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Taking Cues From Denim and Active, Chinos Get a Modern Makeover

The chino pant has cache this spring. Boosted by performance fabrics, sustainable stories and the looming return of tailoring, the classic men’s pant is being reinvented by purveyors of prep like J.Crew and Banana Republic, and newcomers such as Everlane, Bonobos and Indochino.

“As the days of heavy fabrics and stiff suits in the workplace come to an end, a new era has emerged and it is one of relaxed dress codes and clothing that prioritizes function over fashion,” said Krista Corrigan, retail analyst for Edited.

This shift marks the birth of workleisure, a burgeoning category defined by performance fabrics, comfort and brands that claim to be best in class products. And the influence of workleisure is identifiable across men’s category. The brown shoe sector has leaned into consumer demand for comfort with flexible outsoles and knit uppers. Startup brands like Mizzen + Main and Ministry of Supply have turned shirting into stretchy, sweat-proof, travel-ready armor. And brands like Liverpool Jeans are retooling tailored trousers with ponte and stretch twill.

Jeans are arguably the biggest beneficiary of workleisure, but chinos have remained an essential item in retailers’ workwear assortments. “The silhouette has maintained steady in-stock levels across the mass market in the spring season over the last two years,” Corrigan said. And the garment is primed for innovation, particularly in areas where the denim industry has already navigated.

Packed with performance

“Chino brands are following denim’s direction,” said Ebru Ozaydin, Artistic Milliners SVP of sales and marketing. Whereas denim took cues from the active wear category and adopted performance benefits like stretch and moisture-wicking, Ozaydin sees technologies and even marketing language used by denim brands being folded into the chino category.

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In fact, the number of performance chinos offered online has jumped 34 percent over two years and the average full price demanded for a pair is stronger than ever, according to Corrigan.

It doesn’t hurt when disruptive brands, like Everlane, enter the playing field. The transparent brand, known for its uncomplicated, austere aesthetic, recently introduced the Performance chino to its men’s range. The Performance chino boasts sweat-wicking and quick-drying properties and an “authentic chino look designed for everyday wear.

The $68 pant bridges the gap between Everlane’s classic mid-weight chino and its Air chino that is made with a 4.2 oz. cotton poplin—a fabric that is 25 percent lighter than the brand’s mid-weight.

“Everlane has done a great job at leveraging the inclusion of technology into the marketing of their performance chinos, but they aren’t the first retailer to do so in this space,” Corrigan said. Aside from “stretch,” Corrigan says two of the most frequently used keywords in product descriptions for the silhouette are “moisture-wicking” and “quick-dry.” “Banana Republic describes the majority of its chino offerings as ‘performance’ and sportswear brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour also use similar language,” she pointed out.

Sustainability—an area where denim leads—is also being called out more frequently in the chino category.

Bonobos recently introduced stretch organic cotton chinos—also $68—in five colorways and four fits: tailored, slim, athletic and skinny. “Our new Stretch Organic Cotton chino is our most casual in that it can be worn anytime, anywhere,” said Katie Boiano, Bonobos vice president of design. “Offering a skinny fit is something we’ve seen become more popular in the market and we wanted to give our customers that fit option as well.”

Bonobos Bonobos

Bonobos has dabbled in non-traditional chino fabrications for several seasons. In 2017, the brand launched a tech chino made with a performance-based fabric that was developed in Switzerland. The breathable fabric has 5 percent elastane and offers 3XDRY advanced moisture management, which absorbs and wicks away sweat. Additionally, the tech chinos are water, stain and dirt repellent.

Still, the brand’s most popular chino is the Stretch Washed chino in slim—a style that Boiano describes as a brand staple. The pants are made with 98 percent Cotton and 2 percent Lycra. “That said, in the summer months, our lightweight stretch chino becomes a very popular style, as they offer more breathability,” she added.

Calling out the performance benefits of chinos has several advantages—for brands and consumers.

“For one, the retailer is getting credit for adding the technology and justifying the heftier price tag that accompanies it,” Corrigan said. “There is also a convenience factor for the customer with these performance benefits. Because the majority of consumers are always on-the-go, they need to know their clothing can transition from the office to post-work activities with ease.”

Tailored times ahead

Chinos have become a versatile option for men.

“As it relates to styling, men aren’t only playing with their options a bit more but where they wear different styles has evolved,” Boiano said. “For example, we’re now seeing men wear chinos with a tee and bomber to the office versus the traditional button-down and blazer.” And traditional khaki isn’t the only color Bonobos is seeing purchased these days. For spring, the brand has introduced 29 new colors across its chino program, increasing its assortment 60 percent year-over-year.

Chinos are a new category for Indochino, which cut its teeth in men’s wear in 2007 with custom-made suits. The brand is applying the same concept to chinos, offering made-to-measure 100 percent cotton slim fit chino pants for $79.

Indochino Indochino

While the chino category is a small percentage of the brand’s business—under 2 percent today—the repeat rate is strong, says Dean Handspiker, Indochino VP of design. “Most chinos are sold to existing clients who have suits from us, enjoyed the experience and price,” he said. These small successes are leading the brand to increase color options for chinos from four to six this fall.

And it may be a good time for brands to reconsider their chino offering. While luxury streetwear prevails among young demographics, the men’s Fall/Winter 19-20 runway was notably less casual.

“Tailored is showing signs of life,” said Marshal Cohen, The NPD Group retail industry analyst. “Innovation to fit and fabric is making a dressier look new, fresh, and easy to wear.”

Indochino welcomes the return of tailored men’s wear with enthusiasm. “The runway shows this year reintroduced tailoring after seasons of sweatshirts and sweatpants,” Handspiker said. “Suiting is coming back.”

Boiano predicts a happy medium, a blend of streetwear and tailored casual styling. “We’re definitely seeing a shift away from flashy logo driven streetwear, but not necessarily a full move back into traditional, formal suits,” she said. “I like to think of it as ‘casual sophistication’ [where] tailored meets casual.”