What to Look For in a High End Leather Jacket

With the last article covering why leather jackets are so great, hopefully you are now interested in purchasing one yourself or maybe a second one if you already have one (you can check out that article here: https://almostvintagestyle.com/2018/09/14/what-makes-leather-jackets-so-special/ ). Thanks to a very fruitful discussion with my friends Rob AKA @raw.denim.ocd and Noah AKA @leatherandraw on Instagram, I realized that before listing my top 10 most recommended leather jacket brands to purchase from, I should probably explain what I actually think goes into a great one and what you should look for when purchasing a high end leather jacket.

In my mind, there are 5 major factors to look at when deciding on a leather jacket and they are design, fit, leather, construction, and price. Some aspects are more important than others depending on the individual, but all are extremely important in deciding on one, especially considering how much an investment it is. In terms of average price per unit, leather jackets are the most expensive item in the raw denim and classic workwear wardrobe, so it is of the utmost importance to choose wisely. With that said, let’s jump into what to look for.

Design – The first thing to look at when deciding on a leather jacket is the actual design of the jacket itself. This is going to be what jumps out at you most. With so many different designs, choosing can be difficult. There are several major types of jackets that most people are already well aware of such as:

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Flight jacket/bomber jacket: This includes classic models such as the A1, A2, G1, and more specialized models such as the B3 and B6.

bcEGAepImage via Ben Braun

Café Racer: Simple, clean, with few pockets, and a mandarin collar, you would be surprised how different each model can look from one another

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Half Belt: Probably the most safe and standard option for a leather jacket with a standard collar, hand warmer pockets, and a standard length. Safe doesn’t have to mean boring.

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Image via The Real McCoys

Cross zip: Most people just call this the motorcycle jacket, but they forget that the cross zip was actually originally an aviation design. This is probably the most recognizable leather jacket design and has a large amount of variations

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Cossack/Campus: Both names are used for this shawl collar, button front jacket with handwarmer pockets. A great alternative to a half belt

canuck_med_brown_shinki_front_2048xImage via Himel Bros

Car coat: While sharing the button front of the campus jacket, the collar is not a shawl design, the length is far longer, and it generally does not have diagonal handwarmer pockets. One of the more rare leather jacket types, this one is great for people who don’t like to tuck in their shirts

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Grizzly: Possibly the most unique of the classic leather jacket designs. This model gets its name from the ‘fur’ panels that are sewn together with the leather panels. The fur panels are either mouton fur or hair on hide panels from horses or cows.

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Image via Rakuten

Jean jacket: With denim jackets being so popular, it is not too surprising to see the same designs made out of leather as well. If you know the Type I, II, and III looks, then you’ll know what to expect with these.

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Image via Rakuten

Leather shirt: These are basically just shirts made out of leather and nearly always western style shirts with snap buttons.

There are other styles of course, but I would consider these to be the main types of leather jacket models. While none of these types is better than the other and it is up to you to choose between them, it is important to keep in mind that there are many variations just in terms of design within each of these types.

For example, look at these two cross zip jackets here:

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Image via Topman

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Image via Freewheelers

Apart from obvious differences in leather, the designs here are completely different, despite being the same general type of jacket. Not only are specific details different, but the actual cut and patterns are totally divergent.  In my opinion, the first jacket is very bland and generic in terms of design. The zipper pockets are very awkwardly placed, making the jacket look rather square and the cut very flat looking. There is no shape to the design. The jacket seems to be designed for a mannequin or a very skinny model, not an actual human being.

The second jacket, on the other hand, while having far more going on, appears much more cohesively designed to my eye. The zipper pocket placements are far more interesting and well thought out, the large lapels may not be too everyone’s liking, but they are striking and certainly help the jacket stand out. In addition, the jacket is far better patterned. The body and arms are shaped more, with the arms clearly slimming down from the shoulders to the cuff and the body tapering to the waist and then flaring back out slightly at the bottom. All of this makes the jacket look more natural and better fit for a real person. In comparison, the first jacket looks sterile to me.

These are the types of design features to be looked at. While sometimes seemingly small, they can add up to make a huge difference. Ask yourself if you want a very plain or very intricate back design for your jacket and if you like the look of zippered or buttoned cuffs. Do the placement of the pockets look good to you? Does the cut of the jacket look and feel right? These are very personal preferences and it is very important to do more than simply decide that you want a cross zip or a half belt jacket. Look at as many variations of the type or types of jackets you like most and pick which ones really look best to you.

The second jacket in the comparison above shows what kind of design elements that I personally look for. The large lapels are unique and very striking without being distracting. The zippers are well placed and suit the cut of the jacket and importantly, there are not too many of them. I also love the buttoned belt loops on the bottom and the fact that the sleeves and body are very nicely shaped in terms of cut.

Fit and Customization: This is even more personal than the last category. If the jacket does not fit you, then you should not buy it. If possible, try the jacket you want on in person. The best option is to order from a company that will make the jacket to your exact size specifications. This allows the jacket to be made exactly to your body and and fit preferences.

While fit is certainly personal preference, in my and many other people’s views, leather jackets generally look better when certain parameters of fit are met. Firstly, as a general rule, leather jackets should fit a little snug. Obviously, you should be able to zip or button them up comfortably and move around in them without looking like a character in a Good Times animated movie. Still, for a leather jacket to look best, it will feel a little restrictive, especially when compared to a similarly sized sweatshirt or denim jacket. This is due not only to the fit, but also the leather itself.

PRT_5670_20170210Image via Freewheelers

This jacket here is a perfect example of how a leather jacket should fit on the slimmer side. The sleeves are trim, but as the pictures show, can still be moved and bent very easily. Fully zipped up, there is no excess bunching of the leather and the jacket is not too long or too short. You can also see that the shoulders are neither too short or too long. This is about as good as a jacket can fit in my view. It looks like it was made for him (and it very well may be as this is the owner of Freewheelers modelling his own brand’s jacket).

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These pictures here show a great example of a slightly more comfortable fit for a leather jacket. I specifically specified the measurements of this jacket to be a little bit more relaxed than my other ones. The sleeves are not too tight, but are not baggy either and they still hit my wrist perfectly. The chest has a little extra room in it, but it is definitely not oversized and the shoulders are also perfectly fit. This is as loose as I would ever go in the fit of a leather jacket. Any looser and the sleeves and body would look baggy,  It is slim enough to still look good, but I did size this jacket for comfort first and only did so because I already had two other jackets that fit much slimmer and the jacket I bought after this one also fits tighter.

Leather: If you are riding a motorcycle, then you probably want something very strong and substantial such as Vanson’s competition weight cowhide or Lost World’s 4oz horsehide. Otherwise, you have a lot more options on your hands. In fact, there are so many different leathers available that I can and probably will eventually write an entire article just on leather for jackets. To attempt to keep this already long article from becoming unbearable, I will instead focus on what I like and what I try to avoid in my jacket leathers. To clarify, some people do prefer chrome or combination tanned leather, but for my money, the beauty, luster, depth, feel, color, and aging of vegetable tanned leather cannot be beat and to me, makes the most sense in a clothing subculture that worships the aging of goods. As such, all of my favorite jacket leathers are vegetable tanned and I would likely never buy a chrome tanned leather jacket under any circumstance.

Here is an example of a leather that I would suggest avoiding:

schott-nyc-perfecto-jacket-featImage via Highsnobiety

These are some examples of my favorite jacket leather, Shinki Hikaku:

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fw_1631013_maiImage via Rakuten (I apologize for using a picture with a shirt untucked like this)

The first example is not vegetable tanned while the other examples are. The first example has leather that appears dull and lifeless in comparison to the Shinki which has a beautiful sheen to it that looks very lustrous without being shiny or looking like plastic. The grain on the first jacket is very uniform and pebbly, making it look almost artificial even though I am pretty sure that it is not. It does not look very natural at all. The grain on my Shinki jackets vary quite a lot more. There are some examples that are smoother at first, but not artificially so while other examples are much more grainy from the start, as the pictures show. Importantly, the grain is more variable, more uneven, and looks much more natural which to me makes it far more beautiful. Additionally, the way Shinki ages causes the grain to come out and become more noticeable over time, which is one of the characteristics prized about this leather.

The color on the first jacket is a dull black that has no depth and to me, looks quite plain and uninteresting. The Shinki jackets have a far deeper, richer color that is much more vibrant and enticing. Even the black Shinki leather is more alive, deep, and interesting to look at than the non-Shinki jacket. The way I would describe this leather is rich, deep, complex, and with beautiful aging over time that only increases its quality.

Shinki is of course not the only great vegetable tanned jacket leather. I simply used it as an example because it is my personal favorite and I have the most experience with it. Other great vegetable tanned leathers include goatskin from Himel Bros and Good Wear, Italian horse hides used by brands such as Aero(called Vicenza), Fine Creek Leathers, Himel Bros, Eastman, and Thedi, Japanese vegetable tanned cowhide used by Tenjin Works, and Badalassi Carlo cowhide.

Here are some examples of these leathers below and you can see that they are quite stunning. I could and would describe many of these leathers in similar ways to Shinki, but with their own, unique characteristics as well. Shinki may be my gold standard, but it does not have to be yours and you may prefer these leathers yourself. In fact, I desperately want a Badalassi jacket and if more companies used it, I’d probably have as many Badalassi jackets as Shinki jackets.

collar1Badalassi leather… OH MY GOODNESS THAT IS BEAUTIFUL! Image via Good Wear 

 

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Areo Vicenza – Image via Aero Leather

22070667_1819542075023831_3515368755397918720_nTenjin Works veg tanned cowhide – Image via user Superfluous on The Fedora Lounge

A-2 ELC SHHEastman Italian horsehide – Image via Eastman Leather

Thedi-Leathers-Buffalo-Jacket-Shawl-Neck-TanThedi Buffalo leather – Image via UBS Classics

Construction: Considering that a leather jacket is to me, such an object of beauty, and one that should last for decades, construction is extremely important. In my mind, construction is where great jackets are separated from good jackets. From what I have seen, leather jackets are one of the most difficult products in our classic wardrobe to construct cleanly so when companies do a great job, it truly impresses me.  Below are some more comparison examples to show what you should look for.

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This pocket has quite a few problems with it. The stitching is not completely straight in several places as you can see and the sides are not lined up well with the pocket with the space in between the pocket on the top right being much larger than the gap at the bottom right. The corners of the stitching are not tight or sharp at all and the corners are rounded unevenly while the stitches are uneven in size on the side. There is also very visible pulling on the leather that you can see emanating from the stitch holes. The final major issue here is the fact that you can very clear see the backing of the pocket outlined by the leather, which looks very sloppy and unattractive to my eyes. A high stitch count is the only positive trait here along with the fact that there are not loose or missing stitches. Otherwise, this one pocket is a textbook on what you should probably be avoiding in your own leather jacket purchase.

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This picture of a different area of the same jacket shows cleaner and straighter stitching, but also shows some less than perfectly joined seems. Notice the bulging at the top right fold/seem. This is very unsightly and shows less than clean work on something other than stitching. You can learn more about this jacket and why I sold it here: https://almostvintagestyle.com/2017/08/05/my-first-quality-leather-jacket-and-why-i-sold-it-diamond-dave-buco-j-100-review/

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This jacket shows a couple of issues. You can plainly see that the belt and the body of the jacket itself have very different looking stitches with the belt stitches being much wider despite the leather being the same. Additionally, the stitching on the body of the jacket looks poor to my eye. It does not look very neat and appears to be pushing into the leather too hard as the bottom fold of the jacket and the leather inside of the stitch line appear to bulge up and the leather on the stitch line is forced down, making everything uneven. Finally, there is some very obvious loose thread here on the bottom left of the panel.

Aero_Premier_1930s_Half_Belt_chest_pocket

Image via Thurston Bros.

Here is an example of much better construction than the examples shown above. There are no major flaws, but there are still issues that I personally see. The corners are still a little rounded and the short, more vertical parts of the stitching are not completely lined up with the pocket and the leather surrounding the pocket is not even. You can also see that the stitching is pushing into the leather  because the leather above the top pocket stitching is bulging out slightly. Finally, the stitch count is not all that high. To me, higher stitch count is a sign of greater attention to finer details and is required to cleanly create the most intricate patterns. It looks much more neat and artful to me and therefore is a major indicator of higher end jacket quality in my view. With that said, this example is still good overall and a massive upgrade over the previous three examples.

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This picture here shows what I look for in leather jacket construction. The leather panels are the best cut and fitted so far and there is no outline of the leather underneath coming through because on this jacket and everything has been precisely placed. Stitching here is excellent. The stitch count is high because 100% cotton thread is used, which also means that the stitching is done three times as slowly compared to other thread types. As a result, there is no pulling on the leather where the stitches go into the jacket and the stitching is tight, straight, precise, and fairly intricate as well. The corners are sharp and the lines are straight. Personally, I see a massive difference between this picture and even the one right before it with this being vastly more appealing to me.

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This example, from the same jacket, shows very clean stitching again along with very well fitting seams. The cleaner folds and lack of any bulging or unevenness looks much sleeker than the joints of the second picture in this section.

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Here, we get to what I would consider the pinnacle of construction. The panels are evenly cut, perfectly placed, and there is no bulging or unevenness whatsoever. The stitching is almost unbelievably straight, neat, and with a very high stitch count. What really puts this over the edge is the increased intricacy of the construction. There is more stitching on this example than any of the others, meaning there is the most chance for something to go wrong, yet this is the cleanest example so far. There is stitching on the inner piece of leather as well as extra lines of stitching on the outside. Also, notice that there are lines of stitching that trace over each other on the sides of the pockets at the base of the triangle design. These lines perfectly match up with each other, which keeps everything looking very neat and clean.

Price: To me, price does not actually factor into the overall quality of the jacket at all. It only matters in terms of what jacket you can afford and as a determining factor of whether a jacket is worth the price to you or not. For example, you may appreciate the leather and construction of a Freewheelers piece, but be unable to afford one which means you must decide whether to save up for one or buy something less expensive. In this case, I would advise to wait and save. I made compromises in the past and always regretted them. If you have your heart set on something, it is always worth the wait and you will almost assuredly spend less money in the long run this way.

The other way money factors in is if you think something is worth the price being charged. You may like a Flat Head jacket, but not be willing to pay the price for one even if you can afford it. I, for example, could afford to buy the Schott 90th anniversary jacket, but I would never purchase it because I perceive its value to be less than half of what they are charging for it. At $1,250, I personally believe the leather, design,  and construction quality are not worth the asking price at all given that Aero and Thedi offer more precise construction, much more interesting and beautiful leathers, and in my opinion, more appealing designs for the same price or less and Rainbow Country offers nearly top quality construction and my favorite leather for only around $200 more.

All of my analysis of design, leathers, and construction may seem pedantic to you and that is perfectly OK. If you simply want a fairly well made, tough leather jacket that is not a fashion mall jacket, then Vanson and Johnson Leathers will be perfect for you at around $600 for their more affordable options. This article is meant to educate those who may not know too much about leather jackets and I think this is relevant given how few leather jacket owners their actually are in the raw denim world.

Equally, it is meant to explain what I look for in leather jackets so you as a reader understand what my perspective is when I look at a leather jacket, whether you already were or were not aware of everything I mentioned here. These are my opinions and I want to be up front with them in order to help you best understand the perspective of my reviews and articles. In the future, I will be doing articles like this for boots, jeans, and other products as well. I hope you found this article informative in some way and I hope you stick around to read my list of top ten leather jacket brands coming up soon.

If you have any further questions do not hesitate to email me at jrtillbrook@gmail.com or dm me on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/almostvintagestyle/ . I am always happy to discuss jackets or anything else and answer any inquiries.

Again, special shout out to Rob AKA @raw.denim.ocd who can be found on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/raw.denim.ocd/  and Noah AKA @leatherandraw who can be followed on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/leatherandraw/  for helping me come to the decision to write this article

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