Rugged, multi-pocketed waistcoats or utility vests – the sort worn for combat, fishing or safaris – are making the transition into mainstream menswear, reworked in interesting fabrics and modernised designs, some even elevated to stylish tailored pieces. Initially, I was sceptical, but I’ve since come to appreciate the updated style afresh.
At Louis Vuitton’s spring/summer 2019 show, new men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh introduced his notion of “accessomorphosis: the transformation of an accessory into a garment”. In other words, bags turned into clothes. Central to this were white leather monogrammed vests (£5,500) with archive LV pochette designs, and orange and bright green wool/cotton ribbed utility gilets (£2,340). These made a strong impact worn over shirts and voluminous trouser combos. As well as military- and sportswear, these vest styles also take their cue from streetwear – from bags strapped across the body.
Dean Cook, buying manager at cutting-edge Mayfair store Browns, points out that while “military style has long been a menswear staple and utility vests have been part of our collections for the past three years,” what’s exciting now is “a strong new influx for spring from technical and cult brands.” Check out black military styles (£480) updated with reflective patches and pink PVC pouch edging from Heron Preston, and fishing-inspired Japanese nylon versions (£365) with large map pockets from And Wander. Worn over knits, T-shirts or shirts, these vests ratchet up the action/sports feel and are also, continues Cook, “a great way to layer between seasons, add a new dimension to an outfit and up the functionality.”
For those interested in a conventional tack, try Noma TD’s stretch-polyester field vest (£355), which combines military-inspired style with fishing details, and Woolrich’s indigo cotton/nylon trail vest (£285), which feels like classic vintage Americana. But utility vests are also a great medium for an edgy, futuristic-meets-special forces cool, and several brands capitalise on this. Take Japanese streetwear brand Portvel’s high‑density gabardine vest (£660), or cutting-edge British brand A-Cold-Wall, which also looks to urban surveillance for its gilets-cum-backpacks (£517) in red or black nylon/polyamide, and wine nylon/polyamide puffa styles (£824).
Stone Island also channels this space‑age-meets military mode. Its Shadow Projects padded vest (£550) can be worn alone or layered underneath the brand’s outer pieces, attached with snap fastenings. The lightly padded “Hollowcore” fabric – in sea blue and quartz – is lightweight and water-repellent. Diagonal pockets and large vertical zip compartments add to its functional appearance. I’m also keen on the brand’s new sportswear-inspired sweatshirt gilet (£475) with its configuration of different pocket sizes.
Other interesting fabric choices can be found at Abloh’s own brand Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh, which uses denim for its oversized, street-style multipocket vest (£585). At Junya Watanabe, there’s a wool check vest (£905). And at Nanamica, there’s a down-filled vest (£280) with streamlined, jetted and diagonally opening pockets that uses micro-polyester taffeta with a matte, water-repellent finish and slight stretch. The matte finish works particularly well over smarter clothes, while photoelectronic down keeps body warmth from escaping, says founder Eiichiro Homma. It’s light and comfortable to wear, and the half‑burgundy model is especially cool.
Elsewhere, elegant materials are used to create smart-casual, even tailored, pieces. Take Brunello Cucinelli, where there’s a navy cotton‑velvet reversible vest (£2,170) and a lightweight, water-resistant wool, silk and cashmere flannel model (£2,370) with hood. At Wales Bonner, there’s a wool sleeveless vest-jacket (£592) with epaulettes, and at P Johnson, utility vests (£215) come in beige and navy brushed-cotton twill with a rich “suedey” handle. Founder Patrick Johnson wears his designs with smart styles and tailoring, attracted by their nonchalant elegance combined with practicality. “I’ve always admired the low-key confidence with which older Japanese and Italian guys wear vests,” he says. “At first I designed mine specially for travel – and moving through airports with ease. You can whip them off quickly when going through security, and they also provide easy, secure access to tickets, etc.” But he now wears them almost all the time. I understand where he’s coming from. Whereas I once consigned fishing-style gilets to the garden – now I’m considering a fluoro vest to wear with tailoring.