In Search of the Ultimate Trench

The women's coat-to-have for spring

The Garbo or the Dietrich?" Tuleh designer Bryan Bradley asked when he heard I'd be road-testing trenchcoats, the fashion classic that also happens to be the coat-to-have for spring. "The Dietrich is simple, the Garbo, decked with details. You can put it on and pretend you're inconspicuous. But the fact is you're wearing a gorgeous trench with lucite buckles and glass buttons."

The Garbo, please.

For an item that was inspired by a shepherd's smock, the trenchcoat has risen to enviable iconic status. Introduced in the 1890s by Thomas Burberry, the coat was worn by British officers in World War I. Today it's on a par with the little black dress or pearls: a style archetype. "It's classic and practical," says designer Michael Kors. Bradley agrees. "If you have a fabulous trench on top, it really doesn't matter what you're wearing underneath."

Variations ran rampant on recent runways—from Michael Kors' bright-orange suede rendition to a transparent trench at Dior. How to choose? "It's so easy to get it wrong," Bradley warns, as I set out to find the perfect trench. This little task may seem as simple as choosing the right white paint—how can you tell the difference? But as I discovered, and the following pages reveal, it's far from elementary.

TULEH
Could a trench be this flattering? Cut like a second skin, this coat has high armholes, narrow shoulders, and the ultraslim fit of a pencil skirt through the hips. Others seemed like belted burlap by comparison. Tuleh's light cotton canvas fabric is beautifully woven, feels like suede, and every last detail is attended to—a printed silk lining; glass buttons from Germany. Admittedly, it was a slight struggle maneuvering a jacket underneath, but only because so few jackets are cut as well as this trenchcoat. Wear it with nothing—it would be worth it. Or buy Tuleh jackets. $2,100; 800-937-9146.

BALLY
Slipping into the Bally trenchcoat felt like wearing nothing. Made of a weightless nylon the color of rope, it has none of the typical trench austerity but all of the traditional details, like flap pockets. In other words, this coat is beautiful and easily stashable. The belt, however, rests low—just at the hip—pleasing only those with confirmed low-slung-waist habits. That the bottom half buttons off I took as a gimmick—but the short, safari-like, belted jacket that emerged was actually quite smart. Best for tropical storms, as it is, quite literally, barely there. $850; 212-751-9082.

CHANEL
At base a traditional trench with a trim, clean fit, this coat explodes at the seams in black-and-white tweed glammed up with sequins. Its shorter mid-thigh length and slightly oversized silver double-C buttons add up to a classic with attitude. Having already appeared in all the right fashion magazines, creating a wait list of buyers, there's nothing anonymously "trench" about the Chanel. It's a great showpiece, but not necessarily for those looking to invest in a wardrobe perennial. Like any trendsetter, it can go out of fashion as quickly as it comes into fashion. $4,365; 800-550-0005.

BOTTEGA VENETA
From a distance, this trench has the propriety of its military tradition. Up close, it evokes a fog-obscured kiosk in Rome. Made of ultrasoft, latte-colored leather, it has topstitching in the belt, pockets, and trim. The leather is slightly weathered, as though you've had the coat for 20 years. Its hourglass shape—tight waist, trim hips—hugs the body, but jackets and sweaters fit comfortably underneath. Though a knockout, this coat is not waterproof and is best suited to the woman who has everything—including another trench. $3,700; 877-362-1715.

HERMES
Hermès' take on the trench is decidedly abstract. Oversized, batwing sleeves, draping from shoulder to wrist, have giant slash vents at the armpit. The cut through the body of the garment is similarly exaggerated—full and roomy and without a belt. This is a loose interpretation of the trenchcoat in the most literal sense, and the effect is unrestrained French chic: a cross between car coat, cape, and trench. The water-repellent cotton fabric is lined in an irresistible, fleecelike rendition of—can't you guess?—cashmere. $3,675; 800-441-4488.

BANANA REPUBLIC
Though slightly bulky in the body, this trench has great narrow shoulders, a virtual rarity in nondesigner fashion. The cotton-twill fabric is soft, comfortable, yet substantial, like that found in the best khakis, with enough tailoring and structure to save the coat from looking like a bathrobe. The gun flaps near the collar are lined in a surprising menswear-inspired pink stripe. While the pockets of this trenchcoat are deep, they are too high to comfortably accommodate hands seeking shelter. But they're perfect for stashing your cell phone. $178; 888-277-8953.


BURBERRY: STILL THE CLASS ACT

Even after all these years the Burberry trench remains, still—perfection. Utterly devoid of "fashion," it is pure style, function, and endurance. It hangs close to the body, the way a couture evening gown does, the belt adding just enough shape. Slender through the hips, there's a high knife pleat in back for easy movement. Lean raglan sleeves give the shoulder a slim, modern feel, despite a not especially high armhole. And there are all those little practical details—sleeve straps, which keep out cold; bone buttons; D rings, which once held grenades (okay, for most these are now decorative); a neck closure buttoned into, and hidden underneath, the Burberry plaid-lined collar. The fabric, the original gabardine invented by Burberry in 1879, is an ideal weight, light enough for a drizzle but dependable in a downpour. $995; 800-284-8480.