When it comes to braving the cold, the best place to look is in nature, where making it through crappy weather is a matter of life or death. Sure, geese may be flying south for the winter, but even if we can’t migrate (because of something called a “job” or whatever), we can certainly benefit from their source of natural heat.
What you need most from a winter coat is equal parts protection from the weather and versatility for your closet. Today’s puffy coats aren’t as puffy as the North Faces of yore, which means they'll match your Chelsea boots just as well as your wheat Timbs. If you like to layer, down vests are also a clever option.
Copping a toasty down coat can burn through your wallet faster than logs on a fire. Before swan diving into the market of goose, duck, or synthetic down jackets, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into—and how to get the best value for your money. Neither you, nor your bank account, should be left out in the cold. Here's what you need to know.
Down vs. Synthetic Insulation
Ultimately, what makes a “down coat” a down coat is the filling. Down coats are stuffed with both normal, outer feathers from fowl (usually geese), along with feathers from the fluffy layer underneath, commonly known as down. In addition to the name, it's also how the coats get their trademark bulkiness. The down feathers create small air pockets which retain heat, and are also incredibly light, so designers are able to make super warm jackets that don't weigh a ton, even if they are bulky. However warm it is, though, down doesn't always perform well in wet weather. With rain or wet snow, moisture compresses the feathers, trapping less heat, and ultimately making the jacket less functional. Still, when it’s extremely cold, down jackets are tough to beat.
Synthetic insulation is any man-made down or insulation that, in practice, is utilized in the same way as down. Synthetic insulation is best for environments that are simultaneously wet and cold, and are perfect for those who take on more active hobbies like mountain climbing or other winter sports. But, in order to match the warming properties of down, a synthetic insulated jacket will ultimately be heavier.
To truly comprehend how warm a down jacket is before you even put it on, there are a few numbers you’ll want to keep track of, especially fill power. This rating ranges from 400 to 900. The higher the fill power, the warmer the jacket will be; a higher fill power also denotes more quality feathers. So, with a higher number, you can also expect a lighter jacket; more efficient feathers mean that you need less of them. As a pro tip, you should be aware that there are two rating systems for fill power, U.S. and EU. When judging jackets, the U.S. scale is often higher, so be sure to subtract 100 from the fill power number when comparing to EU-graded jackets.
You’ll also likely encounter a percentage ratio (often 80/20, or 90/10). This indicates how many down feathers there are in the jacket in relation to normal feathers. The higher the first number, the warmer—and more expensive—the coat will be. Luxury jackets, like those from Moncler and Canada Goose, often shoot for a 90/10 ratio in order to emphasize quality, as well as warmth.
There are two prevailing construction methods when it comes to down products. The “sewn through” method and the “box baffle.” The effect can be the same, but if you really want to know what you're buying, there is a difference. The sewn through method is more common, isolating pockets of down, called baffles, with a seam. This means that, while the down won’t shift around in your jacket, cold spots will exist between each baffle where wind can get through along the seam. Baffle box construction is similar in that is has compartments of down that prevent feathers from accumulating in one section of the jacket, but it separates them with a three dimensional wall that maximizes the amount of down in each space, and therefore significantly prevents cold spots by comparison. Unfortunately, while the baffle box method is more practical, since it requires more fabric, it is—you guessed it—more expensive.
Down jackets may be known for their shape-devouring bulk, but if you want to stay warm, it’s vital that your jacket fit properly. It’s easy to assume that bigger is better, but an oversized jacket can ultimately let body heat escape. Similarly, an undersized jacket causes down compression, reducing the effectiveness of the jacket off the rip. Down should be relatively close to the body to maximize heat retention, so it's important to try your jacket on to make sure it can fit comfortably over a sweater or hoodie, but doesn't leave too much room between it and your body. Remember, regardless of insulation type, you’re looking for outerwear that keeps warm air close to you.
Where to Buy: Vivienne Westwood, $2,215, kasuri.com; Canada Goose, $745, canada-goose.com; Isaora, $189, isaora.com; Schott NYC, $995, schottnyc.com; DKNY Men, $475, dkny.com; VFILES Sport Plus, $495, vfiles.com; DSquared2, $2,190, dsquared2.com; Faith Connexion, $1,950, faithconnexion.com; Polo Ralph Lauren, $2,495, ralphlauren.com; Moncler A, $1,255, moncler.com; AMI Alexandre Mattiusi, $1,225, amiparis.fr; Herno, $695, barneys.com; Michael Kors, $995, michaelkors.com; Stone Island, $448, stoneisland.com; Officine Generale, $835, barneys.com