Buying a Well-Made Leather Jacket? Here’s Our Shortlist of Essential Pieces from Our Favourite Makers
Few things can make or break our style as quickly as a leather jacket. It’s crucial to find that tipping point between, on one side, timeless and iconic looks and, on the other side, a caricature of these looks. Get it right and it’s pure magic. Get it wrong and we’ve sunk a lot of money into a piece that’ll live at the back of the closet.
Because we know how important it is, many of us end up sitting on our hands, paralyzed with indecision. We want to get it 100% right the first time. We wait for the right piece, for the right time to buy, for the perfect opportunity.
We touched on leather jackets in our buying guide to military-inspired winter coats, but the jackets we covered there were all super-warm shearling coats made to withstand arctic temperatures. Us northerners might get as much as four or five good months of wear out of these coats a year. For others, the shearling is simply too much jacket.
If you’ve been hemming and hawing in this category for years (or decades), we hope that one of the iconic pieces below calls your name. If none of them fit the bill, the makers and stockists we highlight below will be a great place to continue the hunt.
The sections we cover in this guide:
- Our list of well-made and essential leather jackets
- Why well-made leather jackets are essential
- How to identify a well-made leather jacket
Our guides are reader-supported. We earn a small commission when you make a purchase, but it doesn’t cost you anything. Prices include local VAT and are subject to change.
Well-Made and Essential Leather Jackets
If you’re a collector, chances are you have at least a few of the pieces we’ll be covering below. This article isn’t so much for enthusiasts, though, as it is for people who are considering their first leap into the well-made leather jacket category. Even if you already have a leather jacket or two, you might not have ventured into the well-made space.
When you do decide to make that leap, use this list as your guide. Pick from the ten makers we highlight below and, even if this isn’t your last leather coat, it will probably be your all-time favourite.
Depending on how you align your style compass, the Schott Perfecto might sit firmly at magnetic north. Schott introduced his first version of the jacket (naming it after his favourite cigar brand) in 1928. Though it took a few decades to really catch on, when it did catch, it spread like wildfire. The Perfecto started a style revolution, and, if you want to recreate those iconic looks, you simply have to have one hanging in your closet.
There may be other versions of the asymmetrical biker jacket that have the Perfecto beat in terms of build quality or materials, but nothing can beat the classic for its ability to instantly recall the decade when rowdy adolescents set an unbeatable standard for cool.
With its zippers, snaps, and pockets, it’s undeniably a busy jacket, so not the best if you’re going for a slimming look. If, however, you’ve got the frame for it (and the swagger to pull it off), you’ll look as sharp as a flick-knife.
- American-sourced steerhide
- 3-3.5 oz. leather
- Drum dyed and hand cut
- Insulated nylon quilted lining
- Inside map pocket
- Bi-swing back panels
- Vented underarm footballs
Schott offers a number of versions of the Perfecto. There’s the roomier 118, the 613 (with the stars on the epaulets for that full Brando look), and the horsehide Perfecto 618HH. Schott also makes arguably the most iconic version of the Cafe Racer jacket*.
The Scottish leather workers have long been a go-to source for those looking for high-quality reproductions of vintage leather jackets. They started in 1975 as traders in vintage WWII-era pieces, but within a few years, they were making reproductions.
They made their name with the Highwayman (a hybrid between American rock looks and British motorcycle jackets), and it’s been one of the most popular well-made leather jackets on the scene ever since.
The Highwayman is a fairly conservative leather jacket, but there’s a whiff of octane to it. Few pieces can move as nimbly through the rotation.
If you’ve got a collection of leather jackets, you probably already have an Aero, but if you’re jumping into the world of well-made jackets for the first time, you can’t really go wrong with either a Highwayman or one of Aero’s other half-belt beauties.
Even if you stop there (and you very well might), you’ll have a rock-solid standard that will adapt year after year to whatever you’re wearing.
- Pictured in CXFQ Cordovan Horsehide
- Full-grain leather
- Countless customisation possibilities
- Moleskin-lined hand warmer pockets
- Period zipper
- Storm cuffs
- Side adjusters
Most of Aero’s customers use the customisation options to create a jacket that is tailored to them. Good starting points are the Plainsman* (a little longer than the Highwayman) and the Cossack* (minus the chest pocket).
If it’s the classic bomber look you’re after, it really comes down to two choices: Good Wear or Eastman. They’re roughly the same price, and you can expect similar attention to detail from both makers.
When the A-2 jacket was introduced, the military went through a number of different contractors, and each of them left their own trademark touches on the bomber jacket. Good Wear offers nearly two-dozen versions of the A-2, so if you’ve got your eye on a very specific model and nothing but that exact piece will do, Good Wear is more likely to hit the bullseye than Eastman.
The David Doniger version of the A-2, with the epaulets, pointed collar tips, and distinctive pockets, is one of the more sought-after versions of the coat. It’s got a relaxed fit throughout (especially in the shoulders). It won’t give you that snug fitted look that some leather lovers crave, but it will be incredibly comfortable and easy wearing.
- Russet goatskin
- Full grain leather
- Earth-coloured lining
- Pointed collar and epaulets
- Ball-stud snap-down front pockets
- Knit waist and cuffs
- Bell Talon zipper
Good Wear has a wide range of A-2 styles to pick from. The differences are too minor to notice for most, but, for avid collectors, they’re miles apart.
Good Wear ship from the US. At the moment, the only place to get their products is through their website.
Good Wear and Eastman both have their ardent defenders, and both make strong cases for their respective favourites.
While Good Wear is the consensus pick for the most meticulous American-made reproductions in the game, Eastman is the established name in the market.
The English makers have been in the reproduction game for almost four decades, building goodwill and incredible jackets all the while. Their jackets have aged beautifully, and there’s no advertisement better than a leather jacket that’s done a few tours of duty and lived to tell the tale.
Their Rough Wear A-2 is one of their most popular jackets, and it’s not hard to see why. Rough Wear made thousands of versions of the A-2 in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the Eastman reproductions capture the balance of rugged charm and sleek good looks that made the jacket a staple in American lockers and closets.
- Veg-tanned WarHorse horsehide
- 100% cotton olive drab thread (period correct)
- 100% cotton colour-matched liner
- 100% wool cuffs and waist
- Ball stud snaps
- Talon M42 zipper
Other Eastman jackets to consider: Air Comfort (commercial bomber jacket with sheepskin collar), WWI Germany Flying Coat (longer button-up coat ready for triplane combat), A-1 (in all its button-up glory)
Simmons Bilt continues to be one of the more popular leaping off points for those entering the well-made space. Few will deny that they make one of the best café racers around.
It’s an incredible coat for a very reasonable amount of money. It’s fully customisable with an extremely wide range of leather options, and they age beautifully.
- Full-grain leather
- 25 leather options
- Made in Scotland
- Two zippered chest pockets
- Discreet hand warmer pockets
- Zips at cuffs
- Side adjusters
Other Simmons Bilt jackets to consider: The Daytona (a handsome asymmetrical motorcycle jacket), The Sportsman (classic and very clean 1930s design), and the Tail Gunner (motorcycle styling, but designed for everyday wear).
The Himel Brothers motto is “One good thing”. You probably share this view. They think it is better to invest once in something timeless and carefully crafted than to spend our money on mass-produced pieces that merely take up space in our closets.
As a dealer of vintage leather pieces, Canadian David Himel spent most of his adult life fully immersed in the world of leather jackets, and a little over a decade ago, he decided he would put this knowledge to work.
He created modern-yet-classic designs loosely based on his favourite coats from the past, and he made each piece in the old-fashioned ways, sourcing materials (no matter what the cost) to make sure that his pieces would last every bit as long as his favourite vintage pieces.
The Imperial is a pattern from John Chapman (the legendary maker behind Good Wear). It’s the perfect marriage of bloody-knuckled Americana and European grace. It is one hell of a good thing.
- Shinki horsehide
- Available in five colours
- Hand-made in Canada
- 100% cotton Guterman thread
- 1940s style collar and reproduction zipper
- Japanese reproduction D-ring hardware on adjusters
- Fully customisable
Other Himel Brothers jackets to consider: The Heron* (our favourite take on the A-1 out there—also available with zip closure*), The Canuck* (beautiful railwayman’s coat), The Avro* (a stunning asymmetrical motorcycle jacket), and The Kensington* (Himel’s sly take on the cafe racer).
Don’t let this coat’s unassuming manner fool you. The relatively simple design belies a bevy of mouth-watering details. Fine Creek, the badge of master leather craftsman Yoshikatsu Yamazaki, make pieces with one eye on the past and the other in the present.
Like Himel Bros, they take established forms and give them a subtle twist. Their pieces aren’t reproductions. They pay homage to the great pieces of the past, but they view them through a thoroughly modern lens.
More than any other maker, Fine Creek coats are made to fade, making them a hot commodity among collectors who want pieces that age beautifully.
Yamazaki sources his horse hides from the Yomeji tannery in Japan. He chooses this leather because of how it ages, so, when handling one of his pieces, it’s best to picture it with rich patina and rough aging. Within a few years, the jacket will become an entirely unique storytelling piece.
- Himeji horsehide
- Veg-tanned 2mm tea core leather
- Aniline finished
- Cupra quilted lining
- Tanned and stitched in Japan
- Beautiful brown tones just below the surface
When L.A. and Tokyo reach across the Pacific and clench hands, magic can happen. Nine Lives may have boutique-level prices, but they’ve been making a strong value case year after year with eye-popping fabrics and immaculate tailoring.
Unlike other boutiques, they don’t run the ragged edge of fashion. Rather, they cultivate a stable of conservative and perfectly executed pieces.
Their take on the varsity jacket is tailor made for denim enthusiasts who appreciate the best that Japan has to offer.
Other brands in this space (e.g., Dehen 1920 and Golden Bear) stick to wool for the body of the coat, but Nine Lives takes it in entirely new directions by using 100% cotton sashiko hand-dyed with indigo.
The result is an unevenly textured body that just gets better and better as you get up close with it. You might be able to pick up a well-made wool varsity jacket for a quarter of the price of this, but this is the varsity jacket done to absolute perfection.
- Custom Yak Leather
- Custom hand-dyed 100% cotton sashiko body
- Heat blackened and waxed body
- Unbelievable texture
- Custom thick collar ribbing that can be worn up or down
- Leather lining in pockets
- YKK excella hardware
Division Road only has one of the jackets left at the time of publication. The Nine Lives webshop has more of the jackets available.
Division Road ship from the USA. If you’re looking for other places to buy Nine Lives, try: Self Edge (USA), Snake Oil Provisions (USA), Standard & Strange (USA), The Shop Vancouver (Canada), Burg & Schild (Germany), Rivet & Hide (UK), and Sonder Supplies (UK)
Until Freewheelers snatched the crown, Real McCoy’s was the undisputed king of the rugged and well-made leather jackets category. This is not to say, however, that Real McCoy’s is in any way inferior to their made-in-Japan rival. It’s a photo finish, with Freewheelers taking the slightest of leads thanks to their commitment to artistry over reproduction.
On the reproduction front, there’s simply no beating Real McCoy’s. Their Buco pieces, which helped establish them as a badge to be reckoned with, continue to be some of the best leather jackets you can find anywhere.
Their J-31 might be the best pure reproduction motorcycle piece anywhere. The veg-tanned horsehide is practically bulletproof, and the double row of chrome-plated buttons make it look like you’ve been riveted into your coat.
To work, the J-31 must be worn confidently and with the kit to support it. Pair it with your heaviest and darkest kit and hit the road, leaving a trail of rubber and broken hearts behind you.
- Veg-tanned and pigment finished
- Wool lining
- Tanned and stitched in Japan
- 1940s bell-shaped Talon zipper
- Chrome-plated buttons
- Zippers for days (7 of them)
Clutch Café only has one J-31 in stock (hopefully, it’s in your size). You can find a few other sizes through Real McCoy’s.
Other Buco jackets to consider: JH-1 (picture-perfect 50s motorcycle jacket), J-100 Leather Racer Shirt (unlined cafe racer), J-24 (D-pocket motorcycle jacket)
Clutch Café ship from the UK. If they’re sold out, or if you’re looking for other places to buy Real McCoy’s, try: Real McCoy’s (Japan) and Standard & Strange (USA)
Any jacket by Freewheelers
The reigning kings of the leather jacket scene, Freewheelers simply don’t have a bad piece to their name. Their takes on early- and mid-century pieces are essentially the final word. Once they’ve had their turn, it’s unlikely anybody will ever produce a better interpretation.
Freewheelers has only been producing pieces since 2009. They don’t stand on their decades of experience. They just stepped up to the plate and, with the first swing, they established themselves as the makers of the moment.
The man behind the brand, Atsushi Yasui, cut his teeth at the Real McCoy’s. During his tenure there, he was responsible for some of the brand’s most iconic pieces, so when he set out on his own, it was clear that his new shop would be a formidable competitor, but his workshop has more than surpassed expectations.
We’ve included links to a few of the available pieces out there right now, but the best way to get your hands on a Freewheelers piece is through their Desolation Row store in Tokyo.
They’ve usually got a few pieces in stock, and they’re the best people to contact if you have your eye on a particular model. You might have to stand at the back of the line for a while, but the wait is always worth it when the payoff is this good.
- Sun Set in deerskin (pictured)
- Vegetable-tanned deerskin from Shinki Tannery
- 100% made in Japan
- Starts yellow, but turns a stunning caramel colour with wear
- Brushed cotton burgundy flannel liner
- Impeccable stitching
- Keep it out of the rain
Here are a few of the available Freewheelers pieces out there right now:
The Journeyman, available at Desolation Row for ~$2,531
Corlection ship from Australia and Desolation Row ships from Japan. If you’re looking for other places to buy Freewheelers, try: Denimio (Japan) and Son of a Stag (USA)
Why Well-Made Leather Jackets Are Essential
A well-made leather jacket in the right style is both timeless and adaptable. Get the right jacket and it will be as stylish in ten or twenty years as the day you bought it, and it will continue to work with almost everything in your wardrobe. Let’s take a closer look at each of these two points.
Well-Made Leather Jackets Are Timeless
We’ve been tanning and using animal hides for thousands of years. Especially in places where cold weather made warm outerwear essential, there was a robust trade in leathers and furs. Crude though the designs might have been, they were the difference, for those who wore them, between life and death.
Leather was a frontier staple in the nineteenth century. It was a popular material for vests and jackets (though perhaps not as popular as western filmmakers would have us believe). They were utilitarian pieces, with very little emphasis placed on looks or craftsmanship. This changed dramatically in the early part of the twentieth century. In the golden age of air combat, the leather jacket truly came into its own as an iconic menswear piece.
The words ‘golden age of air combat’ might have you thinking of Spitfires and Messerschmitts dogfighting over English skies, but we’re actually looking back a little earlier than that.
During the first world war (when the Red Baron and his scarlet Fokker were the scourge of the skies), German pilots wore thigh-length belted leather jackets. Standard-issue wool was no match for the freezing conditions in open-air cockpits, so pilots had special jackets made for them.
By the end of the war, pilots on both sides were taking to the skies in leather jackets. They became such an essential part of the pilot’s kit that the US military began working on a version that they could issue to airmen. The result was the A-1 (first issued in 1927), followed quickly by the A-2 (first appearing in 1931), which would see service throughout WWII and beyond.
The real secret to the A-2’s success (besides its durability and warmth) was the replacement of the clumsy buttons with a zipper. It changed the look of the coat radically, and it made it much easier to take on and off.
It was functional and fashionable. Its clean lines, handy pockets, and high waist caught the attention of men everywhere, and civilian versions of the coat soon started cropping up, gaining in popularity during the second world war.
By the end of WWII, the leather jacket became something of a menswear staple, but the look was too conservative for some. There was a counterculture revolution percolating below the surface.
Around the same time as the military was perfecting their flight jackets, Irving Schott was doing some perfecting of his own. He introduced the first Perfecto jacket in 1928. Motorcycle enthusiasts loved the asymmetrical coat, making it an underground hit in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
But wait a second. Here comes Marlon Brando again.
What Brando did for the tee shirt in 1951 with A Streetcar Named Desire he did again for the leather jacket with The Wild One (it’s really impossible to overstate Brando’s cultural impact in the early ‘50s). He wore a Schott Perfecto in the film, and the jacket became such an iconic symbol of youthful rebellion that school districts in the US and the UK, worried that the coat itself was enough to lead youths to a life of street crime, banned it. This only made the jacket more popular.
The leather jacket had become a badge of identity, and it’s remained so ever since. Fashion critics seem to re-appear every fall saying that the leather jacket is no longer an essential item, but it continues to wiggle its way out of tight spots.
It adapts to the needs of the moment and the tastes of the wearer. Depending on how it’s styled, it can be extremely conservative or rambunctious and rebellious. Whatever we want to say about ourselves, the right leather jacket will help.
It’s absolutely essential. For most men, it’s not a question of if they should get a leather jacket. It’s just a matter of when and what type.
Well-Made Military-Inspired Jackets Are Adaptable
Some leather jackets (the Perfecto being perhaps the best example) only really work when the style is simple and classic. The jacket does so much heavy lifting that we overdo it if we try to pair it with other eye-catching pieces.
Other styles (bombers for example) can roll through the rotation with less difficulty, but our advice is to keep it simple. Even without all the buckles, snaps, and zippers, a leather jacket is an overpowering piece. If the jacket has a bold collar, it will pair uneasily with collared shirts, so stick with a classic tee or a henley. If it’s got a chopped collar, you’ll have more flexibility, but nothing works better under leather jackets of all types than crewnecks. If it’s cool enough, a slim-fitting sweater can be an excellent companion. Hoodies can also work, but not for all ages.
And of course, for best results, pair with denim. Tight or loose, faded or crisp, blue or black–the sky’s the limit.
How to Identify a Well-Made Leather Jacket
A lot of the marks of quality that you should look for in a well-made leather jacket will be identical to the ones we discussed at length in the article on well-made military-inspired jackets. We’ll cover some of the crucial points below.
What It’s Made of
Since we’re not in luxury territory here, we’re not remotely interested in soft and supple leathers. As beautiful and comfortable as lambskin and calfskin leather jackets might be, you won’t find any on this list. They’re not made of the right stuff, in the right way, or for the right reasons.
All of the jackets below will feel like armour. Many of them have come either from or through motorcycle culture, so their most iconic versions are made to protect the rider when the road rises up to meet them. Soft leathers just don’t have this ticket to ride. They are pure fashion, and all of the jackets we’ll cover below are at the balancing point between form and function.
You should expect the leather to be either full-grain steerhide or full-grain horsehide that has been vegetable tanned (not chrome tanned). No matter what colour the leather has been dyed, there should be some life in it. It should be immediately apparent that this is leather and not a synthetic imitation.
The heavy and durable leather will be extremely stiff at first, but, as you and the jacket get to know each other, it’ll become friendlier and gentler. When new, it’ll fight you when you bend your arms or twist your torso, but in time, it will move with you.
Tip: When trying a well-made leather jacket on in the store, do NOT bend your arms more than a few degrees. The break-in process is reserved for those who buy. Break this rule and the stockists might lock their doors the next time they see you coming.
Here’s what to look for in a well-made leather jacket:
- Extremely heavy and stiff
- Full-grain leather
- Veg tanned
- Steerhide or horsehide
- Respected tannery
- Immediately obvious that this is an animal hide and not some hunk of plastic
How It’s Made
One of the first things to look at when examining a leather jacket is the number of panels. Good makers want to highlight the quality of their leather, and they do this by keeping the number of panels down to a minimum. Look at the back of the jacket. How many panels do you see? The best makers seize every opportunity to let an unbroken surface speak volumes about their careful leather selection.
Are you getting a clear picture of the leather, or are you just getting snippets? If the leather is top-grade, the makers will want to show it off. The fewer seams, the better.
There are exceptions to this rule. Well-made leather jackets are canvases for leather artisans. Some makers allow the leather to speak for itself, others exhibit their skill with intricate stitch work. When it’s a top-level maker, the quality of the work should be immediately apparent.
What truly makes the difference here is that each time a good maker introduces needle and thread to the leather, they do so with a purpose. The best leather artisans never use two pieces of leather where they can use one.
The jacket’s hardware should be a perfect match for the tough leather. It should be heavy and stiff. Buttons and zippers should offer some resistance at first. Like the leather, they will move easier with a little time and the steady application of elbow grease.
Nothing less than a perfect fit will do. The shoulders and cuffs should line up perfectly with your frame. If it’s a waist-length coat, you should be able to raise your arms without exposing your midriff. Your jacket should sit on your belt line.
Wear your favourite tee when trying on jackets. The jacket should cover the tee. If you wear your tees low, you can have the waist of the jacket sit higher than the hem of your shirt, but we don’t recommend it.
As always, the best rule of thumb is to go with the feel. When the jacket feels substantial and well-made, it usually is. When the fit feels absolutely perfect, you’ve probably got a winner on your hands.
Construction details to look for in well-made leather jacket:
- Fewer panels the better
- Purposeful stitching
- Heavy-duty hardware
- Everything should fight you a bit at first
- Absolutely perfect fit
- Reputable maker (usually reflected in the price)
Why It’s Made
The kinds of jackets we’ll cover below were not meant to be babied. Yes, for some of them water is their Achilles’ heel, but most of them can be worn in all weather provided we treat them with the right protectants.
The best makers all have rugged use in mind when they make their jackets. Yes, they are fashionable pieces, and yes, they look incredible right off the rack, but, like jeans, they are essentially unfinished. They only live up to their potential after years of steady wear.
Want to really impress a maker or a passionate stockist? Subject your jacket to as much abuse as you can throw at it and then come back into the store. Lay your jacket next to a brand new one and you’ll be able to immediately see the difference. You’ll get a smile and a nod of approval from whoever sold you the coat. They’ll know that you’ve done the piece justice.
Keep it looking brand new and you might have a beautiful leather piece to show off, but those in the know won’t take notice. Babied leather jackets look identical to the piece that moves from one side of the counter every day in leather shops. If you want to impress them (and get the most out of your investment), give your jacket hell.
We tell stories with the scars we bear. We can bear these marks on our skin or on the hides we wear. Our adventures and misadventures leave their marks on our leather, making our jackets story-telling pieces like no other. Let it become part of you. Let it co-journey with you. At the end of the road (or perhaps at some rest stop along the way), you’ll be able to use your jacket like a treasured photo album–as a repository of stories and memories.
When you can reach this stage with a well-made leather jacket, every dollar you invest will be repaid—and then some.