The leather jacket has come a long way in the past 70 years. Once a hallmark of rebellion, this rock and roll favorite has earned itself a place as one of the coolest menswear outerwear. It was made famous in the 1950s by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, but today you don’t have to be a chain-smoking biker with a Brylcreem’d pompadour to make one.
That said, don’t think the leather jacket has lost any of its appeal over the years. It may be as versatile as a good pair of jeans or well-made boots, but this cowhide classic is still tough through and through.
While it’s definitely one of the best clothing purchases you’ll ever make, it can also be one of the trickiest. So, before you get to know yourself, here’s everything you need to know about fashion’s favorite badboy icon.
Choosing the right style of leather jacket
Not all leather jackets are created equal. Different styles may suit certain wardrobes better or worse. Below are the most common types of leather jackets you are likely to encounter, and how to tell them apart.
If you were to look up the term “leather jacket” in an illustrated encyclopedia, it would most likely be the style depicted. Immortalized by Marlon Brando in the groundbreaking film The Wild One (above), this classic motorcycle jacket features a slanted front zip, wide lapels and plenty of buckles and zips. Best worn with slim black jeans and Chelsea boots.
Of all the leather jacket styles out there, the bomber is probably the most casual. This makes it an excellent starting point for those who may feel a little unsure about venturing into the world of leather. Team it with selvedge denim and white sneakers for a simple everyday outfit.
So named for its ties to motorcycle racing, the cafe racer is on the more minimal end of the leather jacket styles spectrum. With a stand-up collar, front zip and an overall uncluttered design, this clean-lined classic is the perfect complement to wool trousers, knitwear and derby shoes.
While very similar in appearance to the bomber, the pilot jacket has the added bonus of a shearling collar originally designed to keep WWII pilots warm when flying at high altitudes in open cockpits. But be warned, the addition of close shave and a padded interior make it primarily a winter coat. If you’re looking for something you can wear all year round, you might want to opt for something less bulky.
The main difference between the utility or “fatigue” jacket is the increased length and the front pockets. It is a rural classic and as timeless as it is functional. A laid-back all-rounder that can take you from fall to summer and beyond.
Other Purchase Considerations
Not all leather jackets are, you know, leather. The material tends to be expensive and is about as vegan as a ribeye steak, which is why alternatives have been around for a long time. With faux leather jackets, you can wear the same iconic styles for a fraction of the prices of real leather and without animal cruelty charges. On the high street, that usually means poor quality, especially compared to the real thing, but even at the designer level, synthetic leather jackets have their own baggage, as they are usually made of polyurethane.
A more sustainable option is on the way: mushroom leather. This next-generation fabric, known as mycellium, is made from the root portion of mushrooms and not only has a similar waxy texture, but is also biodegradable and sustainable. The first products are slowly coming onto the market, but we have not yet seen a mushroom cyclist.
Ok, the archetypal leather jacket usually comes in black, from Marlon Brando to The Matrix. It’s classic, goes with almost everything and ages like a dream. But you do have options. Brown is the other obvious choice, with traditional 70s-style aviator jackets and blazers showing great color retention.
Less common is brown, which gives a western feel, and burgundy, which Tyler Durden made his own. Look hard enough and you’ll also find olive green, wine red, light gray and a single white leather jacket – but black is a classic for a reason.
Leather jacket styles tend to follow textbook designs, but there are variations on the classics. Take the motorcyclist for example. You can find pretty minimal designs and other designs that cover every design detail in the book: zipped cuffs, padded shoulders, buckled belt and studs on the back. Other designs can wear shoulder epaulettes or padded elbows.
Unless you’re a real biker, this is all a matter of taste, but in our humble opinion, less is more.
The best brands for leather jackets
When it comes to leather, you want to buy from a brand with a pedigree. This is far from one of the cheapest purchases you will ever make, but if you choose your jacket wisely, it will be one of your most valuable investments.
The grungy, moody aesthetic of AllSaints lends itself perfectly to the leather jacket. This took it as no surprise that the London-born brand is known for producing some of the sleekest and most stylish options around. Watch out for shorter cuts, distressed finishes and lots of attitude.
At the high end of the high street is Reiss, a British clothing retailer with a knack for finding the sweet spot between the fashionable and the timeless. This makes it a solid choice when it comes to buying a reasonably priced leather jacket that doesn’t compromise on style or build quality. Expect minimalistic designs, flattering cuts and premium materials as standard.
The Coat Maker
The Jacket Maker is a direct-to-consumer brand that combines old-fashioned tailoring techniques with the best raw materials to create both custom and ready-made leather jackets. Cutting out the middleman allows the brand to offer a premium product at an accessible price point, with each style handcrafted with full-grain leather and YKK zippers.
Not only that, The Jacket Maker also offers a tailor-made service for a perfect fit, as well as a tailor-made experience which allows you to choose everything from size and fit to style, color and personalization such as adding custom embroidery or logos for a truly unique piece.
If money was no object in your search for the perfect leather jacket, you’d be hard pressed to find better than Saint Laurent. The biker jacket from the French fashion house is one of the most iconic pieces of premium menswear available, featuring buttery soft Italian leather, a slim-fit silhouette and a luxurious satin lining.
Schott’s “Perfecto” leather biker jacket was the garment that started it all. Worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (above), it quickly achieved iconic status and maintains it to this day. If you’re looking for the original and the best, Schott is the brand to buy from.
Buck Mason takes classic Americana staples and updates them for the modern man. The leather jacket fits the bill perfectly as it is a core part of American subcultures such as greasers, punks and bikers. Each piece is made from the finest hides and made in factories that are constantly monitored and revised to ensure the highest construction standards and ethical working practices.
With a background in motorcycle clothing, Belstaff is a British brand that really knows its way around a good leather jacket. These belted beauties have been worn by everyone from David Beckham to Brad Pitt, further cementing the label’s iconic status. And if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
Developed from the need for outerwear that can withstand whatever the environment throws at it, Taylor Stitch produces high quality pieces designed to last. His leather jackets are the epitome of this mantra, cut from the very best hide (including limited amount of deadstock materials) and handcrafted on American soil. These are future family heirlooms if you take good care of them.
Buy a vintage leather jacket
One of the best things about owning a leather jacket is the patina that develops on the material over time – the folds and fades in the material that make each piece unique. They usually take years to develop, but a quick way to get the look is to buy vintage.
Visit any retro clothing store, market stall, car boot sale, or vintage revival and you’ll find well-crafted styles already aged like a good single malt. Look for tears in the leather and check that the lining hasn’t come off the jacket, but don’t worry too much. The mileage is part of the objection.
Second-hand marketplaces such as Beyond Retro, Grailed, and Vestiaire Collective are also excellent starting places.
Take care of a leather jacket
A leather jacket is a real investment, but if you want it to last, you have to take good care of it. Fortunately, that’s pretty easy to do.
All you really need to keep that leather clean, soft and supple is a cloth, some water and a natural leather conditioner, free of dyes or nasty chemicals.
First remove any dirt or stains with the cloth and a little water. Once that’s done, use another cloth to apply a small amount of conditioner to the fabric, working it in using circular motions. Repeat this over the entire surface of the garment until it is sufficiently fed and remove the excess with paper towels.