New fashion: blue collars, grease-monkey overalls

June 17, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

Have you heard? Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden are the ne fashion muses of the '90s.

Manly fashions -- the kind a blue-collar worker might wear to shimmy down a sewer, grease an axle, harvest the grain or down a cold brew after a hard day's work -- are the rage.

The laborer look is such a hot trend, American Rag will open a store this weekend in Los Angeles called Denimville, which is devoted to the classic American work-wear of this century, including clothing by Big Smith, Carter's, Dickies, Caterpillar and Woolrich.

"This is the age of Clinton. We're all the proletariat now -- no more wealthy," says Mark Werts, 47, owner of American Rag, which has seven stores, all on the West Coast. "We're looking to open 70 stores with this stuff. We're planning to take this all the way, starting on the West Coast of the United States and going East."

The wears-like-iron industrial garb fad is a boon to traditional work-wear companies and a source of inspiration to fashion firms.

"You'd think it would just be the young buying this, but I had a customer in here the other day who was wearing DKNY and bought the Carter's overalls. She was probably in her early 40s. It's just like Levi's. There's something about the real thing," says Andrew Stein, 36, manager of the San Francisco American Rag. By fall, the DKNY men's collection will include khaki jumpsuits with plaid flannel lining.

Wearing the real thing

Ben Davis' adorable gorilla, Dickies' golden ox yoke and Carhartt's cornucopia are coveted labels. In fact, genuine work-wear -- overalls, shirts, pants, vests and the really hot item, chore coats, a.k.a. barn jackets, which are boxy jackets originally designed for railroad engineers that hit around mid-thigh, have big pockets with flaps and are almost indestructible -- are selling faster than manufacturers can make them.

"In an ordinary year we'd sell 50,000 to 100,000 chore coats; now we'll triple that," says Jim Kindley, 46, vice president of Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co., the 71-year-old work-wear company based in Fort Worth, Texas, that makes Dickies.

"It's almost to the proportion where it's out of control. Carhartt, Dickies, Osh Kosh and Ben Davis can't keep up with production," saysRoy Carlisle, owner of Halmar Work Clothes Center stores in Berkeley and Concord, Calif.

Despite adding two manufacturing facilities, Carhartt, a 104-year-old work-wear company based in Dearborn, Mich., sold out its entire 1993 inventory in 90 days.

"In past years we've normally sold out in late September or October," says Mark Valade, vice president of Carhartt, which had sales of $94.4 million, or 3,750,000 garments, in '92, and $128 million, or 5,120,000 garments, this year.

'We shut it off'

"We shut it off," says Mr. Valade. "It's scary . . . we're not in the habit of turning down business."

Naturally, fashion companies are quick to pick up orders traditional work-wear companies can't fill.

For example, B.C. Ethic, which stands for Blue Collar Ethic, is a year-old Los Angeles company that's churning out clothes that look like something a gas station attendant or plumber would wear. Forties-style sleeveless work shirts or mechanics overalls have embroidered patches with "Ethico" where you'd expect to see "Texaco" with a red star on top.

Luke Perry has already worn a B.C. Ethic shirt on Beverly Hills 90210.

"It's dress up, dress down. It's anti-fashion fashion," says Jeffrey Shafer, 33, president of B.C. Ethic. "People want to go back to a time when they got out of school, were able to find a job, make a down payment on a house and have a good-quality life.

Less form-fitting

"Real work-wear tends to be more form-fitting. When you're operating machinery it can't be flopping around. But on the streets the trend is toward oversized bottoms and tops. We take the silhouette of the garment and make them oversized and make dorky-looking work-wear look fashionable," says Mr. Shafer.

Durable duds began emerging on inner-city streets two or three yearsago among gangs. They began wearing Dickies pants, in particular, because they could get them at low cost ($15), they were easy to maintain and they came in 16 colors, which enabled kids to distinguish themselves by the pants they wore.

The trend spread when some schools in L.A. banned Dickies.

"That's probably what kicked off the trend," says Mr. Kindley of Dickies. "Then the products were picked up both by the grunge movement and hip-hop. The kids started really doing some wild things, wearing them oversized, backward, cutting them just below the knees. They were just taking our basic utilitarian clothing and then creating their own looks with it."

Skateboarders and surfers, who liked the ease of movement and comfort of oversized clothes, spread the look further. So did kids at raves who wanted to dance all night.

"It's just comfortable and it's no-brainer fashion. You don't really have to think about it," says Jennifer La Rue, 23, visual merchandiser of American Rag.

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