The reinvention of the trench coat

Puffed sleeves, appliquéd python, dramatic proportions… take your pick of this season’s contemporary spins on the classic trench, says Clare Coulson

From left: Maison Margiela cotton canvas trench, £2,100. Michael Kors wool gabardine trench, £2,420. Altuzarra python Mesquite trench, £23,495
From left: Maison Margiela cotton canvas trench, £2,100. Michael Kors wool gabardine trench, £2,420. Altuzarra python Mesquite trench, £23,495 | Image: © Michael Kors Collection

If any piece of clothing can be called iconic then the trench coat is probably it: a design so popular and pragmatic it has never really been out of style since its invention more than a century ago.

One of a group of enduring staples, like white T-shirts and blue jeans, it is both  utterly democratic and ageless, as wasexpertly demonstrated at the end of the Miu Miu spring 2017 show in Paris, when Miuccia Prada took her bow in a khaki trench cinched at the waist with a printed belt and featuring cuffs trimmed with eau de nil marabou feathers. On her feet were a pair of Tevas, the sporty Velcroed sandals seen on backpackers and surfers the world over – a nice age-defying touch from the 67-year-old designer. 

From left: Stella McCartney faux-suede Cecile trench, £1,765. Roksanda viscose twill Melba coat, £1,895
From left: Stella McCartney faux-suede Cecile trench, £1,765. Roksanda viscose twill Melba coat, £1,895

Developed during the first world war, the gabardine coats worn by army officers (no other ranks were permitted to wear them) were designed for trench warfare. They were lightweight – though sometimes lined with insulating layers – and weatherproof, with high collars, caped backs and straps on the cuffs that could be tightened during rainy spells to prevent water running down the forearms when using binoculars. 

Those practicalities still chime (though phones have replaced the binoculars), and the trench coat plays to many modern sartorial dilemmas. It is great to layer, is lightweight and travels well – and is wearable in Britain’s temperate climate almost year round. It can also be worn in very different ways: slightly cinched at the waist it can be surprisingly seductive; worn loose and layered, it can be androgynous.

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This spring, the trench coat is ubiquitous. At the Prada show, its designs (£1,710) were held together with colourful rubber and Velcro panels and trimmed with ostrich feathers. Other designers ditched neutral tones for richer palettes: John Galliano opened the Maison Margiela show with a green cotton canvas version (£2,100); Michael Kors cut his (£2,420) in fuchsia; and Stella McCartney reprised the coat (£1,765) in earthy brown. Haider Ackermann’s glorious iteration (£940) in bright cherry red and Roksanda’s rich, fluid red coat (£1,895) are long and flowing. Then there are the super-luxe editions: Altuzarra’s python one (£23,495) appliquéd with red cherries; and, at Mulberry, Johnny Coca’s in white varnished nappa (£4,995).

Other designers are keeping their trenches streamlined and utilitarian – Teija Eilola’s almond coat (£585) brings a Nordic cool, Jil Sander’s roomy cotton terracotta style (£1,170 at Matchesfashion.com) has a pragmatic feel and Maria Grazia Chiuri’s debut at Dior includes the simplest of khaki takes on the classic (£2,700) styled over ornate, floral crocheted dresses. (One of the takeaway tips from spring catwalks is that it’s perfectly acceptable now to wear a trench as a night-time cover-up.)

From left: Prada cotton and ostrich feather trench with rubber panels, £1,710. Dior cotton trench, £2,700. Sacai cotton trench, £1,375
From left: Prada cotton and ostrich feather trench with rubber panels, £1,710. Dior cotton trench, £2,700. Sacai cotton trench, £1,375

Louise Trotter, creative director at Joseph, is a devoted fan of the trench coat. Her spring collection includes dark khaki, bonded-cotton ones (£1,295) that have been reconstructed into slouchy, oversized silhouettes: “a handcrafted uniform where comfort and freedom prevail” is how Trotter described them to me from her studio in Paris (where the trench has always enjoyed cult status). “It’s a classic silhouette rooted in the history of menswear. For a designer, it’s an intriguing staple, full of details with endless possibilities for reinvention.”

And reinvention is what many designers have done this season, chopping up the original style and reworking it into new architectural shapes. Rosetta Getty has created a caped terracotta trench coat (£1,820) in water-repellent technical poplin; at Marni, khaki oversized trenches (£2,670) are looped with rope and given oversized pockets; and at Sacai the designs (£1,375) come with rope details and are similarly pumped up and exaggerated with black trimmed seams.

From left: Bottega Veneta silk trench, £1,890. Marni bonded cotton trench, £2,670
From left: Bottega Veneta silk trench, £1,890. Marni bonded cotton trench, £2,670

Some of spring’s standout trenches are by Simone Rocha, who has added her signature flourishes to coats in Prince of Wales check (£1,548) and broderie anglaise (£3,600). Her twill trench (£1,475) has wide Edwardian lapels and tie sleeves that are gathered with bands, while a collarless jacket (£2,995) is made entirely in broderie anglaise and lace. “What’s interesting is that there are so many versions this season,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com, whose favourite pieces are super-long. “I think it started with Demna Gvasalia when he sent out those architectural trenches at his first show for Balenciaga last season,” she says. “They were cut in such a modern way.”  

Few designers have reworked this classic coat as dramatically as Gvasalia, whose extraordinary spring Vetements show included an oversized open-back trench (£3,115 at Net-a-Porter). Very different but still dramatic are heavy silk examples from Gabriela Hearst that are as close as one could get to black-tie comfort dressing. Her super-long version (£1,995) in pale pink is exquisite – layered over a tonal slip dress or very fine knits with simple flat mules it would make an incredibly chic but laid-back evening outfit. Bouchra Jarrar, Lanvin’s creative director, took a similar approach with fluid satin coats (£1,500) in inky blue, which she showed layered over striped satin trousers.

Lanvin satin trench, £1,500
Lanvin satin trench, £1,500

Of course, there’s still a place for the archetypal classic too. “Women realise that investing in something as transseasonal and useful as a trench coat is super-important,” says Kingham, who cites the classic Burberry version (always in stock at Matchesfashion.com). For spring, Kingham has also bought classic trenches from Jil Sander, RED Valentino, Gucci (£2,420) and Bottega Veneta – where, incidentally, Tomas Maier celebrated the brand’s 50th anniversary by asking Lauren Hutton to model a khaki version (£1,890) that reprised her soignée wardrobe in the 1980 film American Gigolo. “I loved that,” says Kingham of Hutton’s catwalk moment. “These pieces look great and will always work, and it’s so good to see that represented in a show.”

Few brands “own” the trench as resolutely as Burberry, although there’s a hazy history when it comes to who invented the very first one, with both Burberry and Aquascutum claiming it. Certainly, Thomas Burberry, a Hampshire draper, developed the gabardine in 1879 (inspired by the linen smocks worn by Hampshire’s agricultural workers) and in 1912 he patented the Burberry Tielocken trench, which was designed for the needs of the military. When Sir Ernest Shackleton led his expedition to the Antarctic in 1907, he and his team wore Burberry gabardine coats. 

From left: Burberry cashmere trench, £1,895. Gucci cotton trench, £2,420 at Matchesfashion.com
From left: Burberry cashmere trench, £1,895. Gucci cotton trench, £2,420 at Matchesfashion.com

Chief executive and creative officer Christopher Bailey has made the iconic trench the heart and soul of the company since he arrived at Burberry in 2001. He has remade it in everything from exotic skins to velvet, suede, jacquard, lace, silk and prints; and in 2009 he launched the Art of the Trench website for fans to share images of themselves wearing Burberry’s classic – it has had almost 7m page views. “I used to get letters from people telling me the story of their trench coat, their father’s or their grandfather’s that had been passed down,” says Bailey of the site’s evolution, which he says was a way of proclaiming, “Here is this British trench coat, made in our little factory in Yorkshire, and they go all around the world and take on a whole new life of their own.” Bailey’s latest spin on the house classic is the Sandringham Fit cashmere trench (£1,795), which comes in myriad colours including pale grey, parade red, camel, empire blue and kelly green. There’s also a puff-sleeved version (£1,895).

The trench coat renaissance shows not only how versatile this classic can be, but also how enduring it is. It may be a million miles away from its first incarnation as a way to make life a little better for the men in wartime trenches, but it is still a functional must-have for our modern lives.  

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