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What the Return of the Cargo Pant Reveals About Consumer Psychology

Why the polarising style is trending at every segment of the spending spectrum.
(Left to Right) Cargo pant designs from: Everlane, Nili Lotan, Loewe, Givenchy, Monse, Anthropologie and Gap | Illustration by BoF
  • Elizabeth Holmes

NEW YORK, United States — Robert Khederian says he hates cargo pants.

The 28-year-old Manhattanite, who worked in magazines before pivoting to real estate, has a visceral reaction to the style.

“When you think of cargo pants, you think of some sort of sloppy, loose-fitting pair, with huge thigh pockets and hip pockets and maybe a few additional pockets up and down your legs,” Khederian said. “Who carries that much stuff around? And if you do, you should have a bag. You should not carry that on your legs.”

And yet, Khederian pines for a pair he once owned — proof, he says, that the style can work when trim and tailored. These cargo pants, from the 2012 collaboration between GQ, Todd Snyder and Gap, were one of his all-time favourite trousers. They were olive, with pockets that were more of a facade than truly functional, Khederian fondly recalled. He wore them to dress down a blazer, revelling in the ruggedness.

His conclusion? “You can wear cargo pants and not be a quote-unquote cargo pants person.”

Therein lies the dilemma of the cargo pant, a hate-to-love, love-to-hate trouser of our time. (Also included in this category of polarising pieces: Ugg boots.) For many, this military-rooted style brings to mind almost a caricature of the 1990s version, with a baggy fit and numerous, voluminous pockets. That version that still elicits a gush from some shoppers — and an audible groan from many others.

Despite all that, cargo pants are trending again in high-fashion circles for both men and women. Styles in stores now, from Givenchy, Valentino, Michael Kors, Monse, and Loewe, are altogether elevated. The fabrics are updated, the pockets are about quality over quantity and the legs are definitively shaped, slimmed or billowy. Luxury department store Neiman Marcus has sent several marketing emails heralding the style's return, including one just this week with the subject line "Cargo pants: Reinvented," its content touting "slimmer silhouettes" and "feminine details."

Perhaps in a nod to the style's tendency towards gut reactions, many of the new iterations carry new names — not unlike the rebrand of the 'fanny pack' as the 'belt bag.'

Trend-watchers say cargo pants fit into the current consumer obsession with casualwear as a relaxed alternative to denim. Cargo-style bottoms accounted for 6 percent of the $36 billion US men’s and women’s apparel bottom market for the 12 months ended in February, according to NPD’s Consumer Tracking Service, up 3 percent from the previous year.

Barneys New York has more than 30 styles of cargo or cargo-esque pants for sale online, according to fashion director Marina Larroude, describing the style as “urban and edgy and cool.” While the fashion world might prefer to think of women running around in heels and a knit dress, a cargo pant and flats or a sneaker is an easier but still polished ensemble for school drop-off or running errands. Cargo pants are versatile, too, Larroude added, able to be dressed up with strappy sandals and a crop top for a night out.

Perhaps in a nod to the style's tendency towards gut reactions, many of the new iterations carry new names — not unlike the rebrand of the "fanny pack" as the "belt bag." Nili Lotan, a New York-based designer which sells cargo pants at Barneys, according to Larroude, has a "French military crop." Everlane sells a "carpenter pant," while Anthropologie and ASOS serve up "utility pants."

“If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck,” laughed Ken Downing, the departing fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “Call it what you want, but it’s a cargo pant and it’s a crowd pleaser.”

Downing, who said he was wearing a camouflage cargo with a blush jacket as we spoke, praised the style as a dressier version of a track pant. (When asked about a cliché or negative connotation with the style, Downing interjected: "You mean cargo shorts?" — which he considers an altogether different category.) In a marketing blast, Neiman Marcus declared, "Cargo pants are back!"

But were they ever out?

“The cargo pant trend has the life of a cockroach,” said Robert Burke, a luxury consultant and former senior vice president of fashion at Bergdorf Goodman. He puts the pants into the category of “ugly” pieces enjoying a new life, like “dad” sneakers and “mom” jeans. Cargo pants are also the rare style to hit every spending segment of the market, Burke added, without following the usual trickle-down pattern of a trend cycle.

Mass retailers who sell to a customer with a fondness for that 1990s iteration are treading carefully.

"People have an emotional connection to the cargo," said Chantal Williams, vice president of men's design at Old Navy. The division of Gap Inc. has offered a version cargo pants for 25 years, but has tweaked them throughout that time to keep the style up-to-date. These are "subtle shifts," said Williams. "It's not too much of a departure." Its current core cargo, updated last fall, comes with a straighter fit, added stretch and cleaned-up pocketing, with just one on each outer thigh and flaps on the two back pockets.

The cargo pant trend has the life of a cockroach.

The love of the cargo is also an opportunity to introduce shoppers, especially men, to other silhouettes. Pant trends tend to be somewhat staid and customers are less willing to experiment, but the strong feeling towards the cargo can help ease the transition.

In addition to more traditional cargo pants and shorts, Abercrombie & Fitch offers a “super skinny cargo” for men, with the online description boasting “slanted cargo pockets, side-slit pockets and [a] clean hem.” Two versions of its new pull-on jogger style for men fall in the cargo category, too.

“We’re presenting him what we know he loves, while also presenting him some options we know he’s going to love before he knows he’s going to love it,” said Aaron Levine, senior vice president of men’s and women’s design.

Still, some shoppers refuse to entertain the idea. Ashley Hauri, a 31-year-old recruiter in Kansas City, Missouri, helped her husband shed all remnants of cargo pants from his wardrobe in recent years.

"You can wear normal pants that are not meant for storing things," she told him. He has since replaced them with slimmer chinos and more fitted denim. Hauri is not tempted by this new trending version of the cargo pant. Why would someone want to add more fabric to their thighs? she wondered. "That's not a good look on anybody."

Others are reconsidering. In a review posted last autumn on a pair of J.Crew cargo pants, a man named Jason from California praised the quality and fit. "However… that's not the issue," he wrote. "The issue is this: 'Are you a cargo pants kind of guy?' And I'll tell you — I am not sure yet," before concluding, "this has put me through the existential ringer."

Twenty-nine people have marked the review as helpful.

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