Leather jackets have long been a staple of classic casual menswear, and ever since the bomber jacket’s introduction as a military-issued garment in the early 1900s, few items give off a casual, cool aesthetic quite like they can.
Given that quality leather is a relatively expensive material to source, these jackets have built a reputation of being an expensive sort of status symbol despite their utilitarian workwear origins. For example, a Belstaff Trialmaster is roughly $500 to $600 in cotton but over $1,500 in leather despite being styled the exact same way.
In response to this, it’s only natural that we see many brands marketing cheap leather jackets, and some of them might not even be made from leather. However, while it might be easier to spot a synthetic fabric when next to genuine leather, there are many leather jackets on offer at a fraction of the average price, raising the question as to what really separates a cheap leather jacket from an expensive one.
So fasten your zippers, buckles, and press studs as we dive into the differences between cheap and expensive leather jackets.
What is a “Cheap” or “Expensive” Leather Jacket?
First, let’s establish some parameters to make sure we’re all on the same page. As we’ve mentioned, there are many faux leather jackets out there. These are often made of synthetic materials. I’m sure we’ve all seen pleather jackets that quickly look like a bad skin condition, but there are also vegan leather alternatives out there, too.
As Raphael has previously examined in another guide, vegan leather is much better now than it has been in the past; however, we feel that there are still more steps to be made for vegan leather to truly rival that of animal sources. So, today, we’re going to focus on natural hide leather jackets – no synthetic or vegan alternatives.
Vegan Leather: Better Than Animal Leather?
There are also specialist leather jackets, such as protective motorcycle jackets. But given that these serve a more utilitarian function, so we’re putting our hands up to say we’re simply not experts in professional riding gear. We know ourselves when it comes to quality and style, but preventing road rash is one of the few times we’ll put function over form.
You can also find vintage leather jackets for far cheaper than the retail price if you have bought them new. However, the secondhand market can fluctuate in quality, condition, and price. Essentially, we want to be able to compare apples to apples and give you the best information possible, and comparing a 70-year-old bomber jacket to one fresh out of the box is simply not a fair comparison.
What do we mean by “cheap” anyway? Based on our research at the time of this post’s debut, a cheap leather jacket is anything offered below $300, and an expensive leather jacket is anything over $800 new. However, it’s worth stating that you’re going to find most high-end models starting between the $1,000 to $2,000 range.
Within this higher price point, you’re guaranteed to find leather jackets that are from high-end designer brands, but just because they fit into our expensive category, it doesn’t automatically mean that they’re better than a cheap leather jacket; mainly because their costs are due to brand markup over any sort of superior materials or construction methods. So, we’ll help you decide whether those designer brands are worth the extra money.
With those considerations in place, let’s turn to the first determining factor between a cheap or expensive leather jacket.
Defining Factors of a Cheap or Expensive Leather Jacket
1. Leather Quality
Simply put, the leather quality in cheap jackets never lives up to the kind sourced in expensive jackets. Tanning the leather takes time to do well and, therefore, costs more money.
Cheap leather jacket manufacturers won’t invest in leather that has been tanned as well as that used in expensive jackets as that naturally increases the cost. Plus, as animals live their lives, they can pick up scars, blemishes, or even calluses on their hides.
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These hides are less desirable to expensive leather jacket manufacturers as they don’t look as good, but they allow cheap leather jacket manufacturers access to a wide variety of materials at a reduced cost.
Other imperfections may include areas on the hide that may be overly thick or overly thin – meaning the leather will be unfavorable to the touch or more prone to developing flaws or, in some cases, even tears.
You’re most likely to see these scars on the upper parts of the skin. This is also known as the “top grain.” This type of leather is easier to source, but will also carry more imperfections, whereas full grain tends to be more consistent in texture, which is what higher-quality jackets will opt for.
Sometimes, cheap leather jackets use something called “bound leather.” This is where small bits of leather scraps are fused with other hides to make it look more impressive. However, it results in a hide that is weak and usually only reserved for things like book covers or other leather goods that don’t experience as much wear and tear.
You might even see cheaper leathers be embossed. This is where a heated metal plate is pressed onto the surface to create a new texture. It’s worth noting that expensive leather is seen at both price points, but embossing makes it much easier to hide the flaws of an inferior hide using this method. In some cases, this can become misleading by suggesting that the leather jacket is more expensive than it really is.
This is commonly seen with pricey reptilian leather textures like alligator or crocodile. There isn’t anything unethical about stating that a leather has been embossed to look like a mock croc up front, but we’d argue that it’s wrong to claim that it’s that type of leather when it just isn’t.
Cheap leather jackets are usually embossed without paying close attention to the repeating pattern or depth of texture within the product. Expensive leather jackets still might use embossing, but you’re likely to see closer attention to detail both visible and the embossing plate design as well as the actual finished results. Interesting and unusual fabrics, like hatch grains or pebble grains, can be made this way with their own unique properties.
One of the biggest giveaways for a cheap leather product is in the finishing of the leather itself. Cheaper leathers are often painted or coated when finished. This is cheap and easy to do and creates an immediate, easy-to-sell result. However, this finishing method will lead to the leather cracking, fading, or flaking sooner than it would have otherwise, significantly lowering the longevity of the product.
Quality leather has a much more intricate finishing process behind it, where it’s usually either vegetable or chrome-tanned instead. This process is much more expensive and time-consuming to create as the dye has to gradually absorb into the skins and be handled by an artisan who specializes in that process, but will not only lead to a more consistent finish but a beautiful patina over time.
Quality leather is like a fine wine or Raphael which only gets better with age. A lot of high-end makers opt for even more durable fabrics like shell cordovan, which is particularly praised for its tougher hide, glossy finish, and crease-resistant properties. If you’re interested to learn more about how leather is made, be sure to check out our leather guide.
Shell Cordovan Leather, Explained
Another area of leather jackets heavily correlated with build quality is the stitching on them. Cheap leather jackets are usually quickly sewn together or haphazardly, leading to indicators like low-stitch density. Loose threads around the seams. As cheap leather jacket manufacturers need to make a high quantity to make a profit, they’ll often focus on speed over quality. They probably won’t see much effort in reinforcing any areas holding the garment together.
Expensive quality leather jackets usually see a lot more care put into the production of the garments. Leather is a notoriously difficult material to sew due to how thick the material is. This means investing in specialist machinery or hand-sewing the jacket with a specific thread to get the best result. Typically, these threads are waxed for the consistency of the stitch to remain the same. The higher stitch density means that the seams will have a much more secure hold in place.
You’ll also see more hand detailing. If someone is personally putting together the jacket, you can see this by paying attention to how the seams are folded and finished, as it costs more time and, therefore, money. This extra foresight is typically not going to be seen on a cheaper leather jacket.
Another key element to consider is the actual hardware and metals opted for on the jacket. Compared to heavier, stronger metals like brass, nickel alloys are relatively inexpensive and plentiful, meaning it won’t cost a lot to fill the rivets, buckles, or zips with them. However, they’re more prone to breaking down prematurely and facing corrosion from the elements.
Quality leather jackets focus on better materials for better reliability. This means that the jacket will not only look better by having more pronounced hardware, but will also last longer in the long run, as the metal’s consistency is far less likely to break down over time.
On top of the inferior construction methods, cheap jackets tend to have functionality that lacks function. You often see cheaper jackets that are up for polyester or nylon lining.
While this makes them easier to take on and off, it makes the jacket far less breathable and an absolute sweat trap since the moisture and heat cannot escape from your body. And no one wants to feel like they’re wearing a trash bag. Not only that, but the humid environment will prematurely age the jacket and make you smell worse to boot. Unfortunately, no amount of fine fragrances will fix the underlying issue here.
Instead, expensive leather jackets will feature a more robust lining. While it’s true that some man-made fibers may be used for their more desirable features, they’re used in tandem with the natural fibers for a more harmonious and comfortable experience.
Often, cotton, wool, and other natural fibers are the majority fibers within the composition of the lining. This makes the garment far more breathable and will prevent interactions like this.
You also see that cheap leather jackets have faux functions built into them. While they might feature the zips, pockets and snappers, buckles, or rivets that a quality leather jacket might opt for, these are actually just for show and don’t actually work, not unlike when sport coats or suit jackets have non-functioning button holes sewn into them.
Even when they do work, they often don’t work as intended and often have issues like too shallow of pockets to be of any use. Snaps that don’t stay in place or zippers that don’t hold in place to boot.
Expensive leather jackets that focus on quality instead of making sure that the function is just as relevant as the form and that all the bells and whistles actually do what they’re intended to do. So, whether it’s patch pockets, buckles and zips, gussets and flaps, press studs, or weather protection, expensive leather jackets usually deliver on their promise of functionality.
Finally, it needs to be said that cheaper leather jackets tend to just look bad or at least will never look as good as the real deal, they might appear comparable on a mannequin or during the first few years, but they will eventually start to break down and start to show the flaws of cracked leather, scuffed discoloration, and weak seams that come from inferior materials and construction methods.
These jackets tend to come in extreme silhouettes. They might be fashionable, but they won’t stand the test of time. Plus, they only flatter the trending body type they were made for, instead of sticking with the tried and true styles that have stood the test of time.
You’ll often see these types of companies try to copy a jacket that is famous in pop culture, such as the kind seen in “Top Gun,” “Indiana Jones,” or even “Mission Impossible.” While it’s entirely possible to get a quality recreation or track down the original versions of these jackets, chances are you won’t be able to for a couple hundred dollars. The originals are rarely that cheap, and do you really think Indiana Jones would rely on a knockoff to stay held together during a treasure hunt?
Expensive leather jackets just have that extra X-factor to them thanks to the sheen of the leather quality, the extra attention given to timeless styling, and handcrafted attention to detail. Nothing can quite replace their look. There’s a reason why brands like Belstaff, Schott, and Arrow are so widely renowned within the Leatherhead community after all. Not to mention that the patina you’ll get with quality leather would only get better with age, giving that signature worn-in appearance while never looking shoddy or unkempt in the process.
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Plus, these jacket styles have existed for decades at this point and still look just as good as they did when they were first introduced, meaning that you can rest confidently knowing that these jackets have a heritage reputation that won’t go away anytime soon.
With all these factors in mind, it’s clear that all leather jackets are not created equal. A company claiming that a jacket is 100% leather simply does not tell you enough about the actual quality. Instead, it takes a careful eye to truly understand what standards of quality go into an expensive leather jacket, and only then can you determine if it lives up to those qualities.
While there are many different brands out there, different price points, and marketing behind the products, we hope this guide will help you determine if what they’re selling truly lives up to the hype or if it’s only marginally better than their pleather cousins.
What’s your favorite brand for leather jackets? Let us know in the comments what about their offerings makes them stand out against their competition.
Today, I’m wearing a red and white button-down shirt with black jeans, black boots, and a leather jacket; and for my fragrance, today, I’m wearing Roberto Ugolini 17 Rosso, not upset by the fact that the red of the bottle does match my shirt as well, too. It’s an amazing fragrance. Everybody should check it out.