Not so long ago, a woman's parka was simply a man's jacket sized to fit a smaller body. Wearing one invited comparisons to tire-company mascots, marshmallows or Arctic voyagers. But it was all overlooked for the sake of warmth.
"Women purchased them to battle the elements, not for style," says Robyn Shimada, the assistant director of fashion for Sporting Life, a Toronto retailer specializing in active apparel.
Then, in a collective eureka moment, various outerwear companies - from high-end French label Moncler to Canada's own Mackage, Rudsak and Canada Goose - started repositioning hooded jackets both quilted and not as city staples rather than garb designed for winter sports or trudging across frozen tundra. Among the most noticeable changes was a greater emphasis on the waist, whether by repositioning the fill or adding cinched belts. Indeed, women no longer looked as if they were wearing their comforters.
The newest offerings don't stop there. Stylized collars, dressier exteriors in wool and silk and sophisticated colour options - inky blue, anthracite, pearly white - confirm how far the parka has evolved.
"We're still seeing a lot of down coats, but the exterior fabric is flat and not quilted; they're much lighter-weight than five or 10 years ago," says Shimada. "It's a smoother look in a more compact design."
Accordingly - and thankfully - this means that once-popular descriptors like "puffa" or "puffer" have been jettisoned in favour of simply "parka" or "down jacket," which are used interchangeably.
Referring to the look as "urban friendly," Shimada says improvements in fit mean that women no longer need to worry about looking like Thanksgiving Day balloons. "Everyone looks taller and slimmer now."
Eran Elfassy says a year of research went into developing the Mackage down jackets so that they didn't feel like "sleeping bags."
"That was our goal," the company's designer and co-founder says from Montreal. "It's hard to do fashion and warmth." With ribbed neck detailing, a double front zipper and a collar/hood combo, the collection is less après-ski than après-work.
Mackage, which also specializes in leather and wool coats, can barely keep up with the demand. "Everyone wants a parka," says Elfassy. "We're in back orders with all the parkas … But we also do a certain amount and then stop. We don't want to overproduce."
Outerwear experts point to Moncler's Gamme Rouge collection as the turning point for women's down jackets. The family-owned company, which dates to 1952, has always had a cult following among Europeans who winter in Gstaad or at least want to convey that haute sportif sensibility (Milanese men, for instance, often don quilted jackets over their tailored suits - a statement still foreign to Bay Street types). But in 2006, Moncler enlisted Alessandra Facchinetti, who has also designed for Gucci and Valentino, to take the label's classic "duvet" in a different direction. And did she ever. The satin finish and slim, formal fits she oversaw resulted in women being all too happy to leave their jackets on indoors, overheating be damned. Two years ago, Facchinetti was replaced by Giambattista Valli, whose futuristic feminine sensibility informs the thick bands of feathers, exaggerated collars and paneling of the current collection.(Thom Browne oversees the men's equivalent, Gamme Bleu.)
Meanwhile, Canadian brands like Rudsak also began to explore the versatility of down. By reducing some of the excess puff around the waist and sleeves, the Montreal-based company could tap into an underserved niche, says marketing director Roxane Liboiron. "The body was getting lost for years," she explains. "Women want outerwear to be beautiful and trendy but at same time comfortable and warm." As a Canadian company, she adds, Rudsak was well-positioned to tweak traditional parkas because "we understand our markets and needs; we know what it's like to go through winter."
Even Canada Goose, often considered the gold standard in tough, expedition-worthy outerwear, recognizes what a huge market there is for figure-flattering parkas and vests in colours beyond basic black and fire-engine red.
"Unlike pants or shirts, you can't really fix [jackets]once you buy them," says chief executive officer Dani Reiss. "Because of the complexity of construction, tailoring a jacket is akin to tailoring a car, so the challenge is to sell a broad enough selection of styles and fits to work for the greatest number of body types." Today, women represent 55 per cent of Canada Goose's global sales, Reiss says.
Despite its vibrant hyacinth-coloured hooded jackets and sleek down vests, however, Reiss says the brand won't being chasing au courant fashion trends like high-sheen fabrications or avant-garde silhouettes. He also remains mum about rumours that Canada Goose might collaborate with a luxe Italian label, a move that would introduce both brands to a new range of customers.
Shimada, who is already buying inventory for next winter, anticipates even more evolution in down jackets, thanks to both technical innovation and lifestyle needs. She cites young professionals who live downtown and don't drive cars among those who will happily spend money on a new down jacket every season because they can wear it every day for five months or so.
And even those who don't face inclement winters every year are eager to buy into the look. Elfassy notes that Canadian outerwear is building major cachet abroad. "We were always known for warm coats but now we're known for warm coats and style," he says. "And it feels good."
Styling by Cary Tauben/Folio Montreal (www.foliomontreal.com); hair and makeup by Nicolas Blanchet/Folio Montreal.