October 04 2009
This autumn, for the first time in many years, luxury brands have rethought their core values and deemed the noble overcoat officially fashionable, indeed vital to their runway performances. The change has come about through the convergence of two menswear trends: the growing popularity of traditional tailoring and fabrics, and a new vision of masculinity based on creating a strong, upright presence.
Traditional British sartorial values have served the old guard well through the decades, and they are now being embraced by younger, more fashion-forward fellows. First came the return to smartness and adoption of Savile Row standards, heralding a rigour and finesse not seen in the mainstream style arena for decades. Now the trend is defined by the use of much heavier fabrics, and this is something the Brits are particularly good at.
Military tailor and outfitter E Tautz is the embodiment of established British sartorial values – Winston Churchill, Edward VII and the kings of Spain and Italy were devotees – and the label is part of Norton & Sons’ Savile Row stable. Its single-breasted, fly-front coat with a striking shoulder line is an exercise in deft cutting (£1,600). “It’s made in a sturdy cavalry twill which keeps its shape beautifully and won’t wear out at the cuffs or collars,” says E Tautz director Patrick Grant. “We make few overcoats from cashmere as it balls after 20 wears. The epitome of English elegance is a simple military, stand-up look. The stiffness is what makes you look so good. Like a guardsman, in fact.”
The simple fly-front coat is a never-bettered English classic design, and can be flattering if you’re short of height and even rich in girth. A stoically restrained dark herringbone wool version from Hackett is nicely understated, even with its peak lapel (£495).
The significance of fabric is underlined by the fact that the coats often take their colloquial name from the cloth from which they are cut. John Crombie established a woollen mill in the 1800s to supply a specific weave, which was frequently used for a large military coat known as the British Warm. A pared-down version that we would recognise as the Crombie, which was distinctive for having no waist and often a velvet collar, was developed for racing and other country sporting occasions.
The four or more lines of stitching at the cuffs and on the hemline are allegedly designed to stop rain dripping onto a racegoer’s trousers and gloves. Just to confuse matters, the Crombie is also called a Covert Coat, but again Covert itself is a type of two-tone whipcord cloth that gives a marbled appearance (Crombie Covert Coat, £675). Aside from its popularity with various youth cultures, including some well-turned-out skinheads, it was also worn by Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited the UK as Soviet leader in 1984. Carlo Brandelli, former creative director of Kilgour, cites his style of choice as “three-quarter, single-breasted and fly-fronted either on or just below the knee, and super-dark navy in a textured solid cloth, such as a boiled wool for that chic-of-the-moment bohemian, military look.”
The double-breasted overcoat is another menswear trend that is building some impetus, and it affords a distinguished look to those with some height. Prince Charles has been wearing his beloved Anderson & Sheppard tweed with patch pockets, which was made for use in the countryside, since 1988 (from £3,277).
Bespoke, of course, gives the ultimate in choice of fabric and nuance or detail. This kind of cut ensures, for example, that a special flick-up occurs at the back when the wearer walks – an added act of sartorial elegance. Ritchie Charlton, tailor at Hayward, explains his steadfast position on overcoats: “I’m against superfluous detail as a coat’s form follows function. Requests for internal pockets for specific uses are acceptable, or slightly piped linings, perhaps, but I’m a hardliner and I encourage tradition.”
Aristocrats are a good reference point for overcoat styles, especially the smart Duke of Windsor, a long-standing customer of Gieves & Hawkes. Frederik Willems, head of design at the outfitter, referenced archive photos of the Duke from the 1930s and 1940s, basing a luxurious cashmere herringbone coat on this silhouette (£995). “It has authentic details, such as horn buttons and buckle, and a newspaper pocket on the inside. Back vents create movement, and gauntlet cuffs are functional and elegant,” says Willems. It’s impossible to put one on and not assume a noble swagger.
British label Burberry opened its Prorsum show with overcoats that had a Withnail & I dishevelled quality. The best were sombre and shambling with raglan sleeves (£1,595). Burberry’s London collection has wearable pieces for a real man about town. A grey wool coat has great proportions and neat half-belt, a reference to its riding origins (£1,195).
From Dunhill, a double-breasted camel cashmere overcoat is also notable (£1,695). Its autumn collection is the first under creative director Kim Jones. Although the Paris show had a directional asymmetric coat detailing teamed with tiny hats, this article has not been tampered with. “It’s a relevant, grown-up look. The overcoat is a perfect example of Dunhill’s ‘future classics’ concept – heirloom pieces that can be styled depending on the age of the wearer.”
The Italian take on the overcoat is frequently less fitted and often even more deluxe. Loro Piana and Brioni both trimmed their coats in mink – Brioni’s collar is lined in detachable Stardust mink, and the trim is sheared mink (also detachable) hence its towering price (£24,990). I know of a Goldman Sachs executive who wears one and deploys the fur for impact on special evenings. Loro Piana uses Pecora Nera, an undyed fabric composed of wool from dark-coloured sheep (£2,735).
Italian fashion brands are heralding a move away from skinny silhouettes towards a wider, more imposing form. At Dolce & Gabbana’s runway show, pared-down black double-breasted coats (about €1,625) with narrow ties, flat caps and gloves were a dynamic take on the look. Charcoal grey was also much in evidence at the shows. Prada’s version in a silk/cashmere Prince of Wales check (£1,025) is beautifully understated.
Zegna has walked the Milan catwalk three times now and its collections are much stronger, possibly due to the extra focus needed for runway shows. Its 1940s-flavoured camel cashmere semi-trench coat looks both noble and relaxed (£2,295).
Ralph Lauren’s take on the overcoat (Purple Label, £5,095) is very dashing, being sharply cut – I doubt whether the figure-hugging fit could accommodate a bulky suit underneath. Lauren is a master at repackaging traditional fashion in an exciting and idiosyncratic way and this coat is true to form.
The Parisian designers manipulated the traditional design of the classic. At Hermès, menswear designer Véronique Nichanian played with the cut and construction. Her double-faced cashmere belted donkey jacket (£2,930), possessed little shape and no apparent structure. A delight to wear and to look at, it is a clever, markedly different design stance. Louis Vuitton rarefied the overcoat with a version in mink-coloured cashmere (£1,840) – a far cry from a rigid durable twill or herringbone. It’s very poised, but hardly what you’d call officer material.
The overcoat couldn’t be more significant – it’s all about the power of the silhouette, giving one presence and an authoritative stride. I would not go into battle without one in the current business climate. The military credentials – formidable, manly and brave – are highly valued, and when incorporated into elegant peacetime manoeuvres the overcoat cannot fail to impress.