Buying a winter coat is deceptively hard. A jacket may look snuggly and warm, but it could leave you freezing as soon as a chilly wind whips your way. Or it may fit beautifully — until you throw on your favorite hoodie, and suddenly you have no room to button up the front. Still, it’s an essential that fuses function with technology and style.
“Your coat is kind of the first thing anyone sees on your body. At the same time, it’s an investment piece because, usually, coats — at whatever price point and whatever look — are the priciest piece on your body,” says KZ_K Studio Co-Founder and Creative Director Karolina Zmarlak. Her New York City-based brand is luxury ready-to-wear with a focus on multipurpose garments and technical materials.
When spending money on outerwear, you want to find something that’s versatile and durable, that you can wear most days and that can live in your wardrobe for many years. Think about what style you like, what you’ll use your coat for, what level of insulation you want and what your budget is.
“The most important thing is buying something that’s good quality and classic, that you feel like could last you a lifetime,” says J. Crew Head of Womenswear Olympia Gayot.
Ahead, we narrowed it down to the four biggest factors you should be considering when buying a winter coat — with some insights from outerwear experts.
How you’ll wear it
According to Gayot, the market is made up largely of three main types of coats: wool, puffer (including parkas) and transitional pieces (including shells). Whichever you choose, she advises to ensure it’s a quality piece in its materials and construction.
A coat’s functionality is unique to you: It depends on how and where you’ll wear it. Do you plan on using it every day, or only for special nights out? If the former, you might want something more casual and insulated, like a puffer or hooded parka; for the latter, maybe you’ll have your eye on something more tailored, with more elevated detailing, perhaps made of wool. Also consider your ability to layer underneath.
“Having a coat that’s a little bit bigger is actually really versatile,” Gayot says. With only a T-shirt, it creates a cool, oversized look; with multiple layers, it looks seamless and keeps you warm. Since layering is the thesis of effective cold-weather dressing, your coat should have ample room in case you need to throw on a bulky sweater and/or chunky scarf. Don’t sleep on the sleeves, either: If you layer up but the jacket sleeves are cut narrowly, your layers might uncomfortably scrunch up at your armpits.
“If you want the greatest functionality and wearability, select coats that either have a slight dropped arm hole, a dolman sleeve arm hole, or kimono sleeve arm hole because it allows you to really be able to wear the coat with multiple silhouettes,” Zmarlak says.
J. Crew New cocoon coat in Italian stadium-cloth wool, $155 (from $375), available here (sizes 00-22)
KZ_K Studio Bois Jacket, $1,695, available here (sizes 2XS-XL)
Reformation Leighton Coat, $398, available here (sizes XS-XL)
Cuyana Wool Draped Collar Coat, $498, available here (sizes XS-XL)
Marcella NYC Elizabeth Coat, $325, available here (XS-3XL)
Tove Roma Scarf-Detailed Wool-Blend Coat, $985, available here (sizes FR34-42)
Where you live and what your winter tends to feel like will help determine how much insulation to look for. If your winters lean warm, a lightweight shell jacket will keep you cozy without overheating. Anything else, you might want something highly insulated.
A coat is mainly a shell and its filling, but every part of the design will relate to one or the other in some way. “I think people tend to think the more features the better,” 66° North Apparel Designer Gudbjorg Jakobsdottir says. That’s not always the case, though — often times, less is more.
If optimal warmth is the priority, you’ll want to look at the type of insulation your coat uses (down or synthetic fill), the level of insulation (lightweight, normal or heavy), waterproofness and its windproof capabilities. Shell coats make excellent lightweight jackets, while puffers can be great for normal or heavy-duty insulation.
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Each kind of insulation touts its own benefits. Down tends to retain volume for longer and, as a result, keep you warm for longer. It’s also extremely lightweight compared to heavier synthetic fillings. There are also downsides: If it gets wet, for example, “it completely loses its thermal qualities,” Jakobsdottir says. Taking care of down can require more attention than something synthetic. Plus, “when you want to be more responsible, you might not want to buy a new version of down,” per Jakobsdottir. (Luckily, recycled down is a great alternative.)
Synthetic filling is similarly very effective at keeping you warm. It also tends to be cheaper and more water resistant than natural fillings. Over time, however, synthetic fill tends to lose volume faster and, accordingly, this taxes its insulating power.
Most coats are already water-repellant, thanks to a water-resistant film many brands apply to the fabric. For most people, this will suffice — but not all coats have a windproof component, too, which can be especially helpful in more harsh climates. You’ll want to read the product description carefully; look for GORE-TEX, one of the most popular materials used to achieve these properties.
Fjällräven Kiruna Women’s Padded Parka, $350, available here (sizes 2XS-2XL)
Patagonia Women’s Torrentshell 3L Jacket, $179, available here (sizes XS-2XL)
Uniqlo BLOCKTECH Parka, $90, available here (sizes 2XS-2XL)
The North Face Women’s Plus Shelbe Raschel Hoodie, $149, available here (1X-3X)
Arc’teryx Nuclei SV Parka, $400, available here (sizes XS-L)
Moncler Amont Hooded Jacket, $1,450, available here (sizes 0-5)
Color (or lack thereof)
Zmarlak sees coats as a marriage of a statement piece and an investment piece, so she recommends sticking to classics, but dabbling with color within that. “Think about neutrals — doesn’t necessarily have to be black,” Zmarlak says. “However, there’s something to be said about having your coat be your favorite color… Your favorite color will always make you happy.”
Gayot also delights in colorful coats and personally recommends having two on hand: one that’s neutral, another that’s more bright.
“If you’re somebody who wears winter white, camels, creams or gray, it actually looks really good with like a bright colored coat,” she says. “Thinking about what color pairs with all the other things in your wardrobe would be the best way to pick a colored coat.” (Hello, dopamine dressing.) Buttons — whether a dull brass or shiny gold — can also dress a coat up or down.
66 North Dyngja Down Jacket, $450, available here (sizes XS-XL)
Aritzia The Super (Re)Puff™, $250, available here (sizes 3XS-XL)
Good American Iridescent Puffer, $185, available here (sizes XS-5XL).
REI Co-op Norseland Insulated Parka 2.0, $199, available here (sizes XS-3XL)
LaQuan Smith Leather & Genuine Shearling Overcoat, $8,395, available here (sizes S-M)
Daily Paper Black Epuff Cropped Jacket, $265, available here (sizes XS-XL)
Once you’ve found your ideal winter coat, the next most important thing to do is keep it in great condition.
Carefully pay attention to the washing label. Make sure you understand what your jacket needs — otherwise, you risk deactivating certain features that drew you to it in the first place.
“When you have a shell or a laminate with a film, you need to wash it often, not seldom,” Jakobsdottir says. When you have fabric glued to a protective film, “[the glue] dissolves with grease and deteriorates fast with mud or dirt or sand on it. You want to wash your garments and dry them properly…. Otherwise, the garment will, we call it, ‘wet out.'”
At the end of the season, Gayot will take her coat to the dry cleaners and keeping it wrapped until the next season. “I want my clothes to work hard for me,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t realize there are little stains or pilling.”
If your coat is made of natural fibers like wool or cashmere, there are other maintenance items that’ll keep it looking fresh. Get a wool brush for your wool coat, and a comb for a longer-haired coat that you brush in the natural direction of the hair. For cashmere, try a specialized shaver to get rid of any pilling. Condition and protect any leather coat with designated sprays.
When it comes to winter coats, the philosophy is: Invest, maintain and care.
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