffs and a high-neck collar to keep the biting winds at bay. In 1931, it was superseded by the A-2, which had the added benefit of a zip-fastening, making it easier for flyboys to scramble that little bit quicker. Later, it also sometimes sported shearling or fur trims. The A-2 provided the blueprint for the modern bomber we know today, and its form can be seen in designs everywhere from European powerhouses to stateside stalwarts Schott and Golden Bear, to British artisanal brand Connolly and our very own in-house label, Mr P.

Mr Jason Schott, COO of Schott and great-grandson of co-founder Mr Irving Schott, advises how to find one that fits. “Bombers tend to be roomy, but make sure you choose a size that will allow you to wear a T-shirt and sweater underneath and still be able to fasten it,” he says.

How to wear it

Given its utilitarian origins, the bomber is inherently casual by nature, so it’s best worn with equally laid-back attire – think knitted polos, plaid shirting, earthy-hued chinos and on cooler days, a chunky rollneck sweater. Whatever you wear yours with, it’ll see you through anything with a dash of flyboy bravura. 

02. The leather blazer

Tailoring is a fine thing in itself, but throw in the added luxury of leather and you’ve got something a little bit different. In the history of leather jackets, the blazer is a relatively recent invention, born more out of stylistic expression than of practicality, but we like to keep abreast of developments.

As with any decent piece of tailoring, material quality and construction are key. “A well-made leather jacket shouldn’t display any sign of pinched seams and minimal work on the seams,” says Mr Ivan Calderon, retail director of Connolly, one of the luxury industry’s leading authorities in fine leather. “It disturbs the natural drape of the leather and adds unnecessary weight. If it’s unlined, you should also feel the inside garment – it should be very soft to the touch if it’s a good hide.”

In terms of fit, a leather blazer, which already has a certain amount of natural stretch and fluidity, looks best in a leaner cut.

How to wear it

It’s a style that works well when dressed up, with wide-leg wool trousers and chunky-soled Derbies, say. Or in more casual settings with slim-fit selvedge denim, clean-cut sneakers and vintage-inspired shades.

03. The leather trucker jacket

Back in 1962, denim behemoth Levi Strauss released its Type III – a design identified by its button-fastening chest pockets, contrast stitching and side fasteners and slightly cropped length. The type III’s form has since become the template for what many of us think of as the denim jacket (which refers to the fabrication as opposed to the style), but its alternative name, the trucker, salutes its roots as the jacket of choice for HGV men and mechanics. Unsurprisingly, it was predominantly made from hard-wearing materials that could handle the rough and tumble of life on the road, such as denim, corduroy and of course, leather.

How to wear it

Today’s leather truckers from the likes of TOM FORD, AMIRI and Valstar, definitely take things up a notch for refinement. “We design our truckers to be typically a little less rugged a little more elegant, so that they can easily be dressed up as well as down,” says Mr Luigi Fila, designer at Valstar. Any quick peruse of the leather truckers on offer now will corroborate this statement – they’re close-cut and elegant enough to work with tailored wool trousers and a silk shirt, but will look equally strong with black jeans, folksy jewellery and hard-hitting boots.

04. The suede field jacket

You might be attached to your trusty Barbour field jacket on a damp day, but it has a more upscale cousin that’s a step up from your waxy old faithful. The field jacket became standard issue for US Army troops during WWII, when it was dubbed the “Parsons jacket” after US Major General JK Parsons, who oversaw its development. It’s easily identified by its proliferation of pockets used for stowing spare rounds and other combat paraphernalia, which are still useful for stashing keys, wallets and phones in peacetime, of course.

As the name would suggest, the field jacket’s natural fit is a bucolic setting, but when executed in leather, it looks equally at home on the city streets, too. Milan-based Valstar, known for its cloud-soft leathers, has a suitably refined take on the style, in a richly hued suede, with the sort of precision construction military men would approve of. “With larger leather jackets, it’s worth checking for unnecessary cuts and seams,” says Mr Fila. “A lot of excess panels in the body means smaller, lower-grade skins have been used, as imperfections have been cut out.”

How to wear it

Neutral shades of white, khaki and taupe make an ideal partner to the field jacket and if you want to play the urban GI, a hint of camouflage will never go amiss.

05. The leather biker jacket

There is perhaps no other garment that conveys anarchic cool quite like a black leather biker jacket. When Mr Marlon Brando appeared as bad boy Johnny Strabler in 1953’s The Wild One wearing one, the biker’s rebel icon status was cemented for all time. The jacket Mr Brando wore while straddling his Triumph Thunderbird was a Schott Perfecto, created by Mr Irving Schott in 1928, which has served as the archetype motorcycle leather ever since.

Beyond its obvious aesthetic merits, the design has practical worth, too. An asymmetric front-fastening zip serves two roles – it prevents hardware from digging into your torso as you lean over your handlebars and it also keeps the chill out as you max out the throttle. It’s cut aerodynamically close, and for good reason: “A biker jacket should be form fitting, like a second skin. If it’s too loose, it will look sloppy and let wind get inside it if you’re actually riding a motorcycle,” says Mr Jason Schott. “Above all, a well-made motorcycle jacket should make you feel like a badass when you put in on,” he adds.

Japanese label Blackmeans’ range of punk-inspired bikers have a modern rock ‘n’ roll sensibility of their own. The brand’s founder, Mr Yujiro Komatsu, likes to ensure a biker jacket fits just so. “When you try it on, check whether you can move your arms easily and if the sleeve length sits right on your wrist when the jacket’s zipped up,” he says. “You also want to make sure the angle of the sleeve still looks good when you put your hands in the pockets.”

The café racer jacket – a cleaner, simpler biker with a straight zip-fastening front and stand collar that first gained popularity in the 1960s – is also a solid option if you’re more of a no-frills sort when it comes to your wardrobe. Try Hugo Boss, TOM FORD and Schott again for fine examples.

How to wear it

Whatever biker you go for, it’s a statement in itself, so a less-is-more mentality is a sound approach when it comes to styling. Whether you’ve layered it over a crisp white tee like Mr Brando, or a cashmere hoodie on cooler days, you’ll look rugged and ready for anything, even if you’re only propping up the bar at your local rather than hitting the road on a Harley.

What to look for in a leather jacket

Leather

As you’d expect, the hide that a leather jacket is made from is one of the biggest defining factors in determining whether it’s a worthy investment. “A good piece of leather shouldn’t feel overly slick, smooth or plasticky,” says Mr Fila. “If it does, you’re looking at a corrected leather.”

Corrected leathers are usually sanded or heavily dyed to disguise imperfections and colour variations in the hide and ultimately affect the durability of the leather over time. Full-grain leather is often considered the finest on account of its durability – this is easy to spot from the natural, pronounced grain on its surface.

But the way a leather jacket is constructed also bears a lot of weight on the quality of the hide used. “Too many panels, which shows a lack of focus or consideration on fall and drape and low priority in sourcing quality leather,” says Mr Calderon.

Stitching should be even, and the thread thickness proportionate with the weight of the leather to keep the garment in good shape over the years. Examining suede, requires a slightly different approach. “A good-quality suede should feel almost velvety to the touch,” says Mr Fila. “If it looks too matte or feels dry and rough, it’s probably been treated.”

Linings

It’s all well and good being swaddled in the best hide you can get your hands on, but what about what’s beneath the surface? Better-quality leather jackets often have separate linings – one for the sleeves and one for the body to enhance breathability. Linings are made of a range of materials ranging from nylon, cupro, viscose and silk, but it’s also worth taking note of whether they have been as well executed as the rest of the jacket.

“A clumsy patterned interior lining can indicate a substandard jacket,” says Mr Calderon. “It indicates poor material measurement as there’s too much excess fabric.” While this might seem like a minor gripe, you don’t want your lining to degrade when the outer shell of your jacket is still in good nick.

Zips

There isn’t a huge amount of mechanics in clothing, but with a leather jacket, the zip is a major component that requires consideration. “Zips should feel sturdy and zip up smoothly,” says Mr Fila. “A high-quality zip can cost up to 10 times more than a cheaper one, so brands can be tempted to save some money there.” Another good rule of thumb to go by is that better-quality jackets have double-ended zips to offer more styling freedom and greater comfort as you can let the jacket out at the bottom when you take a seat.

You should also pay attention to the metal elements when choosing a jacket. “Zips, and, in fact, all hardware and studs, should be harmonious in size, colour and style,” says Mr Calderon. “It’s a sign that the creator has thought of the finer details and sourced components to ensure longevity.”

How to look after your leather jacket

So, you’ve found decided to pull the trigger and shell out. But to get your new prize leather to go the distance, you need to know how to take care of it, too. Dr Kyle Grant, founder of Oxwash, the UK company pioneering wet-washing, the eco-friendly alternative to dry cleaning, shares his words of wisdom on keeping your jacket in fine fettle.

  • To prevent a build-up of dust and dirt on your leather jacket, wipe it over regularly with a slightly damp, warm cloth.
  • If your leather garment starts to crack, its natural oils are depleted. Tackle this by using a leather conditioning treatment.
  • Suede or nubuck leathers are always better treated when new. Apply a good-quality protector spray to prevent your garment becoming water or oil damaged. 

Although you should take a stained leather garment to a professional cleaner, what can you do to treat a stain in an emergency?

  • First, remove excess solid matter using a spoon and go over with a blunt butter knife, then blot with a paper towel using gentle pressure. This step is the key to success so take your time.
  • Get two bowls. In one, add a few drops of washing-up liquid to warm water and sponge the solution over the affected area and wring the sponge into the second bowl. Repeat until the stain has lifted.
  • If there are any lingering smells, leave a dish of baking soda in a cupboard with the jacket to absorb the odour. Don’t apply it directly to your jacket, though, as this can damage the leather.

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