Just when the sight of torn jeans and a tailored sport jacket seem to make sense, fashion makers are changing up casual dress for fall '06 with an old favorite - cotton khakis.

Not that people are chucking their premium denims. "But the newness is in non-denims," says Original Penguin's Chris Kolbe, president. "In the fashion world, it feels fresh now."

It's been years since dot-coms imploded, taking with them the twill bottoms so closely associated with its legions who suddenly found themselves unemployed. The pant was largely shelved: derided for not being serious enough for business, not cool enough for after hours.

But some time has passed, and this fall's khakis are taking a cue from the denim world, employing interesting washes, new fits, good hardware, and detailing. Furthermore, some makers are expanding performance treatments, and making the once-ubiquitous pleats available again. It's all about options.

After all, men have spent a few years now picking up all manner of denim. According to Cotton Incorporated's Lifestyle Monitor™, men own an average of nearly eight pairs of jeans.

And while most men still prefer denim over casual slacks, the Monitor finds there has been a significant increase in the percent of men who said they prefer casual slacks (33%, up from 26% in 2004) to denim jeans.

To grow those numbers even more, the latest khakis must look and feel modern. Says Lauren Deatherage, men's trend specialist for Cotton Incorporated, "We've seen the height of khakis and we've seen the height of denim. Therefore, the forward dresser will be looking for something new."

This fall, Gap will roll out a beaten up cargo-style chino, says Sean Krebs, Gap style expert. It will also carry over a new straight-fit chino that's proven successful for spring.

"They are best paired with an unstructured blazer and a soft plaid button-front shirt, or with a zip-front hoodie and a pigment-dyed Tshirt under a jean jacket," Krebs says.

It seems Seventh Avenue wants to create a khaki buzz, just in case consumers suddenly lose their desire for denim.

"Denim and jeanswear certainly aren't going away, but it's clear that khaki style is emerging from under the radar," says Alex Guerrero, vicepresident, men's merchandising, Dockers™.Dockers' new chino style for fall - the Iconic Khaki - is being promoted as a jeans alternative, sporting a relaxed fit, soft hand and broken-in look. Further options include cargo and utility looks.

Original Penguin worked with experts in the denim field to bring premium technology to the cotton bottom category, while addressing a "new attitude going on in the market," says Kolbe.

"We have 15 to 18 styles in the line that fit into washed, non-denim bottoms," Kolbe says of the pants, which are all flat front. "Some are straight and slim-cut for a trimmer look from the knee down. Others are more relaxed, easyfitting pants. We've even done a twisted-seam in twill that gives the more articulated kind of shapes that come from the denim world."

The Monitor finds that men aged 35 to 55 showed the biggest percentage increase (from 26% to 34%) in a preference for casual pants. Among men aged 16 to 24, the preference grew from 25% to 29%.

Preference for Casual Slacks Grows
  Q4 2004Q4 2005% Change
Casual Slacks26%33% 7%

Theory's approach to fall chinos will likely appeal to both groups of men. Its dressy chino style is slimmer and more refined. Meanwhile, the more casual "Utility" pant is replete with heavy-gauge exposed zippers, heavy tonal topstitching and double-entry pockets.When paired with the company's sport jackets, "We think it's a cool, eclectic approach to dressing," says Chris Manley, Theory men's wear president. "Details are very important; sophisticated but not over the top."

Deatherage says this type of look will appeal to young men looking for something other than denim to pair with their premium tees.

Trovata's Jeff Halmos, sales director, adds that's the beauty of khakis, "They go with everything."

Trovata has sold chinos since it began, calling them the "essential" pant. "They've consistently been a strong seller and will continue to be for fall," Halmos says.

For fall, Trovata's pants are all flat-front, and have a fairly relaxed leg with a slight break around the shoe, providing a good fit that's easy to wear.

Of course, for some men, a pant that's easy to wear is even better if it's "easy care." The Monitor shows performance chinos are handsdown favorites among men, especially those aged 35 to 55, who prefer wrinkle-resistant slacks to regular cotton slacks 67% to 24%.

For these shoppers, a number of companies are answering the performance call: Eddie Bauer is introducing a new performance/nanotex khaki program, adding new elements of stain release and fade resistance to its popular wrinkle and stain-resistant styles; Gap is carrying its Stressfree stain- and wrinkleresistant khakis at Gap.com; and Dockers is this fall introducing its Iron Free™ pant, which will be offered at a slightly lower price point than its popular Never-Iron™ cotton khaki.

Pleats, meanwhile, are still working on their popularity. While many companies aren't offering them, devotees seeking the style can look to Gap.com, Dockers, as well as the new Haspel Khaki collection.

Jim Ammeen, president of Neema, maker of the Haspel Khaki line, says he's selling 75% pleated pants versus 25% flat front. He describes the Haspel 1909 style as a khaki that appeals to the traditional customer, and works as well with a blazer or sweater, as it does with a sport- or T-shirt.

Says Dockers' Guerrero, "We'll remind men that khakis have been and will always be the most versatile piece in their wardrobe."This story is one in a series of articles based on findings from Cotton Incorporated's Lifestyle Monitor™ tracking research. Appearing monthly in these pages, each story will focus on a specific topic as it relates to the American men's wear consumer and his attitudes and behavior regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, fiber selection and many other timely, relevant subjects.

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