How to Find the Perfect Khakis
Departures goes shopping for the perfect designer khakis.
Nothing has made the transition from military to civilian life quite as successfully as khakis. They were born in service— Sir Harry Lumsden adopted the color in 1848 while he was commander of India’s famous Corps of Guides. They originally wore white, but, the legend goes, Lumsden noticed that the men who were the dirtiest were least likely to be shot by snipers. In the interests of troop survival, he ordered all his men to follow suit and dye their clothes dusty tan. Fifty years later British and then American troops began going to battle in khakis and have done so ever since.
They didn’t become an American classic until after World War II, when the GIs came home and went off to college wearing theirs. Then students and, as the old Gap ads pointed out, everyone from Steve McQueen to Pablo Picasso discovered what the soldiers already knew: Khakis could go anywhere—from class to club to beach—and looked right just about everywhere.
Which may explain why they were so easy to dismiss as the pants people settled for rather than the ones they chose. Now designers from Michael Bastian to Steven Alan to Brunello Cucinelli have updated the old warhorse with enough style to remind everyone that khakis, born of necessity, can also be objects of desire.
Brooks Brothers: This company started out making uniforms for U.S. veterans of the War of 1812. So by the time the khaki-colored chino became the Ivy League’s unofficial uniform, its version was already a classic. The Milano khaki doesn’t change the original formula much. They’re flat-front and cut slim but are now also washed and treated so no ironing is required. From $90; brooksbrothers.com.
Ralph Lauren: As seems fitting for a designer whose signature is the reinvented American classic, Ralph Lauren offers a multitude of khakis. There’s the classic flat front from the Polo line, as well as a style called the African Diary chino, which has subtle beading along the pockets and randomly placed patches. They’re beat up, torn, repaired, frayed, beautiful pieces of craftsmanship. You may, however, wish to put the miles on yourself. Enter the Purple Label five-pocket style. They’re not traditional—the five-pockets version is much more like a pair of jeans—but the cotton twill is Italian, the hardware antiqued brass and the cut slim-fit European. Polo, from $165; Purple Label, from $295; ralphlauren.com.
J.Crew: No company has done more to bring back American fashion heritage than J.Crew, and it hasn’t neglected khakis. The key is in the fit. The brand’s latest chino, the Urban Slim, features a trimmer cut than the baggy GI version, with a lower rise. But they’re still made from the original cotton twill. From $70; jcrew.com.
Save Khaki: David Mullen’s cult brand occupies almost three shops—one is almost too small to count as a whole store—in Manhattan. The walls of all 2.75 of them are lined with his deceptively simple, slouchy namesake pants. They’re deceptively simple because his khakis are pretty much perfect. The fabric is incredibly soft, but it still has guts, like its military forebears. The cut is body-conscious but not clingy, producing a look that’s modern yet not ostentatious. And the Save Khaki United line is made in the U.S.A., so the pants are true to their cultural and stylistic roots. From $110; savekhaki.com.
Steven Alan: Few brands were marred by khaki’s Casual Friday image more than Dockers. Few designers are better suited to rehabilitating that image than Steven Alan, who made his name creating preppy classics with the ideal ratio of rumpled and retro-chic. The Modern Jod pants he created for Dockers have the details of the World War II version—button fly, straight side pockets, watch pocket and a loose (but not sloppy) fit—with a more contemporary tapered leg and a cropped cuff. These are for a casual Friday surfing on Montauk, and lounging by the bonfire afterward. From $130; dockers.com.
Michael Bastian: “The hardest thing to do,” Bastian says, “is to take something everybody makes and make it better.” He does just that in his khakis, with details like mother-of-pearl buttons and pockets lined with shirting fabric. While the material is still khaki, it ranges from a creamy, soft cotton with a silky, smooth hand to military-style cotton canvas. “I’m ready for khakis again,” the designer says. “They’re the ultimate American standard, after all.” From $395; michaelbastiannyc.com.