why fashion is so obsessed with puffer jackets
Tracing the disruptive power of the down jacket, from rap lyrics to the runways of Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens, and Balenciaga.
Eddie Bauer could hardly have known that the quilted down technology he created for his 1936 Skyliner jacket would become a symbol for the disruption of the Paris fashion industry. Everywhere you looked this season were more signs that the Michelin Man's fave's silhouette is no longer just for keeping models from freezing to death as they're shuttled from backstage to their Ubers. Rick Owens had puffer gowns engulfing models' torsos, Acne chopped them up into duvet dresses and tiny cropped coats, and Carven's girl bought a few back from Kathmandu. Stella McCartney's outsized puffers were rolled out to the beat of "I'm vegan bitch!" from Snaxx's plantlife anthem "Get Yo Tofu On." They came sans-goose down and rendered in rich jewel-tone velvet. And of course there was Vetements head designer Demna Gvasalia's rabidly anticipated debut for Balenciaga, which saw workplace skirt sets clash with Helly Hanson-style puffers in fire engine red. Outside of Paris, duvet down even gave shape to lavish gowns at Alexander McQueen.
Mirroring the Vetements hoodie effect, you can probably thank Gvasalia for the puffer's most recent surge in popularity. Obviously, 2016's most obsessed-over designer wasn't the first to ever put a puffer jacket on the runway. "America's First Couturier" Charles James earned that accolade in 1937. But Gvasalia's disruptive influence on the industry stems precisely from his anti-fashion ethos. The designer who literally named his brand the French word for "clothes" makes things that are as practical as they are red hot. His starting point is always the same: How to make women want something they already have.
The last time functional, insulating outerwear was so prevalent was in the years leading up to the new millennium. Last year Vogue's Sarah Mower proposed that fashion's current obsession with all things 90s was a matter of simple mathematics. "All you do is take today's date, 2015, and subtract 25 (the age of today's rising designers). Result: 1990!" Well, 91 now, using that exact equation, but same difference. The puffer jacket was a staple of hip-hop culture in the 90s, with rap legends drawn to its bulky silhouette. Missy took it Under Construction in 92, Bodega Bamz into "93 with the First Down bubble" on the Spanish Harlem native's "Navy." Granted, Bamz was only eight years old in 93, but he's not just picking dates at random. "I used to have the trey deuce and a deuce deuce in my bubblegoose," Notorious B.I.G. rapped on "Party & Bullshit" in 93, referring to the bubble-like exterior and goose down insulation of his favorite jacket. Helly Hanson, Moncler, and Tommy Hilfiger were equally iconic brands of the era.
It's no secret that Gvasalia — nearly a decade older than 25 — is heavily influenced by 90s fashion. While growing up in Soviet Georgia resulted in an oppressive uniformity within his friend circle, as he told Business of Fashion recently, it also pushed him to discover excitement in the unknown. Specifically, it pushed him to Belgian designers and to Martin Margiela. The Vetements collective head learned more during his three-and-a-half years as a Margiela apprentice than just the power of anonymity — as seen in his current remixing of the designer's 90s and early 00s deconstructionist philosophy to resounding acclaim. Margiela's own penchant for figure-engulfing outerwear reached a climax in 2000 with the designer's over-dyed Duvet coat. Created to lie flat, it eschewed proportions of the body and played with deconstructionism by considering what it means to wear clothes — rather by just unpicking their physical seams. Recently, but still two years before Vetements appeared on the scene in 2014, the same garment was given new life via H&M's 2012 Margiela collaboration in the form of a pretty much identical $349 "Duvet Coat." There's currently one of them for sale on eBay for $899 — with free shipping, of course.
If we're talking puffer coats as concepts rather than practical items of clothing, it would be sacrilege not to mention Junya Watanabe. Looking him up on Google Images is like looking at a photo album from a (very, very) fancy dress Michelin Man party. Quilted nylon, padded polyester, tech-satin, and shiny lamé are basically the Japanese designer's second, third, fourth, and fifth languages. And who did Watanabe descend from? Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons' mysterious goddess of outsized silhouettes. Fittingly, one of Kawakubo's biggest repeat collaborators is Moncler, a brand born in an alpine village in the 50s. While Kawakubo never set Moncler blazing into the collective pop cultural consciousness like Drake did in his "Hotline Bling" video, causing sales of the Italian luxury brand's $1,150 "Maya" style to double when he dropped the viral video last year, she has been subtly toying with the DNA of the brand's ski jackets for years.
Interestingly, female designers have been champions of the swaddling form of outerwear since long before gender-neutral was a buzzword. One item on high rotation in Rihanna's puffer coat wardrobe (it's probably not foolish assume she has an entire walk-in reserved for them) is a calf-skimming camo number by Norma Kamali. Kamali's iconic 70s "sleeping bag" jacket, unlike those that emerged out of Tokyo in the 90s, was created not as conceptual art but rather out of necessity. Specifically, out of a post-divorce romantic vacay in the woods with her then-boyfriend. "It was cold," she recalled in 2009, "and I was always getting up at night to go to the bathroom." One night she threw on her sleeping bag before dashing behind a tree. "As I was running," she said, "I was thinking, 'I need to put sleeves in this thing.'" She went home, cut her sleeping bag up into a coat, and the rest was history. Success really is the best revenge.
It might not have been a purposeful middle finger to the male gaze, at least not in the moment of its conception. But the success of Kamali's design blossomed as the Women's Lib Movement activists of the 60s and 70s were burning out. Four decades later and we're more aware than ever that there's still work to do. Two years ago Kamali herself launched a campaign to counter fashion's objectification of women. It's been said for nearly a century that the position of women in culture is echoed by the cuts of their clothing. Figure-swamping shapes are a perfect fit for today's gender-neutrality movement precisely because of their ill-fittingness. They're also the perfectly contradictory piece of outerwear to throw on after walking the red carpet in a completely sheer dress or posting a naked selfie to Instagram.
Text Hannah Ongley