QUARTZ OBSESSION PODCAST

How the military puffer coat became fashion for everyone

Puffers for kids
Puffers for kids
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This is a full transcript of the first episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast season two. Here’s a lightly edited transcript if you prefer. 

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Kira Bindrim: If I had to describe the sound of New York City in February, it goes something like this: Taxis driving through piles of slush at intersections; snow shovels scraping it heavily salted sidewalks; the rise and fall of restaurant noise as people escape into doorways from the freezing cold street. And, of course, no New York City winter would be complete without the swish swish swish of thousands of people walking around in puffer jackets.

All over the world, puffy winter coats have conquered cities with cold climates while also proving pretty great for legitimate outdoor activities. They’re one of few garments favored by both hunters and runway models. And since every puffer coat basically looks the same, it’s the most democratic outerwear option there is, right?

Not exactly. Within a few decades of the very first puffer jacket, there were more options than you can count. Cheap puffers, camping puffers, luxury puffers, thousand-dollar puffers. Because, yes, wearing a puffer jacket signals to the world that it is cold outside and your body likes to be warm. But somewhere along the way, these sleeping bags with sleeves also became a status symbol.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today, puffer jackets: outerwear that’s also an asset class.

I am joined in the studio today by Alex Ossola, who is membership editor here at Quartz but the listener might recognize her name because she is also the producer of this very podcast. How does it feel to be on the other side of the microphone, Alex?

Alex Ossola: Pretty weird, but I think I’ll get used to it.

Kira Bindrim: Any tips you would give yourself if you were sitting in the producer chair right now?

Alex Ossola: I would probably say, ‘Just be yourself.’

Kira Bindrim: ‘You’ll be great.’ So I was thinking about my puffer on the way here, as one does while commuting, because it is kind of the most commodified version of the puffer jacket that you can think of—when something is less than $50 and available in black at Old Navy, it’s kind of the absolute mainstream.

Alex Ossola: For sure.

Kira Bindrim: But that’s not how the puffer has always been. So I kind of want to go back—if the end game is the quintessential Old Navy puffer, what is the beginning of that story? So maybe start by telling you when and where the very first puffer emerged in history.

Who wore the first puffer jacket?

Alex Ossola: So this is, in a fitting fashion, actually a little bit contested. I thought I had a very clear answer upon doing my research, which was that there was a gorgeous satin puffer by the famous womenswear designer Charles James. And that emerged in 1937. He called it the pneumatic coat—it’s swirly, it is intended to go on top of a ball gown, so you know it’s next-level. And he used these these sort of quilting techniques that he would have used on a duvet. And you can really tell—it’s like this whirly satin gem, this confection.

Kira Bindrim: I’m picturing like a smoker’s jacket, almost.

Alex Ossola: It’s kind of like that, but it is filled with down, and it is very beautiful. However, in doing more research, I found that there was arguably a puffer that was earlier than that, created by the chemist George Finch in 1922. It was a coat—so fitting—to climb Everest. So unlike everybody else on his English gentleman’s expedition to climb Everest in 1922—everyone else is wearing wool coats—he was wearing a coat filled with eiderdown. So in sort of typical fashion, or fitting fashion, the first puffer, it’s contested whether it’s for utility or for fashion.

Kira Bindrim: What I want is a coat that I can climb Everest in, and then go to a cocktail party…at the top of Everest.

Alex Ossola: Those do exist—those now exist, but 1922, I think you would be pushing it.

Kira Bindrim: So was this Everest coat the sort of breakout puffer?

Alex Ossola: Definitely not. The first breakout puffer, I would argue, was made by Eddie Bauer in 1936. So Eddie Bauer was this outdoorsman. He also owned a modest clothing shop in Seattle. And he was on this fishing trip with a friend in the Olympic Peninsula. And they got 100 pounds of fish, which is the most 1936 thing I’ve ever heard. And they were schlepping it up the side of a canyon and they start to get really hot, wearing their wool shirts and their wool coats. And Eddie’s friend went a bit ahead of him and Eddie realized that he was taking breaks and feeling a bit sleepy. It became kind of clear that he was having hypothermia with this damp wool coat, or insufficient wool coat. And so he came out of this experience, being the sort of intrepid person that he was, thinking, ‘Well, we can do better than that.’ So 1940, he gets a patent for what he called the Blizzard-Proof Jacket. It has this sort of quilted pattern on it, it looks quite modern, actually, when you see it, almost like a bomber jacket with like a crisscross diamond pattern, this kind of green color. So he gets this patent in 1940. But the really big break, I would say, for him is that, a couple years later, he gets a contract from the Air Force to make these coats for Air Force pilots. So at this point, he calls it the Skyliner, because you have to. And it’s supposed to keep pilots warm in the high altitudes when they’re flying because it gets real cold up there.

Finding the best puffer coat

Kira Bindrim: There’s so much I want to come back to there. But I feel like I need to ask you about technical specifications. What is a puffer made of? Does it have to be down? Has that evolved over time? What is—yeah, give me the technical specs.

Alex Ossola: Okay, so I couldn’t find a technical definition of a puffer coat, but I’ve come up with one. And it has three main qualities.

Okay, one: It has an outer and an inner layer. And those can be made of a lot of different things. The outer layer in the Eddie Bauer coat was made of high thread-count cotton; obviously, the other fashion coat was made of satin. These days, you would find polyester, nylon, some combination of the two, GoreTex famously from Seinfeld. Like you could get that outer layer made of a lot of different things. But the inner layer is supposed to be a little bit insulating at least.

So number two: Those two layers in between them, you have some sort of filling intended to insulate. So traditionally, this was down, which is the feathers from a goose or a duck. There is now something called a Responsible Down Standard if you’re worried about the ethics of how the duck or goose feathers are…found.

Kira: Acquired?

Alex Ossola: Gathered? We don’t want to go there. But now, of course, we have a lot more different kinds of fillings. We have synthetic fillings made from polyester, made from recycled plastic. And generally with those kinds of things, the puffier the coat, the warmer it is.

And number three quality of a puffer coat is you have to have some sort of stitching to keep the insulation in place. Because no one likes it when all the down is sort of gathered and bunched up in the bottom of the coat. That’s a bummer.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, this makes sense. And you kind of touched on this, but just to double check: Puffiness—a technical term we’ll use here—is correlated with quality of warmth? Like if I’m seeing a very puffy coat, it’s fair to assume that it’s the warmest?

Alex Ossola: It depends somewhat on what the filling is. But generally, yes, the puffier the coat the warmer. There is a technical term and a formula for this called fill power. And if we want to get nerdy about it, how many cubic inches one ounce of down occupies with a standard weight resting on it.

Kira Bindrim: Say that one more time?

Alex Ossola: How many how many cubic inches one ounce of down occupies with a standard weight resting upon it.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, so it’s like density of the down.

Alex Ossola: Kind of, yeah. AKA, puffier, warmer.

Kira BindrimL: Can’t say I’ve ever looked at the full power of a puffer coat.

Alex Ossola: Why would anyone?

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, well, I feel like I’m missing out now. Okay, so now I’m ready to jump back into into puffer coat history. We have the Eddie Bauer jacket. How do we get from there to today, where puffer coats are more or less ubiquitous?

Alex Ossola: Mmhmm. This is where it gets kind of interesting. So I would say the next milestone and puffer coat evolution is the 1973 Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat.

[recording: It’s definitely a conversation piece, for sure. People come up to me and are like, ‘That’s some kind of coat you have on. What kind of coat is that, where did you get it.’]

Sleeping bag puffer

So you would have seen this even if you didn’t know you were seeing it. Even today, people love this coat. It’s worn by celebrities like Elton John and Cher, the doorman at Studio 54 wore it, Lady Gaga, Solange—everyone’s wearing the sleeping bag puffer.

[recording: My favorite story is always like, whenever you encounter someone else in a sleeping bag coat, it’s like Volkswagen owners, you’re like instant friends. And you’ve got something in common. It’s the biggest sorority-fraternity…]

And the origin story is also pretty interesting. Norma Kamali was a designer living in New York. She got divorced, she went on a camping trip with her friend. It was August, but it was getting kind of cold at night. And she had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. So she kind of draped her sleeping bag over her and went out into the woods to use the bathroom. She’s like, ‘Oh, this is pretty comfortable. I would like to wear this all of the time.’ And so she came back from that trip, and I think she cut up a sleeping bag, or like stitched two coats together, and did some sort of magic. And thus emerged the both stylish and extremely comfortable sleeping bag coat. And I want one.

Kira Bindrim: Describe it for me. Is it what I’m picturing in my head, which is, if a sleeping bag were a coat?

Alex Ossola: Kind of, yeah. It has sleeves, which is important. There are hooded versions, there are—I think that the first one, or the traditional one, is kind of mid-calf length, but they make shorter ones now, they make vests. But they’ve been making essentially the same design for almost 50 years. So there’s definitely something to it.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, so we’ve got designer puffers as one element that gets them into the mainstream. What else is going on?

Return of the North Face Nuptse

Alex Ossola: Okay, so fast forward another 20 years or so, we have the next big puffer milestone: We have the North Face Nuptse. And you know this coat even if you haven’t seen it in a while, I guess. It’s kind of like black on top, and then there’s, I think maybe the traditional one has like blue, and they have black, and they have all different colors now. When you sort of picture the platonic ideal of a puffer coat that’s kind of waist length, this is probably something like what you picture. But what you might not remember is that this was a huge deal in terms of the beginnings of streetwear in the ’90s. It was a really big deal with rappers and it sort of rippled out from there. It was seen in lots of music videos, I believe Biggie in at least one song—in one song, he calls his puffer coat his bubblegoose in 1993.

[sample from Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party and bullshit“:

I used to have the trey-deuce
And the deuce-deuce in my bubblegoose
Now I got the Mac in my knapsack
Lounging black, smoking sacks up in Ac’s…]

And in 1999, in a different song, he literally references North Face. So this is a big deal.

Kira Bindrim: This is the one with like, the Michelin Man rolls, basically?

Alex Ossola: Yes, yes.

Kira Bindrim: I also feel like in the ’90s, we just had a very interesting relationship with proportion at that time. Like all of our clothes were either very, very large, or very, very small. And the best outfit was some combination of very, very large and very, very small. So in that sense, like, it’s a perfect moment for the puffer. Very, very large, proportionately out of like illogical coat to emerge.

Alex Ossola: It’s a good point. And I don’t know if you know, Kira, but the ’90s are back. And I actually read this fantastic diatribe in the FT that’s like, ‘Why does anyone wear a puffer? It just completely gets rid of your shape, it’s just round—who likes that?’ But who doesn’t like that?

Kira Bindrim: There’s something very freeing about it.

Alex Ossola: Yeah, for sure.

Kira Bindrim: You’re wearing like a wool coat like this? Is this an A-line? Does it accentuate… and in a puffer you’re like, ‘I’m a marshmallow today. And that’s the state of things.’

Alex Ossola: Yep. Exactly.

Kira Bindrim: I find myself going through a mental montage of all the places that I’ve seen puffer coats now. I’m thinking of the Drake “Hotline Bling” video where that puffer was very highly memed. I truly don’t know if I’ve ever seen Busta Rhymes not wearing a puffer coat, I feel like that’s his default. What are other music videos where they show up? I want to go home and make like a YouTube playlist for myself.

Music industry’s love for puffers

Alex Ossola: This is a highly incomplete list. But again, they started emerging kind of in the early ’90s. One of the first music videos that I believe has puffers in it is Brandy’s “Baby” video in 1994. She wears—this is bold—two puffers. One is white, and one is bubblegum pink.

[sample from Brandy’s “Baby”]

So that’s ’94. ’97, just three years later, we have the iconic Missy Elliott “Supa Dupa Fly” video. Her puffer is black and very shiny and very puffed.

[sample from Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”]

And, you know, there have been comparisons in the past to puffers being like trash bags, especially black ones. And this, I would say, is the most trash-bag looking one. She puffs it out a lot.

Kira Bindrim: It’s inflated.

Alex Ossola: It’s inflated.

Kira Bindrim: But it said to the world, ‘I can look like a marshmallow and make it fashion.’

Alex Ossola: Yeah. And make it supa dupa fly.

Kira Bindrim: Thank you.

Alex Ossola: That’s what I’m here for. So two years later in 1999, DMX, “What’s my name“…

[sample from DMX’s “What’s My Name”]

A burgundy puffer—very, like a wine tone. It’s very, very nice, very rich color. Yeah, but the 2015 hotline bling is everywhere. You can’t not see that.

[sample from Drake’s “Hotline Bling”]

Kira Bindrim: After the break what your puffer says about you.

[[ad break]]

Kira Bindrim: I would say, 30 years later, after some of the trends you’re identifying, we’re sort of seeing all of those same trends on steroids. We have streetwear. We have athleisure. We have hip-hop driving fashion, we have sort of accent pieces driving outfits. And puffers become this through line from fashion in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s all the way through to today. Who is making puffers today, what are the big brands in the ‘puffer realm’? Is it the same companies, different companies?

Canada Goose, Prada and Moncler

Alex Ossola: I mean, literally everyone. I couldn’t identify a single clothing brand that doesn’t make a puffer, which really says something, I think. But you know, depending on your price range, you could buy, you know, a Moncler or a Canada Goose coat for $1,000 or upwards. The Prada puffer is also a very big deal in fashion circles. It has a belt, which is actually a very different silhouette than a lot of different puffers. There is the 2016 ubiquitous Balenciaga A-line swing coat, which is an interesting off-the-shoulder situation, which, utility aside, was everywhere.

Kira Bindrim: When I hear you talk about all that puffer variety, as it were, it’s funny when something gets commoditized like that, because it really forces you to think about the value of things. And puffer coats are so perfect because it is essentially like filled fabric that becomes a coat. What is the difference between these really expensive or luxury puffers and the sort of mainstream? Is there a big difference? What separates them?

Alex Ossola: So I think on a certain level, the fill is probably different. You probably get, you know—ethically sourced down is probably much more expensive. But if you’re just walking down the street, no one knows what’s in your coat. And it is a very subtle difference. So people like to buy certain coats, often buy name brands, because they say something about them—they’re colorful, they like the fabric, they are sort of assured that it’s well made. And if you do buy a good puffer, you know, it can last a really long time. They’re very hardy if you buy a well-made one. But in terms of signaling the value between a couple hundred bucks and many thousands, the markers are very, very subtle. And I think that’s actually a pretty strong indicator of this movement towards minimalist luxury, that really, the little patches, that maybe the color of the zipper—like these very small things on your coat show only other people who know about it that you are one of them. And, you know, this has always been appealing to people. There are the people who want to wear like the Louis Vuitton logo all over them, and they’re the people who just want to wear something that they know is high-quality, that is a much more subtle indicator of wealth. So I think it very neatly falls into that category. Because, of course, at the end of the day, it has to keep you warm.

Kira Bindrim: Do you remember in middle school or elementary school, when kids would wear their winter jackets, they would keep the ski tags on them to show them like gone to the ski resort that weekend. And they had like seven ski tags. It’s like I get it you go skiing? No one’s that…That’s what you’re making me think of, just these little things that are signifiers.

Alex Ossola: Wow, I have not thought about that for a long time. In the course of my research, I was looking up what they recommend you wear to climb Everest now.

Kira Bindrim: Now, you were looking that up for personal reasons?

Alex Ossola: I am—let us be clear, I will very unlikely climb Everest in my lifetime.

Kira Bindrim: Because you don’t have the perfect coat.

Alex Ossola: I mean, not yet, saving up. But the down coat they recommend is between $400 and $600. So—yeah, pricy, but you’re literally climbing Everest, so, you know, you can splurge. But you can very, very easily find coats that are much more expensive than that now, and probably don’t keep you half as warm.

Kira Bindrim: What other things come to mind in that realm, where it is a commodity, effectively—you can get cheap versions, there is some element of utility, you do need this thing, but there’s also a ton of signaling and a real stratification of, you know, luxury to cheap?

Alex Ossola: I think sunglasses is probably a good one. I have no idea what expensive sunglasses look like, but presumably people do. I think headphones is a little bit like that. But I think it’s a little more obvious, though, because it has more obvious branding. Like, oh, are those Beats over-ear headphones or Bose over-ear headphones? I know something about you because of what you choose.

Kira Bindrim: I can’t really imagine a world in which we’re not using our clothes to do some sort of signaling. It seems like a very human instinct. So what I want to imagine then, is that what we are signaling is the thing that evolves over time. And I’m curious if you could see that happening where today it is very often wealth or status, but could it become sustainability or support of black owned businesses? Or do we hit a space where we’re actually embracing everything being the same? How do you see that maybe evolving?

Alex Ossola: It could be a little bit of all of those things. I think it will be somewhat culturally specific. Like in Asia, there’s a lot more emphasis on fitting in, and in the West, I would say you often could use something like a puffer to stand out, right—a brightly colored colored puffer says more than you would ever need to say. But something like ethical sourcing and, you know, black owned businesses—it would be interesting. I don’t really see those trends super clearly yet, but I would be very happy to see them emerge.

Future of winter coats

Kira Bindrim: Me, too. Where did you see the puffer coat in, let’s say, 50 years?

Alex Ossola: You know, I think there’s a chance it could be pretty much where it is right now. Like, it’s been 50 years since the sleeping bag coat, so that’s still a really hot item, it’s still kind of timeless. Maybe in 2072 we’ll be like, ‘Oh, man, those those sleeping bag coats, I still really want one.’

Kira Bindrim: To wear the one day a year when the temperature is still below 40.

Alex Ossola: Grim.

Kira Bindrim: On that note, how do you…what is your framework for puffer purchases? How would you suggest a potential puffer owner think about that purchase?

Alex Ossola: Okay, I’ve thought about this a lot. Now, there are no good and bad puffers. There are only puffers that are the right fit for your environment. So if you live in Miami, maybe you don’t buy a Canada Goose coat for like your one trip to Pennsylvania. Think about what your actual needs are. You should be able to move. You really do need to try it on because if it’s over-filled or the wrong fabric, it’s too swishy, or, I don’t know, different things, you kind of feel like a kid bundled up.

Kira Bindrim: Like T. Rex arms.

Alex Ossola: Yeah. So like even in that 1937 Charles James puffer, he talked about how he had to take some of the down out on the shoulders and the neck to just allow the wearer to move. So you should definitely make sure that that is the case in your 2022 puffer that you purchase. And, maybe waterproof—again, depends what you’re using it for. But no one likes a damp puffer.

Kira Bindrim: It’s interesting that on the reverse, like anyone who maybe goes to a beach once a year is allowed to own five bathing suits, but you can only own one puffer.

Alex Ossola: It’s the amount of space it takes up.

Kira Bindrim: That’s true. Okay, I have one more question for you. What is your favorite puffer coat fun fact? If you and I were stranded in the wilderness like Eddie Bauer, with nothing to amuse us except your deep knowledge of puffer coats and our memories, what fun fact would you use to distract me?

Alex Ossola: So it’s 2014. There’s this Icelandic company that collects ethical eiderdown from the nests of Eider ducks, and they receive this weirdly big order from this Russian company. And they piece it together eventually—it turns out that this was very likely the filling for a handmade coat for Vladimir Putin. So the Russian media said this coat—which, if you look at it, it’s not super remarkable: it’s dark, it’s puffy, it has a hood—they said it cost about $11,000. But according to one article I read, just the down alone would have cost in the upper range of close to US$30,000. So they might have underestimated how much that puffer cost.

Kira Bindrim: He got a discount, I guess on his down.

Alex Ossola: I mean, $11,000 is not enough to shake a stick at. That’s an expensive puffer, even if you’re the president of Russia.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, I mean, if you’re gonna have a puffer as part of your look…

Alex Ossola: It’s either puffer or shirtless.

Kira Bindrim: That’s why he needs the puffer because there’s nothing underneath.

Alex Ossola: It probably keeps him really warm either down is highly coveted for its warmth.

Kira Bindrim: Oh you’re so right, he like comes off the horse and he’s freezing because he hasn’t worn a shirt in three hours. He’s like, ‘I need my coat. Bring me my puffer!’ Thanks, Alex.

Alex Ossola: My pleasure.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer and guest today is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Go for a walk in your puffers together and listen. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.