The key to khaki

Khaki is battledress. Melanie Rickey reports from the war zone: high streets here and in the US
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The Independent Online
The buses of London are currently being used in a battle of the khaki giants. Calvin Klein's slouching, asexual boys are pouting and posing with Kate Moss at Piccadilly Circus as the "Every khaki only Gap" advert swooshes past them and up Regent Street on the side of a number 73 bus. Khaki is a big fashion story for this summer (despite having been a wardrobe staple for years) and is the only classic that comes anywhere near denim in popularity. Today it is omnipresent, thanks to the huge sums the Gap, Calvin Klein and of course, Levi's, with its best-selling Docker brand, are pumping into their advertising (have you seen the man ironing his bacon sandwich in the Dockers ad, yet?)

Khakis, or, as they call them in America (much to the amusement of the English) "kackees", have traditionally been known as chino trousers, be they flat-fronted, pleated, wide or slim, with or without turn-ups and made of pure cotton. However, "khaki" was the Gujerati word for a mud- coloured cloth - from khak, the Persian word for "dust" - and is one of many English words taken from our time in India (others are shampoo, bungalow, pyjama and jodhpurs). Khaki trousers were first worn by British soldiers in India during the1882 Egyptian campaign. Their modern descendants have merged, via the Boer War and the two World Wars, with American chinos, and are now the trousers of choice for millions of American men who dress as they please at work on Fridays.

The "mufti" days, or casual Fridays, were introduced in the Eighties when Levi Strauss was approached by white-collar firms eager to encourage their employees to relax office dress codes. Dockers were brought in, and they sponsored a whole series of "how to" books on dressing down. Dockers are now the number one brand in America: two out of three men own at least two pairs, and their most popular colour is - you guessed it - khaki. Since Dockers were launched here in 1995, they have managed to dent Gap's superior market position; they sold 1.1 million pairs across Europe last year, more than doubling 1995's figures.

Gap launched their khakis in 1985 on the back of Dockers' US success; their aim was to make the trousers as accessible and universal as jeans, and it has worked. Gap has three basic styles for men: easy, relaxed, and slim-fit, all with reinforced pockets, crotch and belt loops. There are four women's styles: slim, classic, low-rise, and relaxed fit. Dockers have no styles aimed directly at women, but the trousers can always be nabbed from male friends. There are six different designs, with three fits: loose, regular and slim. Dockers also have the largest size scale available: waists from 28in to 40in and inside leg from 30in to 36in.

Apart from office bound types, people who have never worn (and will never wear) a suit to work have begun to adopt khakis as a modern uniform. Klein's collection, which he calls "the modern urban uniform", is the khaki look repackaged: vaguely military in flavour, downbeat and very, very cool. The range features two basic trouser designs, a pleated front and the more up-to-date flat front for both sexes, with slim-cut hipsters aimed directly at women (see Kate Moss on the buses). There is even a "loose and easy" version for women; when worn they are supposed to look as though borrowed from the boyfriend (it would be much cheaper to nick them from him, though). There are also safari jackets, slim-fit shirts, shirt dresses and thick, ribbed vests and T-shirts which are bound to sell and sell.

As well as the Americans', British design labels and high-street stores have gone khaki crazy this spring. See French Connection for reasonably priced cotton/Lycra boot-cut hipsters for girls, and flat-fronted, slim- cut trousers for boys. FCUK have also included coordinating little vests and jackets. People Corporation and Copperwheat Blundell have put the trousers into their collections, worn low-slung, loose and baggy. But female designers such as Nicole Farhi and Margaret Howell, whose silk/linen suit (pictured) is the embodiment of cool, are doing dressier khaki suits for women - still worn in a similar way to the men, but with a serious dose of effortless chic thrown in.

Postscript: One of the most commonly asked questions about khaki is to do with its colour. Many think it is a sludgy olive green, or Army green, others an off-white, sandy colour. To put the record straight, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary it is "a dull, brownish yellow", which doesn't sound too attractive, but means that any shade, as long as it's a mixture of brown and yellow, is khaki.

Gap Khaki's cost from pounds 34 for men's and women's styles. For your local stockist call freephone, 0800 427789

CK Khaki's - from pounds 65 for men and women styles. Available from House of Fraser, Harrods, Cruise (Glasgow), Limeys, (Nottingham). 0171- 259 6011

Special offer

Dockers have kindly offered to send a pair of khaki shorts to the first 20 readers who send a postcard with their waist size to:

Independent/Dockers Offer,

FAO Michelle Baker,

Level 1&2, D'Arblay House,

10a Poland Street,

London W1V 3DE.

Catwalk pic:

Margaret Howell silk/linen suit; trousers pounds 155, shirt, pounds 155, jacket, pounds 355, available from Maragret Howell, 24 Brook Street; 29 Beauchamp Place, SW3; 9 Old Red Lion Court, Stratford Upon Avon; 7 Paved Court, Richmond and Liberty, Regent Street London, W1.

Dockers khaki's (above)cost from pounds 35, and are available from Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1; Capolito Roma, The Marlands Centre, Southampton; Fenwicks of Tunbridge Wells, Kent and Royal Victoria Place and The Dockers Store, Lakeside Shopping Centre Thurrock, Essex.

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