Chapal, Paris – Leather Jacket – Part 1

Stairs leading up to Chapal’s showroom on rue de Rivoli

This jacket is one of the commissions I’ve most looked forward to beginning, of all the things I’ve had made.

Leather, good leather, ages beautifully and is one of the few things you can have made which genuinely gets better with time. It softens up, develops its own unique patina and molds to your shape. With some occasional TLC, in 50 years it will look and feel even better than the day it was made.

So that’s why I’ve been so looking forward to this commission with Chapal (who I covered last year). Their leather is superb, they still own their own tannery (super-rare these days as they’ve almost all been bought up by the big houses) and Chapal remains in the same family’s hands some 7 generations later. Additionally, it’s such a nice atmosphere to be in their rue de Rivoli premises, with so much natural light and ceilings so high you need a sizable ladder to change a light bulb.

I don’t yet own a leather jacket and it’s been something I’ve wanted to have made for a while now, so the focus in this instance, as with any first commission of a specific item, has been to aim for versatility.

Chapal have a range of styles (all classic) which can be tweaked and modified to suit individual preferences and the situation in which you want to wear it. An unlined suede A1 jacket is going to be better in warmer weather and more casual situations, whereas a RAF jacket, made from sheepskin and lined with shearling wool will only be wearable in very cold weather and to shoot down Germans.

A1. Navy leather, cotton trim.

Leather also has the unique ability to completely change the look of a jacket, depending on which leather you choose (not colour, but the actual species of animal it comes from) and how you line it. For suits, the silhouette largely remains the same, even in heavier cloths. But a thick lamb-skin jacket, lined in shearling will look completely different from the same jacket made in a lightweight goat-skin with silk lining. So in this instance the choice of leather is just as important as the actual style and design.

A1. Tobacco suede.

Given that most of my life is spent in warm weather, the jacket needs to be light and relatively simple in construction (i.e. no heavy linings). Leather will never be able to compete with jackets in linen or cotton, or even open weave wool for that matter, but it’s not supposed to. A leather jacket is a completely different look to tailoring and if you’re in the mood to wear a leather jacket, you’re probably not in the mood to wear tailoring.

Initially, I thought I would have chosen an A1 flight jacket, made popular by the US Air Force during World War 2.  It’s remained stylish ever since, thanks to an easy, casual style, stand up collar and soft trim (the skirt, cuffs and collar are typically made in a contrasting cotton or wool). So, with Anaïs’ help we started with the A1’s. After trying a few versions on I never felt comfortable with the cut; its billowy mid-section, designed for ease and comfort just feels too broad on me. Chapal can make a significant number of changes to any jacket, including bringing it in as much as I want, but after trying on some other styles I quickly found ones which I preferred, anyway.

Prior to trying anything on, I thought that if, for any reason, the A1 didn’t suit me, then Chapal’s “English” style would, given my love of motorbikes. It’s what most of us would regard as a cafe-racer style, cut high on the waist, fitted all around and with a high throat closure. Wrong again. It looked great and the fit was what I was after, but it was a bit too straight forward and simple. Perfect for riding motorbikes, less interesting for daily street wear, given Chapal’s other options. Additionally, I have one of Barbour’s limited edition Steve McQueen jackets which bears many hallmarks of the A1, but in the fitted cut I like.

Chapal’s “English” style. Cafe racer in green and creme

We ended up settling on the “Roadster” which I loved as soon as I tried it on. It meets my preferences for several reasons; It has angled front pockets which are ridiculously practical (which we had made on my bespoke cashmere overcoat for this same reason). On the USAAF jacket, the front pockets look great, but to put your hands in your pockets (as I usually do) you have to lift the flaps up and then your hands have to drop in vertically, which looks odd (think of a kangaroo or t-rex’ arm/hand position and you’ll get what I mean), so you can never quite relax your arms with your hands in the pockets. The angled, flapless pockets achieve this goal of a relaxed natural position for your hands. Secondly, the upper chest pockets add some visual detail and I never like anything I wear to look too polished or flawless. They also give some extra storage space when going on daring adventures or walking the kids to school.

We’re also going to add a two way zipper to the main zip, so it can open from both the top and bottom, allowing the zipper to be partially closed around its mid-point, a look which I really like for several reasons (the jacket can be “closed” so the look remains fitted and it doesn’t blow open but doesn’t let you overheat, plus it gives further shape to the torso, coming together at the fastening point and moving away in narrow v’s above and below)

For further detail, we’re going to borrow some buckles from the RAF jacket, adding a buckle at the throat and at the waist (where the two front quarters meet at the bottom of the zip). It’s unlikely they’ll ever be used, but the extra detail creates a more rugged or utilitarian look, which, as mentioned above, I prefer over anything too clean and free of detail.

Speaking of the collar, we’re going to make a collar more similar to that on the English jacket. I don’t like fold down collars on jackets and prefer a smaller stand up collar (there’s nothing wrong with them, I’ve just always found fold-down collars to look really clunky and inelegant on casual jackets) and I’ve similarly bastardised an old Levi’s denim racer jacket I have, converting the fold down collar to a stand up and it looks great.

Buckles from the RAF jacket which we’ll put on my jacket.

Folding down the collar to show the preferred style

That’s about it for the main things we’ll customise.

The lining will be in a fairly neutral and light-weight silk or cotton, to keep it as cool as possible. We’ll use brass (or brass coloured) zippers as silver isn’t my style and the brass will age well. As much as I love the tan leather which I tried on, I’ve gone with a warm mid-brown as it allows the jacket to be worn with so much else, whereas the tan is more limiting in regards to the colours and combinations you can wear it with.

Another jacket in the same colour I chose

For the fit, we’ll take some room out of the body as well as the upper arms, to keep the jacket slim and fitted. The pleated backs of the arms allow plenty of freedom of movement, meaning a slim cut is more practical and less restrictive than it would be otherwise. We’ll also take the sleeves up by around 1.5cm.

Measurements

That’s about it for now. When I’m back in Paris I’ll come back in and try on what should be the largely finished jacket. You don’t get the same number of chances with leather that you do with cloth, so the changes need to be accurate from the outset as once the leather is cut and stitched, you can’t really alter it.

Andrew is an Australian born writer, covering the world's leading bespoke tailors and craftspeople in menswear, with a focus on authentic quality, over branding. He spends most of his days running his successful (god knows how) consulting company and travels frequently to Europe for work and writing. He's a passionate cyclist, former trainee professional golfer and lover of all things Cocker Spaniel. He's married to his best friend and significantly better half, Mehri.

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