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.In Sweden, which is one of Europe's largest producers of workwear, carpenter-cum-designer Per-Ivan Hagberg launched his Gothenburg, Sweden-based label Dunderdon in 1997 because, he says, he saw a demand for durable yet stylish dungarees. Now for spring he's introducing the label's first women's wear line, including skirts, dresses and knitwear. "The idea was to design feminine dresses for real working girls," he says. "Fashion has become very decadent, and workwear offers something real to counterbalance the decadence." Hagberg, whose business reached 2.2 million euros, or $2.8 million, in Europe in 2005, also opened a New York-based store on Lafayette Street last year.

Production of women's industrial clothing may have gained momentum since World War II, with women more integrated into the workforce, but rarely has the category been imbued with such chic. To wit: A women's white snorkel parka by Spiewak, developed around World War II for extreme cold conditions, graces the cover of Barneys New York's holiday mailer, which dropped last week. It's a point of pride for Jerry Spiewak, chairman of the board, whose grandfather in 1904 founded the label, manufacturing clothing for New York waterfront workmen, as well as the World War I Army and Navy. Over the past three seasons, Spiewak has seen triple-digit growth, fueled largely by its women's collection, now sold at trendy stores such as Isetan and Beams in Tokyo, YDUK in London and Therapy in San Luis Obispo, Calif. For fall 2007, Spiewak plans to expand its women's category into knitwear, also adding such items as a World War II nurse's cape, a melton wool peacoat and a coyote fur-collared flight jacket with bullion patchwork.

While 66 North is an Icelandic workwear brand geared to the indomitable arctic seaman, an increase in tourism has fueled the firm's popularity in the U.S., even where temperatures aren't so cool. "Many movies have been filmed in Iceland, so when the Hollywood set returns to L.A., they want to dress in 66 North," says Sharon Prince, president of 66 North in the U.S., who notes that the collection is now sold at Fred Segal in Los Angeles. A New York store is set to open in fall 2007, followed by more U.S. locations over the next five years.But it's not just workwear brands creating the hot trend; luxury brands are also catching on. Printemps' Charbit points to Louis Vuitton's scratch boots, Prada's hooded silk taffeta parka and Dsquared's down jacket — all key items this fall that boast workwear elements. Charbit expects the trend to gain momentum come spring, predicting that Prada's duchesse satin backpack and Marni's cropped and hooded parka will be trailblazers.

Meanwhile, denim brands — pioneers of industrial apparel — are going back to their workwear roots for inspiration. Levi's Europe visited a ghost town in Nevada to mine workwear inspiration for its summer 2007 collection, but You Nguyen, senior vice president of Levi's product for Levi Strauss Europe, says the category will "explode" for winter 2007.

Tim Browne, denim director for U.K. brand Lee Cooper, also believes workwear will be huge next winter. "Denim has become the accepted uniform for the street, and youth today is looking for a new uniform," he says. "Urban workwear is the next generation."

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