Silk has taken over the men's fashion arena.
Where once silk's appeal to men was limited because it was considered a pricey, frail, dressy fabric, in recent years new treatments and new uses have made silk ubiquitous in many men's wardrobes, particularly in sportswear.
* Silk shirts, plain and fancy, are a hot item, from $30 washed silk shirts to Gianni Versace's $1,500 artistic silk prints.
* Men's casual wear has been given an added dimension of style with a plethora of silk shorts, T-shirts and tank tops.
* In upper-end sportswear, silk blazers and suits and those ever-popular silk ties with novelty motifs define the drape and the feel of the kinder, gentler 1990s fashion world.
* Silk loungewear -- pajamas, robes, boxer shorts -- is enjoying a big boom.
* And silk is even being used as outerwear in such items as baseball jackets, duffel coats and parkas.
Says Richard Bauman, manager of the men's department at Saks Fifth Avenue's Bala Cynwyd, Pa., store: "In the past silk was marketed as a luxury product, and it only appealed to a certain kind of person who did not mind the expense of dry-cleaning it and caring for it. Now we have washed silk, which can be washed at home, and people are more comfortable with it."
Menswear experts say the silk domination of menswear took hold last year after the rage for stronger natural fibers abated.
"A few years ago there was a big trend to natural cotton, which made everything look kind of rugged. Then designers decided that a drapey look would be more interesting," said Jack Herschlag, executive director of the New York-based National Association of Men's Sportswear buyers.
To get that draped effect, manufacturers turned to softer fabrics such as rayon, viscose, microfiber and, in the luxury market, silk.
"The problem was that the silk was so expensive. Then washed silk hit the market and all the experimentation with the fabric began, so that now you have all kinds of textures and weaves and uses," Mr. Herschlag said.
Washed silk is derived by washing the fabric in a chemical mix that renders the fabric more durable and easier to work with. The silk can be washed as fabric, or after the garment is assembled. Washed silk is easier to clean and press and absorbs color well, fabric-care experts say.
With silk made more practical, the demand for clothes cut out of the fabric grew. Companies specializing in silk collections, such as Go Silk, Silk Club, Fugi and Equipment, saw their business take off.
Because silk menswear was available in several price ranges, the demand grew even greater.
Another factor that has spurred silk's success in menswear is a blurring of the lines between men's dressier clothing and sportswear.
In recent years, men and their employers have relaxed dress standards.
And fabrics and styles once associated almost exclusively with casual wear are showing up as dress wear and vice versa.
"Men are having a more gentle feel about themselves and this fits right in with that," said Mr. Herschlag.
And, he said, it's about time.