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How the Puffy Vest Became a Symbol of Power

The puffer vest has frequently been spotted as the fashion item of choice for the one percent, from HBO's 'Succession' to Jeff Bezos's wardrobe, and brands like Moncler and Cucinelli are reaping the benefits.
Puffer vests have become closely associated with the one percent. | Collage by Rachel Deeley for BoF
By
  • Chavie Lieber

NEW YORK, United States — In a recent episode of the HBO series "Succession", the powerful Roy clan at the centre of the show attend a conference for billionaires at an exclusive mountain resort.

The audience learns everything they need to know about the characters by their puffer vest. Kendall Roy, played by Jeremy Strong, wears a Cucinelli puffer vest, and his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) wears a Ralph Lauren one. Their brother-in-law, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) sports a shiny Moncler number. When they enter a cocktail party, they are surrounded by wealthy folk decked out in puffer vests of their own.

Michelle Matland, the costume designer for "Succession", which also airs on Sky Atlantic in the UK, told BoF the vests were chosen precisely because they have become so closely associated with the one percent. From tech titans like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to billionaire investor John Henry to Lachlan Murdoch, son of media titan Rupert Murdoch and one of the rumoured inspirations for "Succession," the bulky, down-filled puffer vest has become the fashion item of choice for the ultra-wealthy.

“The costume was stolen directly from the world of billionaires,” Matland said. “[The Roys] are self-aware, and know how to take advantage of situations, so of course they are going to be wearing puffy vests. It’s their veneer of strength.”

In addition to serving as a status symbol, puffer vests are also big business for luxury brands. Searches for the item were up 7 percent on Lyst last year. Men who have zero fashion sensibility will happily drop $1,000 or more on a Moncler or Cucinelli puffer vest, said Victoria Hitchcock, a stylist who works with Silicon Valley professionals.

A lot of these guys don't want to be too ambitious with their style choices, but will still wear luxury vests because they can stand out with it.

“A lot of these guys don’t want to be too ambitious with their style choices, but will still wear luxury vests because they can stand out with it and still keep their simplicity sort of style,” Hitchcock said.

Brands like Moncler, Herno, Canada Goose and Cucinelli incorporate the puffer vests into their permanent collections. Balenciaga, Burberry and Prada are among the luxury brands that also sell puffers.

Non-luxury brands like Patagonia, Uniqlo and the North Face count the puffer vest as some of their best sellers too (these brands are better known for the puffer vest’s popular cousin, the fleece vest, which have themselves become so popular in New York’s business and tech worlds that they are sometimes referred to as the “Midtown Uniform.”)

Moncler has been the biggest beneficiary of the puffer trend by far, with revenue jumping 27 percent last year. Moncler’s biggest seller is coats, but vests make up 14 percent of outerwear sales this year, up from 11 percent last year, according to Edited, a retail tech firm.

The puffer vest is an offshoot of the puffer jacket, invented by Australian chemist George Finch, who made a coat from balloon fabric and feather down for an early attempt by British explorers to climb Mount Everest in 1922. Brands like Eddie Bauer and the North Face took his design to the masses, but the product was mainly reserved for outdoor enthusiasts and the working class, said fashion historian Laura McLaws Helms.

“It was popular in the labour movement, at construction sites because it was a utilitarian garment,” she said. “That the richest men in America are wearing puffer vests is a huge leap from its roots.”

Over the last five years, though, the puffer vest has been co-opted by the tech industry, initially via brands like Patagonia. The item also rode the nostalgia trend, as men who grew up watching Marty McFly from"Back To The Future" in his red puffer entered the workforce.

“The idols of the workplace are shifting,” said Brooke Jaffe, a fashion consultant and former fashion director at Bloomingdale's. “People used to look up to the Wall Street guys as icons, and now they want to be tech billionaires, who dress casually by nature.”

People used to look up to the Wall Street guys as icons, and now they want to be tech billionaires, who dress casually by nature.

An image of Bezos sporting a vest with sunglasses and jeans at the Sun Valley conference in 2017 became a meme, solidifying the idea of the puffer as a symbol of tech professionals taking their place among the global elite.

“There’s a certain amount of privilege that comes with wearing the puffer vest out and about,” said Jaffe. “It sends a subtle but very visual message: The people wearing them are in a position to do so. They’ve taken risks and have gotten to a place in their career that they can wear a simple puffer vest instead of fancy, over-the-top outerwear.”

Even not-so-successful clients are keen to sport a puffer vest, Hitchcock said, because the product gives them the air that they at least look successful.

“It's become turbo vision of the man who wants to strategically look like he’s coming straight out of an important job in Silicon Valley,” Hitchcock said of the puffer vest. “He’ll touch down in LA, pull out the vest, and hopes everyone around him will think he’s got the stuff.”

The largely white, largely American world of Silicon Valley is only the latest group to discover the puffer vest. The item has long been a staple in hip-hop culture, and upper-class Italians have shelled out for gilets, as they are known in Europe, for decades, Jaffe said.

There's a certain amount of privilege that comes with wearing the puffer vest out and about.

Lately, Hitchcock has been calling herself the “vest exterminator,” and is trying to pry the item from the closets of her clients because it’s cliche. She admits, though, that she hasn’t had much luck.

“I’ve been suggesting some guys go with something like a North Face, which is better, but they want Moncler and Cucinelli,” Hitchcock said. “They are all about the ROI for the vest, and the more expensive, the better.”

The trend will likely have legs because the puffer vest also seems to represent something deep inside these men.

“From what I’ve seen, these billionaire guys are often the high school geek, the ones who weren’t on the football team, so the vest gives them a sense of belonging,” Matland said.

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