Zip up or shut up. That could easily be the tagline for menswear over the past few years thanks to the zip-up jacket’s unstoppable rise. Even if you haven’t worn or bought a bomber in recent seasons, you won’t have failed to notice that it’s fast becoming this generation’s blazer. Designers might continue to show them alongside their tailoring – some even layering blazer over bomber and vice versa – but it’s the bomber’s practical appeal that’s made it a lasting hit. Alongside posh joggers and designer sneakers, the athletic staple is a clear example of how sportswear has impacted luxury fashion, ushering in menswear’s new dress-down era in the process.
Last week, as temperatures in London started to fall to that mid-autumn point where it’s cold but a wool overcoat or down jacket is still too warm, I pulled out one of the things in my wardrobe that always makes me happy: an acid-green Jonathan Saunders bomber from spring/summer 2013 (whose surface resembles that of a 1970s car seat fabric). It’s punchy, well-cut, just warm enough for now and ensures my head-to-toe navy get-up doesn’t read too boring. Saunders, whose own label has sadly closed, was a key champion of the bomber in the UK.
Meanwhile my most recent bomber purchase is from another British brand: Wales Bonner. This much-hyped label – designed by Central Saint Martins alum Grace Wales Bonner – might be in its infancy (she showed her first runway collection in 2015), but it’s already earned the designer a slew of industry prizes including Best Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards last year. Her autumn/winter 2016 runway show featured a black velvet bomber with contrast leather collars. I ordered one as soon as I tried it on.
A velvet bomber jacket with contrast leather collars might sound totally impractical – especially if you’re wintering here in the UK – but actually, it looks great under a lightweight parka or mac while also doubling as a cardigan.
Now, I know this all sounds a bit fashion-person-bonkers, but bear with me. The reason I make this point is to highlight one of the key reasons for the bomber’s success: it’s a genuinely versatile piece of clothing. And while no man worth his sartorial salt needs reminding that layering is a practical way to make your clothes work harder – not to mention deal with unpredictable weather – the fact is that most men won’t take clothes seriously unless they’re fundamentally useful. Yes, I know I’m talking about a designer velvet bomber jacket, but you get the drift.
On The Runways
The autumn/winter 2016 shows saw all manner of bombers stomping down the runway, worn solo or as part of layers, though this season it was the MA1 that came out on top – the puffed-up style that originates from a design for fighter pilots. Which is nothing new of course: the military is a perennial reference for menswear, as is uniform. And men, it would seem, like a uniform – even if it’s not necessarily designed to fly an airplane or fight a war.
Vetements, the cult Parisian label set up by brothers Demna and Guram Gvasalia (who set industry tongues wagging in the process), showed oversized versions of the MA1. Burberry – a label renowned for its outerwear – also sent out similar shapes worn with flared trousers. And Rick Owens, a designer perhaps best known for leather jackets, even took his runway bow wearing a black oversized MA1.
Looking ahead to spring/summer 2017, the bomber’s reign is set to continue. After the J.W. Anderson show in London this June, the outfit that featured a blue bomber worn over a long denim coat was unanimously voted the winning ensemble by various editors and buyers that I spoke to.
Elsewhere, Balenciaga – which showed its first men’s runway collection in Paris (now also designed by Demna Gvasalia) – featured a series of short snappy jackets with military vibes and a broad-shouldered silhouette. Expect to see these in plenty of magazine spreads in the months to come.
The Bomber’s Beginnings
But perhaps one of the most influential designers when it comes to bombers is Kim Jones, who heads up the men’s division of luxury mega brand Louis Vuitton. He might have opened with suiting in his first collection for the house (spring/summer 2012), but the highlights were most definitely the bombers: a varsity jacket with an LV badge on its breast and gold trim on the waistband and cuffs looked like luxury menswear for a new generation. Since then, Jones has continued to re-invent the bomber, from an orange silk version for spring/summer 2015 to his souvenir jackets collection (more on this later) the following year.
Other high-end labels, including Burberry and Valentino, started to back the bomber from around 2012/2013, while Lanvin started including riffs on the zip-up as early as spring/summer 2011. Designer Lucas Ossendrijver, who has been at the label for 10 years, has strong form on outerwear – I can still remember the silver zip-up styled with matching trousers and a tie (and awkward fringe) from spring/summer 2013, while his MA1s this season are particularly good.
Of course, the bomber jacket’s popularity is not based purely on its number of recent runway appearances. Like all much-loved menswear pieces, the style (or variations of it) have been knocking about for some time. Think about James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire – films integral to shifts in men’s wardrobes.
The bomber has also long been associated with skinheads, from the 1980s-era subculture itself to pop culture depictions like Ewan McGregor’s Renton wearing a khaki bomber and skinny jeans in the opening scene of Trainspotting. Even 007 has gotten on board with the zip-up: Daniel Craig wore one by Band of Outsiders for his debut Bond film, 2006’s Casino Royale, while Ryan Gosling became something of a poster boy for the bomber when in Drive he sported that infamous silver zip-up jacket with the embroidered scorpion on the back.
How To Wear
Celebrity backing hasn’t harmed this trend either. Google men in bomber jackets and you’ll find a slew of the rich and famous going about their business, posing on red carpets or front rows. It’s worth noting that it’s a particularly diverse A-list crowd, too. There’s Kanye West layering his with a hoodie. Or Robert Pattinson in a Lanvin varsity jacket at a photo call for Twilight. Add to the mix bombers on street style blogs and social media feeds, and its popularity is patently clear.
One of the jacket’s many strengths is undoubtedly the breadth of versions designers can offer. For example, aside from the MA1 or the varsity, the souvenir jacket – a lesser-known style of bomber (think kitsch motifs and embroideries) – has tapped into a growing interest from men for bolder statement pieces. Saint Laurent, Gucci, Valentino and Louis Vuitton have all produced sell-out souvenirs in recent seasons.
Equally, in slightly less trend-conscious circles, men looking for an alternative to a blazer have quickly realised that a simple bomber shape in suede looks grown-up, expensive and goes with pretty much everything else in their wardrobe. Put simply, the bomber is seasonless, ageless and adaptable to all manner of fabrics from nylon to leather, silk and jersey.
With their increasing ubiquity perhaps the only question remaining is how you manage to stay on top of your bomber game. With that in mind, here are four tips to digest, experiment with and possibly stick on the fridge:
1. Consider a long-line bomber. As Helen Seamons, menswear fashion editor at The Guardian, told me recently, this is where the bomber is headed. It’s a natural progression from the short and boxy. These look great layered with a track top.
2. If in doubt go minimal. Acne Studios or COS have versions that look slick worn over a hoodie or under an overcoat.
3. Trousers. Straight- or wide-cut trousers to be precise. A bomber’s cropped neatness allows for more fabric below. Plus, looser fits are the new slim.
4. Experiment with tailoring and bombers. Because suits have fallen out of favour thanks to menswear’s new relaxed direction, wearing suiting with one is surely borderline subversive? Try using one in place of your blazer, or layering a lightweight version under your suit jacket, and team with white sneakers.
The British high street has also been swift to get on board. At the time of writing ASOS has a whopping 967 bomber styles online, including 380 from their own line.
Zara has 83 versions, including a great khaki wool version with a zip-pocket sleeve (nodding to the MA1) that’s styled with a denim jacket underneath it. The Spanish retailer also has padded versions, designs finished with badges, long-line styles and quilted options.
Topman offers 110 styles – plenty of embroidered souvenir takes here – with sales of its bombers in the UK having risen by 18 per cent this year and its options nearly doubling.
It’s a similar story at Marks & Spencer, which has sold 26,000 bombers in 2016 so far.
Simon Chilvers is men’s style director at MatchesFashion.com.