The overcoat is a mainstay of a gentleman’s wardrobe that’s often overlooked. A good one is a statement of sartorial intent. For many men, however, it is an afterthought and a lost opportunity, a default navy in a big, boxy cut. Men who are meticulous about their suits curiously ignore the fact that during winter it’s their overcoat that makes the first impression. Even those who rarely wear suits are well-served by a coat worn on less formal terms, over a sweater or with jeans. Today, more and more tailors are offering bespoke styles in a range of fabrics and silhouettes that return the overcoat to what it should be: a personal expression that transcends mere function.
The overcoat has a distinguished history. Napoleon rode ahead of his troops in a double-breasted grey coat; Winston Churchill wore his with an astrakhan-lined collar and cuffs; and George Stanhope, 6th Earl of Chesterfield, is credited with the rise of the Chesterfield around 1840, a slim-fitting overcoat that typically features a velvet collar. It would have surprised the Earl to know that the coat was to become a favourite of Al Capone over a century later.
For an overcoat that honours history, head to a tailor that’s an integral part of that history. Anderson & Sheppard has outfitted the great and the good since 1906. After the first world war, men of means looking for a less rigid civilian version of what they had worn in the Army and Navy turned to the Savile Row tailor. The coat Anderson & Sheppard created – below-the-knee length, double-breasted with peak lapels – has evolved into one that remains a standard of British tailoring. “At the core of our house style is the English drape cut: a now classic suiting silhouette,” says Colin Heywood, its current managing director. This is a formal coat in true Savile Row tradition. It’s the sort favoured by Prince Charles, a long-time Anderson & Sheppard patron, who has worn one of its dark-blue double-breasted wool overcoats (from £5,280) with turn-back cuffs for many years. (A first-time customer at Anderson & Sheppard will need four visits – from measuring to final fitting – a requirement echoed by most tailors I spoke to.)
Italian overcoats, like Italian suits, are structurally more relaxed than their English counterparts – they’re softer with a more laidback silhouette. The fabric is the star and there’s no brighter star than vicuña. Trade in vicuña – the incredibly fine fibre from a South American camelid – became illegal in 1975 as the animal was hunted to near extinction. But numbers have recovered and restrictions were relaxed in 1994 and again in 2002, though the sale of the wool is still strictly controlled. Ermenegildo Zegna, which began its history as a textile firm, offers vicuña in its New Bond Street location. It is sinfully soft and can be treated to make it waterproof, so there’s no need to fear the elements, even if the coat (£13,500) costs as much as a small car.
Rubinacci, the storied Neapolitan tailor, has a shop in Mayfair. Luca Rubinacci, the creative director and grandson of the founder (himself something of a style icon), says that its Ulster overcoat (£5,200) is its classic offering. The Ulster has evolved since Sherlock Holmes wore his with an attached cape – the cape has gone now but it’s still often made in a herringbone, or other textured fabric, with a belt. Rubinacci describes the Neapolitan ideal: “Double-breasted, peak lapel, six-buttons rolled-two, single-vent, cut-pocket, length above the knee.” Six-buttons rolled-two means the lapel rolls out all the way down to fasten at the bottom button. This expressive lapel on an unstructured coat is typical of southern Italian tailoring, and, in one of Rubinacci’s archival fabrics, would look at home on a Fellini hero heading for a late-night grappa, but perhaps less so on an admiral above decks in the British Navy.
Kiton, another famed Neapolitan tailor, is known for coats with wider lapels in textured fabrics and with a minimum of structure. Customers are measured at its Clifford Street store in London, then a paper pattern is cut and the overcoat is sewn at its workshop in the motherland. Kiton recommends a model (from £9,300) preferred by Ciro Paone, legendary founder of the firm: double-breasted with a wide martingale lapel, which has a very deep notch. The fabric has evolved from one in the archives of Kiton’s wool mill. Now it is even softer, combining cashmere with alpaca, silk and mohair. A more conventional take that still has Italian flair is a grey single-breasted, peak-lapel coat (£8,400) in an indulgent cashmere/linen/silk blend, cut on the shorter side.
Bespoke tailoring, of course, offers highly personalised details, like specific pockets for vital accessories, such as an iPhone, cigars or flask. Some men prefer the richness of horn buttons in deep brown. Others hide the buttons entirely behind a fly front, a formal option for a single-breasted coat. The colour of the velvet collar on the Chesterfield can also be customised, as can the length of the coat. But the real excitement is in the extraordinary choice available today. Ermenegildo Zegna offers a service (from £4,800) where it weaves a custom textile that approximates to any tweed or pattern a client desires. If a man wants to recreate his grandfather’s greatcoat, that’s possible. And because of advances in technology, Zegna can do this in lighter fibres than were available half a century ago. The result is a more versatile fabric combined with a design with a sense of history.
Meanwhile, at Huntsman’s outpost on West 57th Street in New York, one mannequin is dressed in a classic green and brown tweed stalking coat (available bespoke, price on request) with soft shoulders and rounded raglan sleeves. It was made for Gregory Peck, a committed Huntsman client, who wore it in the film The Omen, in 1976. US director Edward Turco calls it a “conversation starter” that encourages men to be more adventurous. He says it has “generated a renewed interest in similar heavy tweeds.”
Newer tailors are also keeping pace. Miller’s Oath was founded in Manhattan by Kirk Miller in 2010, with a devoted following of younger men who responded to his slim silhouettes and modern take on English tailoring. Miller’s Oath has made many grand tweed coats such as a double-breasted wool herringbone style ($3,950), but newer silhouettes are gaining traction. It recently made what Miller called “a hybrid pea coat-trench” (from $4,500) from Escorial wool. “It is a basic navy, but has so much texture and depth that it works equally well over suits Monday to Friday and sweaters and trousers at weekends.”