A Brief History of the Puffer Jacket
- Words Angelo Spagnolo
- Date October 10, 2017
Few items in fashion can hang in as many varied circles as the iconic puffer jacket. Second maybe only to blue jeans is the puffer a supreme example of both accessibility (you can find an affordable version) and exclusivity (you can find a version that looks almost exactly the same, yet costs a whole paycheck). It is a jacket at once pedestrian and luxurious, functional and wildly extravagant. In the great outdoors, inner city, rap videos and high couture, the quilted down jacket reigns as the ultimate outerwear.
The modern puffer was born when Eddie Bauer almost froze to death. It was after the experience, a fishing trip on which the legendary sportsman’s wool jacket saturated with water and hardened to ice, that he set about creating a lightweight but survival grade jacket. His chief innovation was quilting the fabric so the down filling didn’t fall to the bottom. Bauer patented his design in 1939.
At the very same time the Seattle outfitter was experimenting with quilted down, the father of American couture Charles James was designing fashion’s first puffy jacket. On the complete opposite end of the design spectrum, James’ version was made of white satin, its volume evoking a woman’s curves. The poles between which the puffer would skate for the entirety of its existence, fashion and the outdoors, were established in year one.
Though James’ garment became a cult object among fashion aficionados, the down jacket remained mostly in the realm of alpine sports for decades. Moncler sprung from the French alps in 1952, outfitting mid-century skiers and mountaineers in France and Italy. But in the late 1970s Norma Kamali created what would be a harbinger of many future outdoor-fashion crossovers, the sleeping bag coat. The two disparate roots of the down jacket were now at play in the same space. In the 1980s the Moncler jacket, associated with skiing and thereby wealth, was co-opted by fashionable young Milanese.
The urbanization of the jacket continued into the 1990s where the puffer cemented its icon status on the backs of rappers and their disciples in cold weather cities like New York and Chicago. Late ‘90s hip-hop pushed the jackets to their shiniest, most voluminous extremes. By the turn of the millennium high fashion, as is now customary, had taken notice of what was happening in hip-hop. Creamy off white puffers came down the runway for Helmut Lang, floor length and dramatic versions at Maison Martin, trimmed in orange by both John Galliano and Junya Watanabe. Sincerely, it’s hard to find a notable designer who hasn’t dabbled in quilted down.
In the late 2000s excess and the outdoors met again when Nigel Cabourn created the Everest parka, a $2,700 recreation of the jacket Sir Edmund Hillary wore while making the first recorded ascent of the world’s highest mountain. If anything could be classified a grail in the heritage era of niche menswear, the Everest parka was it. Later, when Cabourn collaborated with Eddie Bauer, the designer recreated that very first quilted jacket, The Skyliner.
If it feels like these coats have been omnipresent for 20 years, you are not mistaken. The ‘90s nostalgia of the past five years has only strengthened the puffer’s stranglehold on the imaginations of designers and consumers alike. In 2008 Kanye performed in a shiny red Moncler, with Drake notoriously thrusting the red Moncler puffer into the spotlight in his
Hotline Bling video. Rihanna should be getting kickbacks from the down industry, and Balenciaga singlehandedly brought puffers back to the pages of every fashion magazine.
Given that the coats never really left, the past year is less a comeback than a graduation. Demna didn’t scare other designers away from going big when it comes to outerwear. Quite the contrary. The very same season (Fall/Winter 2016 menswear) Raf Simons showed oversized puffers in purple in black. In 2017 Philipp Plein trotted out glossy puffers with fur-lined hoods. Rick Owens’ contorted down sculptures and Greg Lauren’s mishmash collaboration with Moncler proved there is still ground yet to explore.
In more attainable realms, people lined up last week to spend $100 on bright red and blue plaid versions from JW Anderson’s first collaboration with Uniqlo. Even if you skim over go-to brands like Patagonia and The North Face, high end Japanese outdoor brands like Snow Peak and Goldwin are making top-tier down without skimping on design. And of course, streetwear heavyweights like Supreme and Palace, with all their ‘90s sportswear influence, will have puffers in their winter collections for years to come. At every tier, in every realm, the puffer has become a cold weather essential.
In 2018 the choice is yours. A puffer can announce that you could spend a week in the wilderness, that you can spend a grand on a coat, or both.
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