By Harriet Walker
Puffa jackets are to fashion as the Brussel sprout is to a Christmas dinner: not to everyone's taste, perhaps, but they appeal to a discerning palette, they're good for you and they're sensible. And winter wouldn't be the same without them.
Yet the puffa jacket has until recently been treated with the same disdain, loathing and bemusement as the Cat Bin Lady was. They're the stuff of hill-walking or worse. The high-glam contingent cannot fathom a garment that obscures the body or keeps it warm, while more rarefied tastes cannot abide a style that may once have clad, variously, a Spice Girl, a posho and that guy on The Fast Show who thinks everything's "brilliaaaant!".
We complain that catwalk fashion doesn't work for the quotidian, that we can't walk to work in 10in heels or buy milk in a pair of three-leg trousers, but here's high-fashion for the lowest common denominator – and still we wrinkle our noses at it. Some of the industry's most visionary names have experimented with the humble puffa; it's the most versatile means of combining fabric, volume and silhouette-play with practicality and modern ease. So where's the catch?
Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons (now there's a name to drop if you wish to convince someone of a piece's fashionability) is known for her lumps and bumps – the ones on her clothes, that is. Scattered across dress and jackets and, yes, nylon coats, she uses padding to redefine, reimagine and newly analyse the shape of the body in ways that are far from conventionally flattering. So, although you may feel like the Michelin man in yours, remember: this is not a skin-tight trend, nor was meant to be. It's okay if the man in the street can't distinguish your arse from your elbow when you've got your coat on.
But if clean lines are the order of the day, then look no further than fellow Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, who has promoted the puffa for quite a few years now. His autumn/winter 2009 collection featured dresses, stoles, A-line skirts and princess coats made from "puffa", and nipped, tucked and belted into place to give a form-defining take. Suddenly the duvet coats of the mid-Nineties didn't seem so terrible after all. This season, master of uptown chic Michael Kors garbed his models in cosy tinfoil numbers that resembled nothing if not exposure blankets – and that's perhaps the most appropriate sartorial analogy to hand.
Gothic fantasist Gareth Pugh, meanwhile, has always added puffed, distended nodules to clothes; but if you'd rather not wear a dress with globes instead of sleeves, his billowing puffa coats resuscitated the form in the late Noughties. And another of London's directional designers Marios Schwab showed severe duvet coats, cut like Edwardian riding habits with undulating puffa hems for autumn 2007. Puffas have now taken on an air of urban cool, quite apart from the outdoorsy sort of can-do that they once emitted in the traditional Moncler and quilted jacket sense.
Melding practicality and warmth with a hyperbolic, man-made aesthetic (they're no Harris tweed, for instance, or natural shearling) it's futuristic outerwear for the fearless. No wonder Uniqlo sells so many. Puffas have become gimpy in all the right ways – playing on plasticky themes of bondage and fetishism, rather than simply what the nerds used to wear.
And then there's the Royal wedding this year – how better to celebrate so horsey a union than with the traditional garb of a puffa gilet: perfect for huntin', shootin', sailin' or shoppin'. There's a puffa for every occasion and demographic, you see. Aren't puffa jackets brilliaaaant?!
By Carola Long
Perhaps it's inevitable that style suffers in winter, but this year there's been a movement towards jettisoning it entirely. This is the winter of the Slanket – the fleecy robe that makes the wearer look like a particularly slothful wizard, and the onesie – essentially a giant Babygro. Then there's the cold weather footwear. Forget wearing a sleek pair of riding boots with an extra pair of socks – now it's the status quo to encase your legs in the clumpiest, ugliest boots you can find, preferably covered in some yeti-like hair to which pavement detritus will attach itself.
At the risk of sounding like Joan Collins complaining that no one bothers being glamorous anymore, the increasing visibility of the puffa is symptomatic of this total capitulation to comfort. I'm not disputing that puffas are practical, and yes it is a particularly bitter winter, but unless you're actually hauling timber or shovelling snow there's no need to dress like an extra from Sarah Palin's Alaska for the five- minute walk to the Tube. Equally a puffa on its own right be permissible, but once it's teamed with Uggs, a trapper hat and giant mittens, it becomes ridiculous. It's like those people who buy expensive diving watches when the deepest water they are likely to plunge into is two metres in the local swimming pool: it's just not necessary
More importantly, puffas are rarely chic. At the high end of the market Moncler have produced some sophisticated takes on the look, such as a black patent quilted jacket with a giant bow, or a fur-trimmed bomber style, that make the wearer look as if they are just stepping out to enjoy the après ski in Whistler but further down the scale, it's a different story: quilted jackets that look like they've been fabricated from the eiderdown in a shabby bed and breakfast; belted styles beloved of French exchange students; deflated anoraks with no puff; wet-look coats with a bin-liner-like sheen...None of the above are okay. Not to mention the fact that they make everyone look pretty puffy themselves, and unless they are filled with feathers they aren't necessarily that warm.
Why sport one of these duvets with arms when there are so many chic alternatives? Along with stylish hats and gloves, a winter coat is a compensation for three months of SAD, whether it's a wool style by Vivienne Westwood with a fitted waist and exaggerated lapels, a classic Chloé 1970s camel coat, a Burberry military peacoat, or a Topshop leopard print faux fur. There's also no reason that a tailored or structured wool winter coat can't be warm – as demonstrated by unlikely style references Prince Charles and Camilla, posing for their Royal Christmas card whilst skiing in head-to-toe tweed. The key is layers. I recently spotted someone in the effective combination of a cocoon coat with three-quarter length sleeves over a tight leather jacket. But layer under a puffa and you look even more like the proverbial Michelin Man. Do your silhouette a favour and step away from these nylon nightmares.