In central Paris, facing Tuileries Garden, Behind a heavy wooden gate of a Haussmann townhouse on rue de Rivoli locates the showroom of the French aviator jacket maker — Chapal. With the buzz sound as I entered the password, I let the heavy gate shut out noises on the busy avenue. Inside the building is tranquil, I found myself stepping on the geometric-lined mosaic floor surrounded by marble walls, sculptured ceilings with the illumination of the afternoon sunlight through the stained glass windows. It feels nothing like a luxury shopping experience but rather the 007 on a secret mission. And that’s exactly what Chapal’s clients would experience when they visit the showroom.
Who doesn’t have a leather jacket in their wardrobe? It’s beyond fashion and trend and has nothing to do with gender or age. Even my grandpa, a retired lieutenant in his eighties — an age of detachment from material desires — was yearning for a leather jacket and eventually got one with his pension last winter. The model my grandpa got was a loose-cutting long jacket in brown calf leather, which I didn’t appreciate at first. I’m more used to fit-cutting biker jackets which prevailed in fashion in the recent decade. It was not until me browsing Chapal’s catalogue did I realise the iconic 1914 Jacket was the archetype of my grandpa’s leather jacket.
With 190 years of history of tanning leathers and the savoir-faire of supplying flight jackets to the US air force during the two World Wars makes Chapal the indisputable King of classical leather jackets. In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Chapal produced a long flying jacket for the French aviators. Back then, the zipper was not invented yet, so the jacket was fastened by a leather belt. Today, to memorise the legacy, the brand is still producing the same model in its collections.
What’s worth mentioning is Chapal also created the prototype of the emblematic A-1 jacket in 1925. During WWI, aviation technology advanced rapidly and the cockpit in the fighting planes are filled with new instruments, which leads to narrower space for the pilot to move around. For better agility and flexibility, A-1 was born as the first short flight jacket replacing the cumbersome long version. On 1927 May 21st, Charles Lindbergh complete the first-ever nonstop solo transatlantic flight from NYC to Paris in that iconic A-1 jacket. By the time A-1 was officially introduced to the US army in 1927, it was featured button fastening, as the zipper was just invented and only applied on luggage. Today, to pay tribute to the original model, Chapal’s A-1 jacket is still fastened by 8 high-quality horn buttons.
Chapal has been making leather jackets in the same workshop in Crocq, a small town in central France, that stays loyal to its original cuts and methods a hundred years ago. One of Chapal’s best sellers for years is the USAAF (USA Air Force) jacket. The USAAF was a combination of the A-2 and the G-1 jacket in design. A-2, the upgraded version of the A-1 jacket used in WWII, was finally equipped with a zipper closure. As for G-1, the model replaced A-2 in 1943, famously worn by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, features a bi-swing back and mouton fur collar. Chapal’s USAAF has a detachable sheep fur collar and the waist and cuff feature woollen knitted ribs as the original design.
During the past Pitti-Uomo, I had a conversation with Jean-François Bardinon, the Creative Director of Chapal and the sixth generation of the family business. Jean-François proudly mentioned the year 1934 to me as an important milestone for Chapal. As in 1934, with its overseas factory in Brooklyn, Chapal invented an exclusive patent of plastic coating on sheepskin to make it waterproof. Back then, many planes are still open-air and uninsulated, this technic was applied on the bomber jackets (B-3) for the US air force to keep the soldiers from cold and wet.
“We never used a supplier.” Jean-François’s philosophy to Chapal is the total in-house manufacture of all the articles from jackets to racing helmets, from shoes to driving gloves. You can feel the quality of those jackets from touching the leather, experiencing the smooth Riri zipper, checking the silk lining, impeccable stitching and all the details inside the garment. Each jacket making process was assigned to one particular artisan, and every jacket is attached with a label inside the pocket noting the craftsman who made it.
Benefiting from having its own tannery and manufactory workshop in France, Chapal has the privilege to choose only the best quality leathers for its products. Laurence, the business manager of Chapal, told me that the thickness of the sheep leather (a specific breed from central France， southeast region Les Causses) they use for the jackets is around 1.2 cm, which is thick enough for shoemaking.
The brand Chapal didn’t emerge from some fashionable ideas on the street of Paris, but from the nearly two-century-old tannery in Crocq, France. Their tannery is specialised in high-quality sheep leather, shearling and sheep fur. One of the strengths of Chapal’s savour-fair is to transform naturally rough sheep fur into a silky texture. The secret formula to make such a transformation was kept inside the brand with very old machines involved in the process. As Laurence explained to me: “In the region where Chapal was born, the workers couldn’t find jobs, so they had to go to Lyon, which is very famous for silk history, so they learn how to dyeing the silk, and (when they work for Chapal) they tried to apply the technic on the rabbit fur, that was the original invention of the Chapal family for the first time in history”. Colourful furs are popular among customers, and as you can imagine, orders arrived from all over the world to Chapal: “the success arrives immediately and Chapal started as a big company immediately”, emphatically noted by Jean-François. In 70s’ Chapal used to supply fur for luxury labels including Fendi and Christian Dior, but now the manufactory is exclusively for the Chapal collection.
The impeccably luxurious use of leather, the original military cutting and the history of supplying France & USA air force during the two world wars are the three reasons connoisseurs love to go to Chapal for their leather jacket to be made.