I’d been looking for a topcoat for a while, but finding a good topcoat is hard. Some of you might be asking, what the hell is a topcoat? And how is that different from a regular coat?
As always, Wikipedia to the rescue! A Topcoat, or overcoat is a coat meant to be worn over your suit, or to more formal occasions. The main difference between an overcoat and a topcoat is the material, but pretty much the usage is interchangeable for the most part…in fact, I’d say the topcoat usage is more widespread in retail. Exhibit A: J. Crew:
The sad fact is that a lot of topcoats out there just plain suck. The main issue with most of them is that they are just plain ugly. The biggest sin is that they are just incredibly big, followed up by the insanely long “80’s stock broker” look that just looks bad. Nordstrom, I love you, but you had a lot of both of these:
Oh yeah, one more thing, many of these coats are just crazy expensive. Check out the Dolce and Gabbana for a cool $560 – after 50% off! Fortunately, J. Crew offers the Mayfair topcoat that has a really modern cut, good make (wool/cashmere mix), nice style (single breasted with proper collars, and a reasonable starting price ($375). Post-Christmas these coats went on sale and I managed to snag mine for $246 after tax and free shipping. Happily, Express also had a crazy sale and they had their wool topcoat on sale for…$79.99. I’d been lusting after the J. Crew Mayfair for many a week, but the price on the Express coat was so good that I had to compare the 2. What follows is a sartorial death match with only 1 winner and the other returning to the store, sad and broken.
J. Crew Mayfair Wool-Cashmere Topcoat
J. Crew is both an online behemoth and a series of brick and mortar stores. This in itself is not uncommon as most clothing retailers have both web and physical outlets. What is weird is that J. Crew the online store operates almost wholly separate from the physical locations. That means that the online store will have both stock AND sales that may not exist or be honored at the physical location. This makes it particularly difficult to shop for men’s items because ONLY the Seattle J. Crew location has what they call a “Men’s Shop”. This means they carry suits and topcoats in addition to the normal assortment of garments. The Bellevue location is just a travesty with respect to selection for men and the less said here the better. The upshot of all this is that it’s better to order from J. Crew online than it is to buy in person. With that all said, let’s see how J. Crew sent the coat to me:
This type of packaging is pretty standard for J. Crew, as I got the same kind of packaging when I ordered my J. Crew Ludlow fine-stripe cotton suit (review forthcoming!). Let’s open it up and take a look inside:
Nothing too special here, notice the J. Crew logo on the bag, and also note the nice job they did folding the coat to prevent any creases.
The coat was purchased in-store, so there are no unboxing photos. As a sidenote, Express actually carries 2 different versions of its topcoat: regular and fitted. The in-store version will almost always be the regular version and you can verify this by checking the materials. The regular version is partially polyester whereas the fitted version is 100% wool. I didn’t get a chance to try out the fitted version, but if unless you are particularly slim, the regular version is already pretty tight.
Round 1– Construction, Materials, and Interior Details
In round 1, we’ll go over the construction, materials and interior details of the coat. A good topcoat is a lot like a suit jacket, so many of the same things that make a good jacket also denote quality in a top coat.
The interior lining of the J. Crew coat is satiny, but is all black. The Express jacket has a black satiny lining for the body, but surprisingly, they manage to have a striped contrasting lining in the arms. Take a look! The Express is on the left and the J. Crew is on the right:
If you click on the J. Crew though, you can see that the stitching is especially fine. I unfortunately don’t have a picture of the Express stitching, and while it was more than adequate, the J. Crew coat impressed me here. I would take the better stitching over the contrasting sleeve lining, but it is a nice touch, and makes this kind of a wash between the two coats.
One thing that really surprised me about the Express coat was the prevalence of pick-stitching on the pockets as well as the lapel. This is a REALLY nice detail that I would not have anticipated on a cheaper coat. This is a clear mark above the J. Crew which does not feature any pick stitching.
You might have to click on the pictures, but to the pick stitching is clearly visible on the jacket. The only thing that might be mentioned in J. Crew’s defense is that the material of their coat is heavier and the coat seems to function more as an overcoat, rather than the Express which feels lighter and seems more intended as a jacket replacement. Nonetheless, it would have been excellent to include the pick stitching if possible and I applaud Express for including it here.
Since these are meant to be dressier coats, the exterior pockets won’t be used generally, so the interior pockets are very important. Both coats don’t disappoint, with the J. Crew going above and beyond with a hidden third pocket on the exterior of the left hand pocket.
I did like that there was a flap for both pockets to seal it, but I’m not a huge fan of the pen pocket. I think they put it there because they don’t expect the wearer to have another jacket underneath (see below for further notes regarding this), but it’s sort of an extra unneeded detail that doesn’t appeal to me.
The first picture isn’t a great picture of the pocket, but you can see the closing flap. When I originally took the pictures, this article wasn’t intended to be a duel, so I was showing off the extra buttons included with the coat. Ditto for picture number 2, I was showing off the very nice size and materials label, but you can see the third pocket in the shadows there. There is NOT a flap the close the 2nd and 3rd pockets, but that doesn’t really bother me too much as there is at least 1 pocket with a way to fasten it shut. My preference here is for the J. Crew configuration as it gives you more space.
Lapel Tailoring and Materials
In cold weather, these types of coats need a scarf to cover the upper chest, and it’s not uncommon to “flip up” the collar to help hold in the scarf and ward off the cold. This means the tailoring done on the collar will be exposed, as well as helping to maintain the lapels’ shape when switching back and forth between the two configurations. Take a look at how each collar was done (again Express on the left, J. Crew on the right):
The color is a wash here, because although I like the contrasting material on the J. Crew, I doubt that they change that color to match the coat color, so if the coat I had purchased was grey instead of black, it would also match like on the Express. However, what one can see is that the J. Crew stitching is MUCH higher quality here. The stitches are smaller and there is no excess fabric crudely folded over like on the Express coat. I also felt a difference when wearing the coat, as the J. Crew lapel folded up and down much more smoothly and when I turned my head and my chin encountered the collar, the collar moved more smoothly out of the way on the J. Crew.
Material wise, if you went just by the numbers, the J. Crew wins hands down. It’s 95% wool and 5% cashmere and it’s soft as hell. But frankly, for something only 80% wool, the Express topcoat was pretty damned soft. And at 1/3 the price, it’s kind of shocking how good a job Express did there. Would I expect the J. Crew to hold up longer and retain it’s softness, sure. But at $80.00, the Express could be replaced several times over. I’m giving the win to the J. Crew because at the end of the day, it is softer, but it damn well SHOULD be softer.
Round 1 winner: J. Crew barely edges out the Express
Round 2: Fit
So even though Round 2 is only concerned with fit, don’t let that fool you: this is the make or break round. All that other stuff is nice, but if it doesn’t fit it’s going back to the store. That said, let’s take a baseline comparison with both coats (unbuttoned) front and back. As usual, the Express is on the left and the J. Crew is on the right:
So a few things to note right off the bat. From the front, both coats look about equal in fit, but the Express is clearly quite a bit longer. It’s not the camera playing tricks on you as I’m standing at around the same distance. Also, if you look at the behind pictures, the J. Crew coat is actually slimmer. You can tell because the light from the front of the house can be seen in the gap between my body and my arm whereas on the Express coat it’s completely obscured. Both have a center vent of about the same size in the back and while it’s tough to tell in these pictures, the J. Crew has a ticket pocket AND a chest pocket while the Express does not. Not that you’d ever stick anything in the chest pocket, but the ticket pocket is a classy and handy touch. At this point, the J. Crew is the clear winner to me based on length and general look. It’s looks dressier and it’s shorter so it definitely looks trimmer to my eye. Let’s take a look at the coats with the front buttoned:
The Express coat continues to look a bit bulkier here. The J. Crew coat in most of the pictures has the collar flipped up, so it’s hard to compare, but the large lapel of the Express contributes to the boxy look. Let’s take a look at me with my arms held up to see how these coats fit when stretched in the worst possible scenario:
Notice both are pretty slim in the body, but look at the shoulders. This is pretty telling; the Express coat is heavily structured in the shoulders compared to the J. Crew. I believe this to contribute significantly to the boxy look. In these pictures, the collar was flipped up the on the Express but it wasn’t too comfortable (part of the reason why it’s folded down in most of the other pictures). Another small detail to note is that the J. Crew buttons are hidden. Take a closer look at the button flaps that cover them:
No real improvement in function, and it’s really up to you what you prefer visually. I think the Express coat looks better with the buttons showing, but that’s also probably because it doesn’t have a chest pocket, or a ticket pocket to break up the front visually.
Ok, last 2 pictures with me trying my best to look cool:
Frankly, I think the J. Crew looks better here with the shorter length. It also happens to lay better because the material is softer and doesn’t lay as stiffly as the wool of the Express. Not shown here, but the thing that really clinched the fit for me is that fact that the J. Crew coat fits well with a suit jacket. It’s obvious that was a design consideration for them and it shows. The Express coat is a fine coat by itself, but for me it is impossible to wear it and a suit jacket unless I switched to a Large (which I did in-store). The large version of the coat is MUCH larger and looks terrible on me. It could be me, but I’m not especially muscular or large (5’ 10” and 181 lbs.) so I have to chalk this up to how they made the coat.
Round 2: J. Crew wins hands down
Winner: J. Crew Mayfair Wool-Cashmere coat by unanimous decision!
So the J. Crew wins a clean victory. It’s definitely the better coat, but at double the price normally ($375 vs. $250) and 3 times (!!!!) the price during heavy discounting ($246 vs. $79.99 + tax) it had better be! If price is an issue, it’s hard to go wrong with the Express. I chose the J. Crew because it was really important to me that the coat truly function as a topcoat and be able to be worn over a suit jacket. Plus I had the extra bucks to spend on the coat. But for those who are less demanding in quality, or less prone to wearing a jacket, or whose budgets cannot accommodate the expenditure, the Express coat would make a fine addition to the closet. For the money and style though, in my searches I don’t think any coat can compare to the J. Crew.