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How puffer jackets became a status symbol

A woman is reflected in a mirror at Fast Retailing Co's Uniqlo casual fashion chain store in Tokyo December 4, 2012. Fast Retailing Co said on Tuesday that same-store sales at its Uniqlo chain of clothing shops in Japan jumped 13.7 percent in November from a year earlier due to strong sales of its down jackets and winter underwear. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS TEXTILE) - RTR3B6LP
Reuters/Yuriko Nakao
Will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror in down?
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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.

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.

Quartz Obsession podcast host Kira Bindrim spoke to membership editor Alex Ossola on the history, people, and brands that made puffer coats a status symbol. Read the full transcript of the episode

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The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

When and where did the very first puffer emerge in history?

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 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.

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 a utility or for fashion.

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 of 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.

What is a puffer made of? Does it have to be down? Has that evolved over time?

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.

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.

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.

Where puffer coats are more or less ubiquitous?

Alex Ossola: 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.

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.

What’s the next puffer milestone?

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

What are the big brands in the ‘puffer realm’? Is it the same companies, different companies?

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.

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 of 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 may be 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.

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