One leg at a time, more folks are stepping into khakis

June 11, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Khakis are back!

That's the news in the rag trade these days. Khakis rock! Khakis are meaner than jeans. Bogie wore khakis, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. Who didn't?

But they're all dead, aren't they? Doesn't anybody retire? Astaire's been dead for 11 years, and still sells vacuum cleaners on television.

Recruiting the dead into your marketing plans seems to work. At least you don't get any back talk from the talent.

With that in mind, surely, The GAP has resurrected Louis Prima, famous band leader, to sell khakis. He's been in the ground since 1978, but surely you remember him. He had a voice as euphonic as a buzz saw. But he could carry a tune. He appears in a television commercial leading a band while a lot of khakied legs and butts move around to music that sounds vaguely from that era, 1940s or thereabouts.

Khakis swing!

Who knows, in this age of niche markets you might find late some night, on one of those high-number cable channels, Hitler and Mussolini invading France and Ethiopia in their khakis. They had their admirers, too, and, from a purely business-is-business point of view, a Nazi's money and a Fascist's is as good as anybody's.

Marketing is truly an odd science. It's like alchemy, the aim of which was to make something valuable from something base, like gold from lead. Marketing in this case seems to be trying to make nothing from something, attempting to create a vacuum where none exists.

Khakis are back? They never went anywhere. The Boy Scouts still wear khakis.

I haven't noticed any dearth of khaki trousers. Nobody else consulted around here has either.

Now please understand, nobody is saying advertising campaigns and slogans and political announcements that don't make sense, don't describe the real world, can't be successful. When Ronald Reagan announced, "America's Back!" a lot of people were thrilled and relieved. Whew!

A few pessimists did point out that the country hadn't gone anywhere. To say something or somebody is "back" at least implies said thing or person had been away. But nobody listened to them.

Anybody with eyes in his head and who can count, who looks around the office, or out on the street, or into his own wardrobe, just has to know that khakis never went anywhere. But that hasn't slowed the ferver of the GAP and Dockers (owned by Levi Strauss & Co.) to keep pushing out the line that khakis are the next best thing, and deemphasizing the fact that they are the same old thing.

Next thing you know they'll rediscover the Blue Blazer.

(Of course, there's more variety in khakis these days: pleated, flat fronts, low-rise, cargo. Even so, as eggs is eggs, khakis is khakis.)

The GAP and Dockers seem to be engaged in a kind of khaki war; both are spending bundles to stimulate the very appetite they are trying to feed. According to a recent report in Advertising Age, the GAP has budgeted more than $20 million to take its message to the all-consuming public.

The San Jose Mercury News quotes one expert in such things as follows: "The younger consumer is really starting to look to khakis rather than just jeans."

But it is really a war of all against each other. Even as this was being written, a Fed Ex box landed on the desk containing, guess what? You got it! A pair of khakis. Haggar Clothing wants us to know it's in this thing. too.

It seems to be working. More khakis are being bought by more people. The NPD Group, in analyzing retail sales, reports a 21 percent increase in the sale of men's khakis from 1995 to 1997. Sales to women grew by 36 percent.

Calls to a few random men's stores in the Baltimore area produced a muddier picture. Eddie Bauer's shop on Dulaney Valley Road gives a glowing report on the progress of khakis. "We're selling out of them, of certain sizes," said store manager Bev McCarthy. Downtown at Kavanaugh's, manager Jay Bevans reports "a big push for the khaki idea," though some men are leaning to olive. (Does that count?)

The bad news comes from Cross Keys, where Lois Gasser, a salesperson at George Howard Men's Furnishings, hasn't noticed any run on khakis at all.

In fact, "sales of khakis have declined over the past five years," she says.

Despite these occasional blips in the happy hysteria over things khaki, one must remember, all wars have winners and losers. The losers in this one? Jeans. The NPD Group reports increases in sales of jeans have fallen from 9.6 percent in 1996 to 3.3 percent last year.

Where will this all lead? What will our world look like if it continues unabated?

The U.S. Army circa 1942.

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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