By  on November 8, 2006

Some of the world's hippest boutiques are going for class — working class, that is.

They're turning to authentic, but little-known, workwear brands to cater to a growing clientele that prefers durable chic. Seafaring gear worn by the Icelandic Coast Guard and security jackets made for Canada's electrical line workers are but two examples of items with workaday cachet that have become hits on boutique floors. What's more, retailers and sportswear firms say the trend is gaining traction, poised to influence fashion through 2007.

In Paris, ubercool Colette is making sparks this season with Richlu, a Winnipeg, Manitoba-based brand of protective outerwear for electrical workers. "We offer a new context of distribution and new customers to workwear brands," says Colette's Sarah Lerfel, who ties workwear's new appeal to a desire to return to old values. "In exchange, we are provided with a different product from what we usually have, and exclusivity." Meanwhile, at Printemps, a Richlu parka is currently among the department store's hot sellers, notes Cedric Charbit, general merchandise manager, women's fashion.

But it's Alberto Raengo, president of Sixty Group-owned Cruz Srl, who is a workwear guru of sorts. His first foray into the category was in 1999 with Refrigiwear, which last year found valuable retail space in stores including Colette and New York-based Atrium. "If you know there's a story behind the brand, there is more attraction," Raengo says. Next on his list was the 60-year-old Richlu, which he introduced to the European fashion market after traveling deep into Canada's prairie to uncover it. As the European distributor of the label, Raengo almost doubled his Richlu business this season, totaling 34,000 units. The coats retail for 350 euros, or about $445, at stores like Luisa Via Roma in Florence and The Corner in Berlin. This winter, the European collection is taking a more style-savvy stance with fur trims and skinny fits for women.

European distributors are particularly keen on North American workwear brands. The European divisions of Carhartt and Dickies, for example, have upped the fashion quotient considerably compared with their American counterparts, introducing more high-fashion styles in Europe and targeting retailers such as Selfridges and Bread & Honey in the U.K. And Vicenza, Italy-based FGF Industry Spa has also gotten into the game, recently inking a licensing agreement for Blauer, an American manufacturer of law enforcement apparel, which it is positioning in the luxury market in Italy.

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