As a CEO summoned to Capitol Hill to face angry lawmakers, selecting your outfit—and therefore the silent message you’ll telegraph on camera—is far from trivial. Safe choices might include the Navy Blazer of Contrition or the dove-gray skirt suit that whispers, “I’m important—but not more important than you, Senator.”
So it was a bit of a sartorial shock last December when General Motors CEO Mary Barra appeared in D.C. to defend the automaker’s decision to close four U.S. plants and lay off some 14,000 workers. She wasn’t sporting textbook corporate wear but rather a sleek black leather jacket.
It was not the first high-stakes occasion in which Barra chose leather over more pedestrian options. Her glossy hide jackets have appeared at GM shareholder meetings, product launches, countless media interviews, and confabs of the global elite (she once donned a hot-pink biker at Davos). Although Barra opted not to comment on her wardrobe choices for this story, her representative would allow that the CEO “does have quite the collection.” And the auto chief is far from the only top female executive who’s embracing the look. Leather jackets have become a go-to for CEOs ranging from Nasdaq’s Adena Friedman to IBM’s Ginni Rometty to Kohl’s Michelle Gass, as well as a host of startup chiefs.
So how did the leather jacket—a garment long associated with counterculture—become a staple of boardroom power dressing? Unlike, say, the burnt-orange coat that rose to fame last year after Nancy Pelosi’s memorable White House exit, the leather jacket hasn’t had the kind of iconic moment that would send image consultants scurrying to the outerwear department.
Instead, the garment glided gradually into the business world on the back of a pair of otherwise unrelated trends: the leather jacket’s shift from emblem of rebellion to status symbol, and the casualization of corporate America.
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From Marlon Brando in The Wild One to Debbie Harry playing CBGB, the leather jacket spent decades as the ultimate signifier of outsider status. But eventually that iconoclastic attitude caught the eye of high fashion. (One notable appearance: Donna Karan’s early and transformative take on women’s work wear.) It quickly grew into a couture staple, commanding price tags of $5,000 and up.
The shift from grunge to luxe came at the perfect moment. In the mid-aughts, the corporate world was struggling through an era of fashion chaos. The rise of the hoodie-wearing tech founder was driving the old rules about “appropriate” work wear toward obsolescence. For some female executives, the leather jacket offers a solution to the casual quagmire and, thanks to its rich history, sends an unusually complex message.
“It’s coded in power, strength, resistance. It’s kind of subversive,” says Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume at the Museum at FIT. Yet now that leather is considered a luxury item, it can also “do a bit of the talking as far as your capital and status in the room,” she says. Executive stylists sing the praises of a leather jacket over a dress or skirt—a look that blends traditional femininity with the authority of a jacket. “It’s structured, it’s tailored, it’s sexy yet professional,” says stylist Ariel Lawrence.
Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck bought her first leather jacket (and got her first tattoo) not long after a “very cathartic weekend” spent jettisoning all the “matchy-matchy suits” she wore in her prior career in banking. The garment has since become something of a signature. “It looks strong,” she says. “It occupies the space between an Armani structured jacket and a sweater.”
For executives willing to step out of the basic-black box, leather can also command attention. Mindy Grossman, CEO of WW (née Weight Watchers), has a self-described “obsession” with leather jackets. She wore her prize acquisition, a dramatic McQueen peplum biker with red floral embroidery, to her last board meeting and then out to dinner with the board’s most famous director: Oprah Winfrey. When the CEO posted a photo of the evening on Instagram, she received the comments you’d expect about her dining companion—but even Oprah could not totally outshine the McQueen. “Every other response was about my jacket,” says Grossman.
While leather may be more of an obvious fit for startup life than for the boardroom, it has proved especially clutch in one scenario where even the chilliest entrepreneur tends to fret about what to wear: pitching investors. Susan Tynan, founder and CEO of Framebridge, has raised $67 million for her framing startup, much of it while wearing a leather jacket. “I’m not going to wear a suit, and I’m not going to wear a hoodie,” she says. ”There’s no playbook for what a woman should wear when she’s pitching. You want to wear something that shows respect for significance of what you’re asking for—and you also have portray yourself as someone who is rolling up your sleeves to do the job.” Leather—in Tynan’s case a black motorcycle jacket from All Saints—walks that line.
Of course, the trend has not gone unnoticed in the retail world. Yujin Heo, VP of creative at Neiman Marcus Group (and the proud owner of about 10 leather jackets), says the company has responded to growing demand by stocking the once-seasonal item year-round and by offering new lines like Nour Hammour, a French leather specialist. And if retailers’ plans are any indication, the jacket is just beginning its C-suite tenure. Among the trends Macy’s fashion office has flagged for its employees to push this year: “Leather in the Boardroom.”
A version of this article appears in the March 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “The New Power Blazer.”