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As Pavlov would understand, it’s hard to hear the word “polo” without thinking “chino”. Since casual Fridays were born in the 1990s, polos and chinos have gone together like, well, Pimm’s and lemonade, strawberries and cream, cucumber and sandwich ... it’s the perfect hot weather combo.
“Chinos have been one of our best-selling items since we opened two years ago,” says Mats Klingberg, owner of the award-winning menswear store Trunk Clothing in Marylebone, London. “Styles made for summer are usually of a lighter-weight fabric than winter ones. My preference is for slightly heavier ones as they keep their shape much better. For a chino to get the perfect fit and to bounce back after you’ve been sitting down, it’s good if they have a tiny bit of elastane in them.”
Technically chino is a fabric – classically 100 per cent cotton twill, which is woven to have small diagonal ridges. But the name “chino” is now applied to virtually any casual trouser. Like jeans, chinos are available at all prices and qualities. Enter “chinos” in the search box on Mr Porter and almost 70 options appear ranging from J Crew (£75) through Beams Plus (£160), Gucci (£430) and Bottega Veneta (£500). Mr Porter also stocks the Italian brand Incotex (£190), which is Klingberg’s personal favourite.
Central to chinos’ appeal is that they are easy to wear, easy to launder and easy to dress up or dress down. “The decision to wear slim or regular fit, with flat front or with pleat, and rolled up or not depends on personal style, the weather, time of year and the occasion,” says Klingberg. “Just make sure not to go too tight or too baggy. I prefer a slimmer cut with a flat front. On a hot summer day by the sea, I’d wear the chinos rolled up with a pair of sneakers or loafers. On a cooler day walking through the park, I’d wear my chinos rolled down with a pair of desert boots.”
“Desert” is a key word, as the khaki saga can be traced back to the mid-1840s when British troops in the North-West Frontier Province of India dyed their red jackets and white trousers light brown to blend in with the local terrain (“khaki” is derived from the Hindi and Urdu words for “dust-coloured”).
Fifty years later, during the Spanish-American war of 1898 the US army occupied the Philippines and returned singing the praises of khaki-coloured trousers they called chinos, a corruption of the Spanish name for Chinese or China. The comfortable, durable trousers were adopted as official US Army uniform in 1902. And as this season makes clear, khaki chinos are still seeing active service.
Indeed, the time of eye-popping colour – candy pink, baby blue, sherbet lemon, no shade too outré – appears to be over, with army khaki and navy blue now among the most popular chino shades, along with slate grey and creamy beige. For this reason, London’s Harvey Nichols is relying mainly on classic brands such as Paul Smith (£95), Ralph Lauren (£125) and Stone Island (£140) for its staple chino offer. However its new label Jet 8 has a style with embroidered pockets to give just a lift of colour (£170).
Then there’s Cro’Jack (£90), a heritage-inspired brand with a shop at Seven Dials in Covent Garden, London. “We make and dye everything in the UK, and this season we will be concentrating on four main colours for chinos – indigo, cream, olive drab and slate,” says co-founder Dean Batty.
“Versatile as they are, classic chino styles can look a little shapeless, so I always think they look better in a slightly narrower cut, with just 2 or 3 per cent of stretch to keep them looking sharp,” says Darren Skey, head of menswear at Harvey Nichols. “But we have moved away from the extremely narrow silhouette of a few seasons ago.”
“There are lots of good chinos out there, and we’ve had brands like Boglioli, Aspesi and Edwin over the past couple of seasons, but this season our focus is on Incotex,” Klingberg says. “ I don’t think we’ve had any customer buying a pair that hasn’t come back for more.”