Functional pants make new fashion statement

In a strange ironic twist, the garment most in demand among fashion-conscious consumers is the cargo pant.

But wait. Before your mind’s eye shifts to televised images of soldiers in camouflage military gear and pocket-packed pants puffed at the ankles, it’s not about that. Almost no one wants anything reminiscent of war while today’s battle scenes are all too fresh.

The current style reflects a modernized treatment manufacturers planned many months ago when only the political powers had the Iraq desert in their sights. It emerged in glamorous European settings of Dolce & Gabbana and Balenciaga runways.

Now it’s pervasive in retail stores in fabrics such as silk satin, linen and denim as well as traditional khaki cotton. It comes in multiple lengths, including capris. It is available in a range of prices. Most have lots of imaginative detailing including ribbon and hardware trims, tucking and creative stitches.

The silhouette is sleek and trim. And the smartest way to wear them is with high-heeled sandals.

“It is probably the single best-selling item at retail across the board among the stores that have it,” says Lori Holliday Banks, sportswear analyst with New York-based retail consultants Tobe Reports.

Certainly the look has been on the scene for a while. But it’s probably getting more exposure now than ever in fashion magazines and stores, Banks says.

It’s unusual to find a fashion retailer without them on display. Target stores have them starting at $19.99. Lane Bryant has a cropped drawstring version priced at $34.50. Gap offers a long khaki pant at $49.50.

Banana Republic fare starts at $88. And specialty stores have a variety, starting as low as $85 and going well into three figures.

“What’s going on is, it’s getting cleaned up, a little more dressed up,” says Gregg Andrews, Nordstrom’s Illinois-based fashion director. Originally it was “an authentic army pant, but it’s looking very different.”

The pant, as we know it, is indeed rooted in military history. The British revamped the soldiers’ khakis with extra pockets in the late 1930s. Americans adapted a battle-pant version during World War II.

Fashion historians even trace the concept of functional clothes back to the Middle Ages when built-in bags were common.

In the mid-’90s, “utility” started to emerge as a buzzword in the apparel arena at the same time designers were exploring the futuristic concept of an urban warrior who could move fast on city streets.

Now the concept has become almost like animal patterns in that it never seems to fade too far away. In 1998 Ralph Lauren rattled the fashion critics with a collection devoted to silk charmeuse battle jackets and cargos. Earlier John Bartlett, a cutting-edge American designer, seemed to have found the quintessentially modern urban survivalist dress with utility for men and women.

And in recent seasons, while the classic version of the preppie khaki was making its way through the trend cycle, designers sought new treatments to enhance the appeal.

“It is an evolutionary process,” Banks says. “It ebbs and flows.”

Banana Republic, which began in the ’80s as a catalog of safari-like clothing, has an especially bountiful silk selection in colors such as ivory and rich brown.

“They are selling well,” says Tara Zane McCullom, public relations manager. “But it’s been part of our heritage. It’s part of the utility trend. People love cargos. And silk offers them another option.”

Nordstrom’s Andrews says the current look is fresh in a range of pastel colors, dressy fabrics and slim lines. “It’s prettier now,” he says.

He encourages women to add shapely sandals and soft feminine tops. “Combine them with a camisole, a Bohemian look or a peasant blouse from last season,” he says.

Of course, considering the bulk of handbags, the idea does have practical appeal.

“You can put a small coin purse in one pocket and a cell phone in the other,” Andrews says, “and you’ve got your hands free.”

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