The devil wears khaki

His worst nightmare comes true: That casual officewear of the ’90s is making a comeback

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / March 4, 2010

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Walking through New York’s Penn Station last month was a frightening experience, and it wasn’t simply because of the homeless woman who grabbed my ankle and repeatedly called me Dennis.

Nearly every inch of advertising space in the grand terminal was devoted to Dockers, the ubiquitous pants that became the official uniform of the dot-com boom, casual Fridays, and your company’s computer guy. “It’s never too late to be a man,’’ one ad read, while another implored, “Face it, you’re a man.’’ I started experiencing post-traumatic stress flashbacks to the 1990s, when my closet was full of khakis. Dressing up for work meant wearing khakis. Dinner at a fancy restaurant? Break out the khakis. I was a khaki junkie. There’s a good chance if you saw me in 1998, I’d be wearing pleated khakis, a solid blue shirt, and listening to the Spice Girls (don’t judge!).

I finally kicked the khaki habit nearly 10 years ago, and despite the occasional nightmares about pleats and swing dancing, I assumed that I was safe from this kind of onslaught. But brands such as Dockers and Banana Republic are intent on bringing back the khaki. I know that some of you are reading this right now and thinking, “I still wear khakis, what’s the problem?’’ Or the sweet cuddle cake in your life still wears khakis regularly. They are still big sellers in the US. Just look around Downtown Crossing any weekday, and you’ll see that they’re the preferred trouser of many casual office-inhabiting gents.

But despite their office domination, the khaki has lost its footing in the market. Men are replacing their denim faster than they’re replacing their chinos. All of which led Dockers not only to launch a new advertising campaign, but to redesign the pants entirely.

“To be perfectly frank, there was an opportunity to do a better job with the line,’’ says Nathan Laffin, senior vice president of global design for Dockers. “We needed to put more effort in showing them the full range of khakis.’’

The new Dockers includes everything from a softer line of washed khakis in several colors to a high-end reproduction of Levi’s original 1940s military pant, the K-1. When I explain my fear of ill-fitting khakis staging a comeback, Laffin tries his best to console me.

“We don’t want to contribute to that,’’ he says. “Without exception we’ve gone back and looked at every pant in the line. In some cases the pant needed a face lift, in some cases the pant needed to go away entirely.’’

Banana Republic has been slightly more discreet with its chino push, but shortly after my Penn Station trauma, I opened a press release from the retailer declaring “Live in Chino. Work in Chino. Play in Chino. Date in Chino. Chino seven days a week.’’ Cut to me curled up in the fetal position muttering “No, no, no’’ over and over again. OK, I might be exaggerating just a scooch, but I began to feel as if all the khakis I donated to Goodwill in 2002 were plotting their revenge.

“There’s no chino conspiracy against you,’’ assures Banana Republic creative director Simon Kneen. “They’re just suddenly cool again. We’ve done a lot of work on the fit and the fabric, so it’s very different from the khakis of 10 years ago.’’

Both Kneen and Laffin say part of the khaki renaissance can be traced to Europe. As much as I try to tell myself that khaki rebirth will stay overseas, like Robbie Williams’s career and Capri pants for men, I suspect that they are probably right. Khaki was all over men’s runways during the Paris spring/summer 2010 shows, and it usually doesn’t take long for trends to spread across the Atlantic.

We are also in the middle of a renaissance of classic American sportswear and early 1960s nostalgia, fueled in equal parts by a backlash against the metrosexual movement and the influence of “Mad Men.’’ Wait a minute, has Don Draper been wearing chinos?

Perhaps the most frightening thing I learned in my research is that pleats are starting to creep back into these khakis. Laffin confesses that in Europe, Dockers is selling a slim fitting khaki that has “a very clean, tailored pleat front.’’ When I nearly start crying, he quickly tries to quell my fears.

“This is not going to be a rewind,’’ he says. “It’s a reset and a reinvention. We share your bad memories, so we don’t want to go back to the 1990s.’’

When I ask Kneen if pleats are back at Banana Republic, he quickly answers “Oh God, no.’’ which sets my mind slightly at ease. Pleats or no, this is going to be one very bumpy trip down memory lane.

Christopher Muther can be reached at