Helmut Lang shirt, $255 at Helmut Lang, Melrose Ave.; Banana Republic pants,… (Photo: Bob Chamberlin /…)
Khaki is back. But more than that, the humble military-inspired staple of the '80s preppy wardrobe — and hallmark of the '90s casual Friday era that followed — is marching upmarket. This spring, dusty brown cotton twill has moved far beyond the beige pant, riding the Army/safari trend deep into designer ready-to-wear territory.
On the women's spring-summer 2010 runways of New York and Europe were crisp safari dresses and lace-up ponchos at Celine, sleeveless military-officer-style shirt dresses at Chloe and a cornucopia of khaki colors at Alexander Wang, crafted into corsets, pieced alongside leather and heather gray knits in slouchy mixed-fabrication trousers and even shaped into a sexy, belly-button-baring dress.
For men, there were peak-lapel khaki jackets at D&G; sleeveless deconstructed shirts and baggy, lightweight trousers at Dior Homme; and multiple layered pieces in the Versace and John Galliano foreign legion-flavored collections.
Even the casual sportswear arena — khaki's home front — has revisited the tan trouser with fervor. The new LL Bean Signature collection updates the cut of the beige bottoms (lowering the rise a bit — and raising the price tag about $30 in the process), and Banana Republic, which long seemed bent on escaping its jungle safari roots, has returned to them in full force.
"We've actually turned it into the center of the [Banana Republic] lifestyle," said Simon Kneen, the brand's creative director and executive vice president. "It's been cool in Europe for a while, and we just felt there was starting to be this kind of cool factor surrounding the chino here." He pointed out that the latest take on the tan twill includes washing the fabric down to a super-soft hand, crinkling it up by adding metallic threads and offering a platoon of pieces, including military-flavored jackets, skirts and pants.
Dockers, which helped make the $30 to $60 cuffed, pleated khaki the default casual pant of an entire generation, is trying to kick khakis up a notch. In early April, the Levi Strauss-owned brand launched a collection of khakis at L.A.'s American Rag boutique that retails for up to $200 and bears the kind of details — abrasions, resin and dye treatments — and artisanal-style embellishments, such as like seam taping and expensive fabrics, that were once the sole province of super-premium denim. (See related story.)
"There is definitely a resurgence in khaki," said Macy's men's fashion director Durand Guion. "And we're just at the beginning of it. … We're anticipating that as we go through fall and into next spring, it's going to be huge."
David Wolfe, creative director of the New York trend forecasting firm Doneger Group, concurred: "I think it's going to keep gaining momentum as it goes," he said. "Probably for the next couple of years."
Why the khaki comeback? And why now? To understand that, here's a brief primer.
By itself, the word "khaki," derived from the Hindi word for dust, traditionally refers to a specific color — a shade of tan or beige — and the term was used as far back as the 1840s to refer to the cotton twill uniforms worn by British colonial forces in India. (A 1999 book "Khaki: Cut From the Original Cloth," commissioned by Levi Strauss & Co., goes so far as to anoint British Lt. Henry Lumsden as "the inventor of the khakis," fixing the year at 1846 in Punjab, India.)
The word "chino" can refer more widely to the durable twill fabric. In the U.S., it often refers specifically to the military-inspired khaki-colored trouser of the same fabric, which "The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion" traces to an early point of origin: before World War I, back when the U.S. Army's summer uniforms came from China.
Khaki's first wave of popularity came in the 1950s, when American soldiers returning from World War II helped them make the transition from military barracks to college campuses. After the denim-drenched '60s and '70s, khaki came back around in the '80s as the color-inside-the-lines alternative to the jeans worn by counterculture hippies.
Then, in 1986, Levi's launched its Dockers brand, which was the khaki equivalent of storming Normandy; the company takes credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — for launching the casual Friday offensive. And to hear Dockers' current president of global branding tell it, that's how Dockers ended up hoisted by its own pleated petard.
"From 1990 on, [Dockers] made a huge effort to establish khaki in the workplace — and it worked," said Karen Riley-Grant, Dockers' director of global consumer marketing. "After that, khaki never really went away." But the ubiquity had its downside. "It just faded into the background and became the choice of complacency. You wore khakis because you had to, not because you really wanted to," she said. "And that's not a good place to be."