PREMIUM PANTS: In its K-1 Khaki Collections, Dockers copies a World War… (Levi Strauss & Co. )
A collection of sepia-tinted, artfully abraded men's trousers in a color palette ranging from pale putty to slate gray sit at crisp attention on the military-industrial shelving of L.A.'s trendy American Rag Cie boutique, beneath a sign that declares in all capital letters "BEFORE CORNERS WERE CUT." Nearby, a glass case displays the detailed construction of a pair of the pants that have been turned inside out. Tags dangling from the waistbands show prices as high as $200.
Oh, did we mention that the premium pants in question are Dockers?
When you chat with Karen Riley-Grant, Dockers' new director of global consumer marketing, about the brand's bid for the high-end business, there's no need to dance around the big khaki elephant in the room. "There's a negative perception out there that we have to overcome," Riley-Grant admits. "It's the idea of the pleated-pant cube-dweller with the blue Oxford and the brown shoe."
She says the San Francisco-based brand, which is owned by Levi Strauss & Co., had lost its way since the early '90s heyday of chino-clad business casual. "We launched in 1986, making great khaki pants for men; then we quickly grew into doing women's [pants], and doing head-to-toe," she says. "We went through a kind of midlife crisis, splintering the message, and our advertising started looking like everybody else's. And we weren't innovating; we were making the same pleated pant over and over again."
But now Dockers is on the offensive, claiming its rightful place in the pantheon of pants. A label stitched into some pairs of the premium trousers proclaims: "Khakis may not be fancy, but it probably isn't a good idea to call them boring either. Men wearing khaki won two world wars, wrote the great American novel and discovered a little thing called relativity. Nope, khaki may not be fancy. But it is far from ordinary."
Still, reinvigorating a label like Dockers might seem like a Sisyphean task, especially since the men's and women's casual pant business is down. New York-based market research firm NPD Group says sales dropped 9.5% to $10.3 billion for the 12 months ending Jan. 30.
But Riley-Grant says there are a few things that make it more than an exercise in fashion futility. First, she points out that today's twentysomethings have grown up pretty much swaddled in denim from day one. So there's a potentially huge untapped market in the Millennial generation.
Second, she shares the belief held by retailers and trend watchers that the denim market has embellished, dip-dyed and deconstructed itself into oversaturation, and that consumers will soon be clamoring for something new and different but just as multi-purpose.
And as someone who used to work on the marketing side of Levi's Vintage Collection, Capital E and Levi's RED premim denim sub-brands, Riley-Grant happens to have a handle on what kind of things can elevate a hard-wearing, utilitarian, everyday fabric to the level of covetable clothing worth three figures.
Which means the new K-1 Khaki Collection will tap into a rich military history by copying the style of an actual WWII U.S. Army-issue trouser and using a heavy-duty cotton twill called "Cramerton cloth" on some styles.
In addition, buttons are burnished, interior seams are taped to resemble selvedge, pocket bags tout the masculine history of khaki, and fabrics are washed until the crispness of khaki crumples to buttery softness.
All of those cool artisanal details aside, will people open their wallets for $200 Dockers, when the bulk of the line's pants are about $30 at stores like Kohl's and $60 at Macy's? Durand Guion, men's fashion director at Macy's, thinks if any khaki can do it, Dockers can.
"I think men are still in rediscovery mode right now, and since Dockers is a brand that has heritage to it, guys will take note," he says. "It's not like it's a new line that's coming out of someone's garage somewhere, there's a story to it. Ten or 15 years ago did I ever think Macy's would be selling tons of $150 to $200 jeans? Absolutely not."
It certainly can't hurt the cachet that upscale boutique American Rag Cie on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles — already home to a mind-numbing variety of high-end denim — will be the sole brick-and-mortar retail store for the Dockers premium collection heading into summer. (Riley-Grant says pieces will also be available through Dockers' website — but not for a few months.)
"L.A. is a very influential market," Riley-Grant says. "And since a lot of the premium denim brands are based there, I think it may be a tough market."
But it's a battle she seems to be relishing. "L.A. has a very thoughtful, fashion-forward consumer who is already looking for what's next. So if we can introduce [premium] khaki into the L.A. market it would be incredible."
And besides, it's not like she's trying to topple denim from its spot at the top.
"Denim's been around for 150 years; it's not going anywhere," she says. "But if we can reintroduce khaki to people so they refresh them [at retail] with the same frequency as they refresh their denim, then we've succeeded."