Should I wear a leather jacket? It’s a question that's been asked by any man who’s ever shrugged on a biker, imagined himself as Marlon Brando leaning nonchalantly against a Triumph Firebird, then realised he actually looks more like that weird pub bloke who drinks Doom Bar and has too many Ramones badges. In other words, deeply uncool.
How can menswear’s archetype of rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll attitude also embody the exact opposite? How can it invoke both teen spirit and a particularly spicy midlife crisis? Well, it’s all about context. The leather jacket is a sort of Schrödinger’s coat, embodying both cool and uncool at the same time. It’s only when you put it on that you discover which way it's going to go.
If you’re a rail-thin Parisian teen sucking down Gauloises, you can be fairly confident that any leather jacket is going to look good on you. If you’re his dad, you need to tread more carefully. But there is still a leather jacket for you and, yes, the risks are worth it. Our advice is don’t rush the process, try a few different shapes, cuts and styles and you will inevitably find the leather jacket that works best for you. To get you started, we have broken down – and provided everything you need to know – about the main genres of leather jacket. You'll also find our picks for this season. In other words, here's everything you need to know if you want to nail one of menswear’s riskiest but most rewarding garments.
Types of leather jacket
Ask a child to draw a picture of a leather jacket and they’ll sketch you one of these. Granted, it may not look anything like one, but if their motor skills were better developed, you’d be able to tell.
Created by leather legend Schott NYC for Harley-Davidson in 1928, the first iteration of this style of jacket was named the Perfecto, after founder Irving Schott’s preferred cigars. It featured a cropped body, oversized notch lapels, a diagonal zip, epaulettes, four front pockets and a belt. It still does. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a proper biker jacket.
The most rock ’n’ roll of all the leather jackets, the biker is synonymous with everyone from James Dean to the Ramones. The keys to pulling it off are youth and confidence, in that order. If you’re running short on either, then you can just about cheat your way in by wearing it with black boots and a plain white tee, tucked into slim black jeans.
If a full-blown biker jacket feels a little too Alice Cooper, the cafe racer provides a more middle-of-the-road alternative. Named after the lightweight motorcycles that returning World War Two soldiers would race between pubs and cafes, this leather jacket is a stripped-back take that does away with the detailing of its American counterparts.
The clean-cut look has a touch of the bomber about it, which means the cafe racer jacket is more versatile – and more forgiving – than the biker jacket. It’s got a hint of its attitude, but wouldn't call a policeman a pig until he was out of earshot. So perfect for the man who wants to dip his toes into the world of leather jackets but needs something that’ll work across the majority of his wardrobe.
Aviator and bomber jackets
From two wheels to two wings, leather’s use as an outerwear material doesn’t end with motorcycle clothing. For a century, those who take to the skies on the regular have embraced the fabric for its ability to stave off the worst of the cold.
There are two key styles of leather flight jacket: the classic bomber and the shearling aviator. Both are boxy, for warmth and ease of movement in a cockpit, but where the bomber features a round, knitted collar, the aviator boasts one with sheepskin lining, which can be buckled up for added cosiness.
Bombers and flight jackets are best suited to men who want more from their leathers. A flight jacket looks good, but it’s also highly functional in winter weather. Team it up with cold-weather favourites like heavy selvedge denim, work boots and chunky knitwear. Avoid the temptation to add aviator sunglasses, unless you actually are Tom Cruise.
Leather field jacket
Motorbikes weren’t always ridden by rebels without a cause. In their first decades, they were the pastime of young adventurers, who’d bomb between each other’s country piles. The original British motorcycle jacket was crafted with them in mind, and has a more refined, functional design.
Championed by English outerwear institutions like Barbour and Belstaff, this quintessentially British motorcyclist jacket features four pockets to the front, ideally including an angled chest pocket for your maps, with a press-stud and zipper closure to keep the wind out and a tonal belt to the waist.
The brilliance of this style lies in its versatility. There aren’t many leather jackets that can be successfully paired with tailoring, but a Belstaff Trialmaster looks as good over a suit as it does a hoodie. For an easier way in, try it in brown leather with navy dress pants, a rollneck sweater and Chelsea boots.
The 10 best leather jacket brands
Known primarily for its use of waxed cotton as a motorcycle-jacket material, Staffordshire’s Belstaff is also a dab hand when it comes to leather. The brand’s signature belted jackets are classy, timeless, refined and unapologetically British. They’re the Norton to the USA’s Harley-Davidson; the sort of thing James Bond might wear to stride around Hampstead Heath on his day off, and a happy medium for those who like the idea of investing in leather outerwear but want something a little more grown up.
While Schott was busy pinning down the motorcycle jacket market in the United States, London’s Lewis Leathers was hard at work doing the same thing here in the UK. The first ever British motorcycle clothing company, Lewis Leathers’ jackets earned the respect not just of bikers, but also several mid-century youth tribes, with the Bronx jacket becoming a hallmark of the Sixties rocker subculture.
Historic New York label Schott is to leather jackets what Dyson is to vacuum cleaners. Without it, there’d be no Perfecto motorcycle jacket. Hell, there might not even be any zips on jackets in general, given that this pioneering outerwear powerhouse was the first to add them. A true originator and probably the most storied leather jacket brand on the face of the Earth.
Brunello Cucinelli makes a gorgeous nappa leather biker jacket that we implore you to never actually wear near a motorbike. It is too beautiful, too well-crafted, too soft and supple to risk covering in engine oil, or to pepper with squished bugs. The received wisdom about leather jackets is that they get better with age, and yes, that's true. However, a Cucinelli leather jacket – with its cashmere linings and silky ribbing – is a slightly different beast, lacking rock 'n' roll energy but more than making up for it with sheer luxuriousness.
Saint Laurent’s biker jacket has been an icon since the Sixties, when Yves himself introduced it as part of his sixth collection as head designer for Dior. It took what had, up until that point, been a rugged, testosterone-fuelled symbol of rebellion and transformed it into something sleek and elegant. Shortly after, Yves Saint Laurent severed ties with Dior, setting up his own eponymous brand, and the black leather biker jacket has been a staple in its collections ever since.
Acne’s knack for blending Scandi minimalism, classic silhouettes and avant-garde weirdness is what’s made it a fashion-editor favourite for the past quarter-century. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Swedish label’s selection of leather jackets. The brand takes tried-and-true styles and updates them with artful, contemporary tweaks that range all the way from subtle to downright outlandish. Perfect for those who are after something a little bit different.
When you’ve been making leather stuff as long as Dunhill, you get pretty good at it. For more than a century, the London-based brand has crafted some of the finest belts, briefcases, bags and beyond, and its leather jackets are built with the same care. Dunhill’s leather outerwear selection features everything from blazers to smocks, but it’s the bomber and aviator jackets that really shine for us. Clean, simple and made to last a lifetime.
There are some who’ll swear blind it’s not possible to get a decent leather jacket on the high street. Those people have never stepped foot inside Reiss, which is a dab hand in leather that punches above its price tag. As befits a brand known for trim silhouettes and ultra-sharp tailoring, its leather jackets are more for nights out than jaunts on your Kawasaki Ninja. Think classic styles reimagined in body-hugging cuts, with details kept to a minimum.
Moody, grungy and dark, AllSaints's gear probably isn’t the best if you’re looking to shower your wardrobe with sunshine. But if you're after a great-looking leather jacket at a reasonable price, you’ll struggle to find a label that delivers better value. Since 1994, the London-born brand has been cementing its reputation as the go-to place on the high street for outerwear with attitude. Expect soft supple leather, modern cuts and a shadowy colour palette across the board.
The British institution started life as a leather goods company, and in the 150 years since, hides in all shapes, sizes and tanning techniques have been at the core of its offering (you'll still find its leather on the seats of your Rolls, Aston Martin or Ferrari). So yes, it can do you a nice leather jacket. As a luxury brand with motoring DNA, its big on cafe racer and biker jackets, although you'll find the odd shearling-trimmed bomber in its collections, too.
Should I buy a faux leather jacket?
A proper leather jacket doesn't come cheap, so if you want to get the look without having to remortgage your house, the temptation to go faux can be very real indeed. It is, however, a false economy. If you can’t afford a proper leather jacket right now, stick it out and wait until you can. A proper leather jacket looks better every time you wear it; a synthetic starts to fall apart the second you put it on. If you get a year out of fake leather, then you’ve done very well indeed. The planet – and your wallet – won’t thank you for binning and replacing.
According to Jason Schott, chief operating officer at Schott NYC and fourth-generation family member, a real leather jacket has the potential to last as long as you want it to, even with minimal care. “If you get the right leather jacket, you shouldn’t have to do anything to it for months if not years besides wear it,” he says. "As long as it doesn't dry out it should actually get better with time."
Schott suggests you only worry about waterproofing if your jacket is a particularly light shade. Aside from that, simply apply a neutral conditioner to it if it ever gets soaking wet. Just remember to let it dry first, preferably on you so it retains its shape. "If it’s a really soft leather be careful not to over stretch it by keeping it on a hanger for too long," he says. "And most importantly, wear it often."
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