In a recent — informal and unscientific — poll of colleagues, the question was asked, “How much would you be willing to pay for a really good trench coat?” The responses given, from men and women, ranged between $100 and $500, though most settled on a $250 price point.
Among those who opted for the pricier end of that range, the trench coat’s durability and staying power as a closet staple often justified their thinking. “I’d aim to pay more, trench coats don’t go out of style,” said one person. “I’d pay more for the perfect one but would never pay full price, [something from] eBay or Moda Operandi on sale,” replied another.
All of which raises the question: How much should you pay for a trench coat? And what constitutes a high-quality trench?
The question seems to be as timely as ever, not simply because trench coats make for seasonally appropriate, transitional outerwear, but also because khaki and trenches were spotted on all of the major fashion week runways and on street style stars afterwards.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer or clear line of demarcation indicating where you should buy a trench coat or how much you should be spending. The truth is, you can just as easily find a $30 classic trench from Forever 21 as you can a $4,400 Gucci version.
By most accounts, Burberry is the standard bearer for trench coats. In 1879, the company’s founder, Thomas Burberry, patented the Burberry trench’s gabardine cotton fabric, which is a cloth made from thread that has been waterproofed.
Since, the trench has become both a sartorial and cultural staple, as seen on everyone from Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther. And who among us hasn’t fantasized about a “trench coat surprise”?
But luxury by Burberry is not cheap. The company’s Heritage trench starts around $1,700, though variations on the coat — say, a cashmere version that celebrities love — cost a cool $2,600. That is nearly 10 times what you’d pay for a trench coat at a mid-tier retailer like J. Crew.
The garment details on the J. Crew trench, a dry-clean only coat made from Japanese cotton, with slant welt pockets and back vent storm flap, make it seem like a good enough alternative — dare I say indistinguishable from a luxury version, right?
Wrong, according to what Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology told the Smithsonian Magazine in 2015. “I wouldn’t underestimate people’s ability to read the differences between a Burberry trench and an H&M trench,” Steele said.
Well, all right, Ms. Steele. What is the distinction, then?
Comparatively, assembling a single Burberry trench is a real manufacturing feat. An inside look at the company’s facility in Castleford, England — where 5,000 Burberry Heritage trench coats are stitched a week — offers a glimpse into the kind of craftsmanship that goes into the garment’s production.
According to the Guardian, it takes four hours of intensive work to stitch the Burberry trench coat – nearly twice as long as it takes to make a suit. Plus:
“Each trench coat comprises 80 pieces put together with about 120 processes. The coat’s collar alone is made up of eight pieces, and its complex design includes traditional ‘D-rings,’ initially designed to hold hand grenades. Then there is the ‘pork chop,’ as it is known in the factory, which can be buttoned across the throat to keep out the chill.”
Above all, trench coats were made to serve a practical purpose, having been named after the coats made for British and French soldiers who fought in the trenches during World War I. And the best ones will protect you from the elements, regardless of price point, as this Daily Mail stunt attested.
And if you’ve got the stomach for a $1,700 price tag, rest assured, knowing your Burberry will last you a lifetime, elements be damned.
Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style and Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.