Swellboy on... the safari jacket

Nick Foulkes muses on the safari jacket’s multifarious modern incarnations. Illustration by Chris Burke

Image: Chris Burke

There are times when I surprise myself with the lengths to which I will go in pursuit of sartorial authenticity. Take my continued quest for the perfect safari jacket.

I possess neither elephant rifle nor the strength nor inclination to go wandering around Africa looking for some large animal to point it at. In fact, I have only been to Africa once and that was to Marrakech to see the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. However, I have not let that fact stand in my way. 

I once read that the ultimate safari jacket was made by Abercrombie & Fitch. Back in the days of action-man president Teddy Roosevelt and He-Man author Ernest Hemingway, A&F apparently collaborated with expedition outfitter Willis & Geiger to develop a performance jacket for the big game hunter: the model 486, made using densely woven cotton (some 340 strands to the inch). I had never seen this garment – and should never have gone looking for it when I found myself in New York at a loose end some years ago.

A&F had changed rather a lot since Hemingway’s day. As neither a wearer of tracksuits nor a teenager, I had been kept in the dark about its transformation into a leisurewear brand for teenagers.

The “vibe” was subterranean. But instead of Cerberus, this underworld was guarded by young people in states of undress; this was in the days when A&F promoted its clothes by having models wear very few of them. It was also dark as Hades and, to mix my theologies, I felt slightly more decrepit than Methuselah. It was plain that the idea of locating Hemingway’s safari jacket and perhaps swapping a few thoughts on the oeuvre of Sir Laurens van der Post with the sales associate was a little like going to McDonald’s and asking for the sommelier to bring the wine list.

I got closer to the Hemingway myth when I was writing my book about Beretta and handled his shotgun, which can be seen at the Italian gunmaker’s Madison Avenue gallery. These days Beretta makes safari jackets (from $295) too, and I have a couple; indeed, if I need a safari jacket fix I can usually get it at a gunsmith. I also have a handsome one c1999 in olive linen from Holland & Holland. I wear it in Cuba as I feel it lends the gravitas of a foreign correspondent, the colour is respectful of the revolutionary heritage of the island nation, and the pockets can accommodate the contents of a box of cigars.

The safari jacket is remarkably multivalent. It is the surprisingly successful outcome of a crossbreeding experiment involving a trench coat and a Norfolk jacket. There are the belt and epaulettes of the trench, the pockets and silhouette of the Norfolk. It really is the Swiss Army knife of garments: seemingly limitless potential for adding pockets big and small for every conceivable item.

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But the most versatile thing is that once you understand the word “safari” derives from the Swahili for “journey”, and that you do not need to be killing so much as a mosquito, the garment comes into its own. Audie Charles calls those she sells at Anderson & Sheppard “travel jackets” (£1,750), and counts 11 pockets – some small and secret enough to hold a single credit card, others capable of taking a paperback (presumably by Hemingway) – and there are loops for controlling headphone cables, something upon which Hemingway always insisted. 

The sheer usefulness of the thing beyond the savannah means that many outfitters are now re-examining its allure. Michael Hill at Drake’s is experimenting with some chambray linen overshirts (£245) with safari styling. “Very fresh, very Drake’s,” he says. 

Nick Ashley of Private White VC is near messianic on the subject, proselytising it as the ultimate panacea: if not quite the answer to the meaning of life, then at least the solution to summer sartorial conundra. Private White is offering a trio of takes: a traditional belted one (£450); what Ashley calls a “desert-rat-style field jacket”; and something short “that Alain Delon might wear” (both £395). “I love safari jackets. They solve everyone’s problems. They are just…” he pauses, searching for the right rhetorical flourish… “sex.” 

Ashley’s is a convert’s zeal; he was not always so enthusiastic. “I grew up seeing 1960s TV presenter Cliff Michelmore in safari trouser suits,” he says with a grimace. “It was only going to Pitti Uomo each summer that helped me rectify my view. I saw people wearing them over tailored gear in a particularly Italian way, or bare-chested with a suntan and fantastic pair of shades. Italians give it va-va-voom.” 

And he is right. My epiphany came last winter in the renovated Zegna store on New Bond Street. I was chatting with my friend Alessandro Sartori, the artistic director; whatever he had to say was fascinating, but my eye kept drifting towards a mannequin with a safari jacket, the waist suppressed by an internal cord. It was double-sided cashmere – wonderful if one were going on safari for woolly mammoth, but a trifle hot for days spent under the African sun. This released the jacket from any climatic connotations, letting it soar freely as a conceptual garment. 

For the Italians it is less a garment, more a philosophy; so it is apt that Brunello Cucinelli, fashion’s philosopher, has gone long on safaris this summer: gorgeous suede things (£4,460) that hover between shirt and jacket, allowing the sleeves to roll up and make you feel you are on holiday.

Kean Etro is another Italian to explore the safari jacket’s spiritual dimension. “Wear it to hunt your own ghosts” is his advice, and while I would not have thought of it as the perfect ghostbusting garment, the paisley print safari (£910) I have my eye on would certainly have appealed to Peter Wyngarde, who recently passed into the spiritual world.

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Isy Ettedgui, Connolly’s owner, also headed to Italy – to make a vicuña-soft, parchment-fine suede safari (£2,600) so smooth it would make Roger Moore, the patron saint of safari jacket wearers, seem positively abrasive. She has just one piece of advice. “It is so light and soft that I probably wouldn’t wear it on safari.”

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