Why is a good puffer so hard to find?

Championed by luxury houses and high-street brands, puffer coats are a ubiquitous part of winter wardrobes © Getty Images

On a recent stormy Friday evening on London’s South Bank, the winter coats were out in force. Among the masses eating street food and drinking pints at outdoor tables it was hard to spot anyone wearing anything other than a puffer.

The down-filled coat, or puffer, has become a ubiquitous part of winter wardrobes since performance brand The North Face took off as a street-style status symbol in the 1990s. The phenomenon has only snowballed over the past few years, having been embraced by luxury fashion houses and high-street brands.

The attraction of a winter coat that is both trendy and functional is obvious — quality down jackets tend not only to be wonderfully warm but also to have relatively stain-resistant and easy-to-clean synthetic shells. But the puffer coat’s popularity is still a little puzzling because it is not without its shortcomings — the first being my editor’s observation that it tends to make one “look like a marshmallow”.

In recent years, puffer coats have been embraced by fashion insiders such as Vogue’s Sarah Harris . . . © Getty Images

. . . and off-duty models hurrying between fashion shows © Getty Images

Not resembling Mr Stay Puft in a puffer is a tough ask. The quilted style, insulated with goose or duck feathers (the second problem of a puffer coat, which we’ll come to), may resemble multiple layers of stuffed-crust pizza and be about as aesthetically beneficial for the waistline, but that was not a concern for the US adventurer Eddie Bauer, who came up with the first design in 1936 after a near-death brush with hypothermia. This was a man who had learnt first-hand that it is preferable to be warm than look cute.

Moncler Lannic quilted shell down jacket, £680, net-a-porter.com

Ienki Ienki Pyramid jacket, £1,060, ienki-ienki.com

Having said that, now that “fashion” has got hold of puffers, some of them are enormous beyond functionality. The effect can occasionally be less of a person wearing a coat than a coat appearing to walk.

“They’re not the easiest thing to wear, full stop,” says personal stylist Anna Berkeley. “They make people look shorter, for a start, just because of the volume, whatever the length. They can be OK on a straight, boyish shape, but it’s still not going to be your best ever look.”

Pangaia cropped reversible jacket, £430, thepangaia.com

Perfect Moment Polar Flare jacket (this colourway available soon), £535, perfectmoment.com

My advice is to look to the shoulder. While bigger shoulders will benefit from what Berkeley calls “the softening effect” of the fashionable drop shoulder — see Marfa Stance’s reversible, two-colourway Down Parka (£1,595, marfastance.com) or Ganni’s oversized longline down padded coat, made with a recycled polyester shell (£425, matchesfashion.com) — they can drown a narrow frame. A seam running inside the shoulder socket will give definition in that respect. Moncler’s designs tend to have this fitted shape, including its bestselling Lannic short down jacket (£680, net-a-porter). Skiwear brand Perfect Moment’s styles are also good for a smaller frame.

Riley recycled nylon food-waste puffer jacket, £495, riley.studio

Studio Nicholson Basel ecodown jacket, £595, studionicholson.com

One of my favourite discoveries in a longer style is Ienki Ienki’s down swing coat with central zip and hood (£1,060, ienki-ienki.com). It has something of the avant-garde Japanese about it and is one of the few puffers I would wear over a dress.

As for the problem of down filling, brands are increasingly anxious to certify their cruelty-free status and are coming up with alternatives to plucking feathers from dead birds. Uniqlo now has a recycling scheme offering coats made of the down from old Uniqlo jackets returned by customers. Studio Nicholson’s Basel ecodown jacket in black or stone (£595, studionicholson.com) has a flattering high funnel neck and is insulated with material made of recycled plastic bottles. Riley Studio, a British brand that makes genderless clothes, uses recycled nylon fabric for the outer, which feels nicely crisp and is coloured by food-waste onion skins (the result is a cool beige) and filled with insulation from recycled plastic by the Portuguese firm Pafil (£495, riley.studio).

Model Ruby Aldridge wears a green-and-white check puffer coat during New York Fashion Week © Getty Images

As innovative, but perhaps more romantic, is Pangaia’s solution — puffer coats stuffed with FLWRDWN, which is not an optical test but the name of a material made from natural dried wildflowers that the company claims is vegan, biodegradable, hypoallergenic and cruelty-free. There are different versions in Pangaia’s bright array of colours, but I prefer the short style (£515, thepangaia.com), with its rounded hood like an astronaut helmet, a cute flower logo and a reversibility function, with one side more of a traditional sectioned puffer and the other a smoother, sheeny material without seams.

A performance piece at its core, a puffer coat works best when paired with casual clothes . . .  © Getty Images

. . . such as denim and sneakers © Getty Images

The choice is certainly out there now — long, short, oversized or neat. But on Friday night my conclusion was that it’s not so much the size of the coat as the clothes you wear it with. As a performance-turned-streetwear piece of wardrobe, the puffer is suited to performance and streetwear teammates: a girl in a cropped cream style with sage leggings and platform sneakers, men and teenage boys zipping them up over sweatpants, a twentysomething in a ginormous black Adidas coat worn with wide track pants — they pulled them off best. But while the woman who wore a black thigh-length style over a midi-length gold lamé pleated dress might not have won fashion approval, she was on her way to a party and presumably warm as toast. Never a bad place to be.

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