For many of us, the first leather jacket we can remember is the one Marlon Brando wears riding into that sleepy California town early in the 1952 film The Wild One. It's a famous image of toughness and masculinity, the picture of that young Brando becoming an icon of how to be an iconoclast. When a townsperson asks his character what he's rebelling against, he sneers, "Whaddya got?"
Or maybe it's the classic brown leather jacket worn by Henry Winkler's Arthur Fonzarelli in the 1970s television series Happy Days. Fonzie's jacket became an item of clothing so famous that it is now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Today's leather jackets aren't nearly as associated with the pose of the outsider, and they aren't limited to practical safety gear for the avid motorcyclist or as stage gear for the rock and roller. In fact, a good leather jacket is a lifetime purchase, or it can be if you look for quality features and invest accordingly. Simply, the fashion-forward faux leather knockoff at an outlet mall leather store isn't going to be an heirloom. And if you want further proof that leather jackets are still a huge part of costume choices in Hollywood, look no further than custom jacket maker Leather Cult, which offers dozens of versions of jackets familiar from film and television, from Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden red leather jacket in Fight Club, to the leather jacket like Harrison Ford wore in his appearances as legendary adventurer Indiana Jones.
The biggest and most obvious decision in purchasing a good leather jacket has nothing to do with style and everything to do with function. Brando's classic black leather biker jacket in the Wild One is the Schott Perfecto. Made by the Manhattan company Schott Brothers, the Perfecto jacket, with its wide, snap-down lapels and belted waist, was the standard for a durable, long-lasting leather jacket. The style is so commonplace that it even has an industry nickname: the double rider, named for the fact that the jacket front overlaps in the same manner as a double-breasted suit coat. The Perfecto has been Schott's been their most popular coat for over a century. It's also provided a surprisingly long-lasting blueprint for biker jackets, which require that form to allow for proper function. To wit, today's moto jackets often contain removable panels (typically made of Kevlar or other high-tech materials) to protect vulnerable areas in the event of an accident.
To pick a great jacket, you first need to master the vocabulary of leather, including the types of grains and the processes used to make the material, before you can make an informed choice.
What’s in a Grain?
The single biggest factor in determining the price of a leather jacket is what is called the grain. The grain is essentially the visible skin of an animal's hide after the hair is removed. While some invented vocabulary words float around the leather industry (for example, there's really no such product as rich Corinthian leather), these types are industry standards.
Full grain refers to leather made from the animal's whole hide, including the outer layer of skin. The densely packed fibers of full grain leather also make for a strong, long-lasting material. As an untreated product, the natural irregularities — scuffs, scars, and blemishes — that occurred during the life of its original wearer give the garment character right off the rack. Because it is the most natural product in leather goods, the color of the item will also change over time, typically darkening. It also contains some natural water-repellent qualities, making full grain leather the most desirable material for leather goods.
The next step down is top grain leather. Top grain is most preferred for leather jackets; the outer skin is split from the under layers of full grain leather and then processed, typically with buffing or sanding, to remove marks and make the surface uniform for sewing and accepting dyes. The process also softens the leather somewhat, meaning a jacket with top grain leather is often more comfortable right out of the box. But softening the leather also means weakening it. Top grain leather is often used in goods that need pliability, like wallets, purses, and fashion-forward jackets.
And make no mistake: full grain and top grain leathers cost more. Those more "affordable" leather jackets you see at the outlet mall are typically made of what the industry calls corrected leather, cheaper skins that have been treated with chemicals and oils to soften and relax the fibers. When those treated skins age, they tend to become brittle, crack, and fade.
You'll often see products, especially shoes, labeled genuine leather. And while that is true, a more accurate name would be corrected leather. Genuine leather jackets can come from any layer of the hide and undergo treatment beyond buffing or sanding to provide a more uniform, "corrected" appearance. It can also be dyed (or spray painted) or stamped/embossed to give it a final surface appearance. Many products are embossed to resemble rarer, more expensive skins like ostrich and snake.
Finally, there is bonded leather. While it can be labeled as a true leather good, it is an amalgam of leftovers, essentially the McNugget of the leather world. All the leftover pieces of leather from other projects are machine cut to fine pieces and then reconstituted using a binding agent like polyurethane and then pressed to a backing material.
Bonded leather is typically the kind of leather used in mass-produced furniture, like those giant leather sectionals you see at big box stores.
Bonded leather also generally fails the nose test; the chemicals used to adhere the material to the backer produce a noticeable chemical smell not found in higher grades of leather.
It’s All In the Details
The last three details that might influence your choice are stitching, lining and a high-quality zipper. Topstitching is a highly desirable detail in leather jackets, and higher-end jackets will usually use a specialty, heavy-duty thread manufactured by the German company Guetermann for this detail. Budget jackets typically use different threads or omit topstitching all together.
Similarly, the best jackets are lined with top quality materials, such as cupro, a fiber woven from cotton plants that resemble silk in finish and quality. Many designer suits use a type of cupro called Bemberg as their jacket lining. Cheaper jackets use synthetics that can dry out over time, leading to tears.
And we don't typically give much if any thought to zippers, but a high-quality zipper costs manufacturers as much as ten times a widely available budget zipper. Many discerning consumers know that YKK zippers, also known as Yoshida fasteners, are fairly ubiquitous in the garment industry. But generally, they are a sign of a mid-tier or lower jacket. Zippers that operate smoothly, and have larger teeth, like those made by the RiRi company, are almost always the sign of a high-quality garment.
Now that you're a leather expert, here are a few picks of classic men's leather jackets that make excellent additions to a stylish, minimal wardrobe. We chose these picks based on their representation of the classic style.
The Orvis Spirit II Leather Jacket takes its outerwear styling cues from a true heritage piece, the leather bomber jackets made for pilots in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Incidentally, the original jacket, called the A2, was also made by the Schott Co., and the collars were lined with shearling to keep pilots warm at altitude.
If it looks familiar, it's because this version is not too far off from the jacket worn by the late actor Bob Crane in the title role of the 1960s comedy Hogan's Heroes. A budget version of Col. Hogan's jacket can be found here.
The Milo Leather Biker Jacket from Allsaints is essentially a mid-range version of the Schott Perfecto, coming in at about half the price. This slim fit version, made from lambskin, is more pliable than the Perfecto and a bit lighter weight. It has a lot of versatility and can be paired with a t-shirt and aviator glasses for an effortless, relaxed look.
The Lewis Leathers Roadmaster No. 414 is a classic, longer style of a motorcycle jacket. At £1081, or nearly $1500 for the version in black horsehide, it's an investment quality piece that offers numerous options, including a padded version for purpose-built use.
Lewis, Britain's oldest motorcycle clothing company, offers the Roadmaster in a number of fashion colors as well. The Roadmaster is a style that Midwesterners might recognize as the type of leather motorcycle jacket adopted by the Chicago Police Department in the past.
Another entry inspired by motor racing is the Café Racer jacket by Connolly Clothing. Hand cut from calfskin and featuring generous topstitching and a simple silhouette, the Black Racing Jacket is also our priciest choice at £2600, or around $3500. It's also a classic piece that should last a lifetime.
A similar choice at a more affordable price point is the Belstaff Stitched Panel jacket, a Café Racer-style short riding jacket with padded shoulders and sheepskin has styling details reminiscent of the protective gear worn by motorcycle racers around the world
The perfect leather jacket to add to your collection has to be the venerable Schott Perfecto in black. While demand and its constant popularity have driven the price to $825, it's a durable classic that is the kind of garment, along with white tee-shirts and button-fly jeans, that has a special place in the history of American fashion. Made from U.S.-sourced steer hide, this heavyweight jacket features a nylon lining for warmth that makes it a practical and stylish heirloom piece for every man's wardrobe.
Leather jackets are a staple in every man’s wardrobe. From Indiana Jones to the common man, there is an option to match every lifestyle and budget.
Just be sure to pay attention to the details to make sure you are getting the highest quality purchase as possible.
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