Photographer: Jhason Abuan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

They May Be Ugly, But Cargo Shorts Are Still King

How else can you comfortably carry a wallet, mobile phone, and keys?

People have strong opinions about cargo shorts. Detractors say those bulky pockets are as dorky as fanny packs, or even socks with individual toes. Die-hard wearers want the critics to mind their own business. Or, as one incredulous columnist wrote: “They'll have to pry the cargo shorts off my cold, dead behind.”

Sorry haters—the stores know what people want, and they still want cargo shorts, despite their inherent sartorial, well, shortcomings. Cargo shorts made up a whopping 15 percent of all new shorts styles that hit online retailers over the summer months this year, according to new data from trend forecasting firm WGSN. That's up from 11 percent in 2015, despite sales having taken a dip this year. Yes, shops are actually stocking more cargo shorts than before.

“You can’t deny facts, there are certain retailers that are still heavily backing cargo shorts in the U.S.,” said Sidney Morgan-Petro, a retail analyst at WGSN. “If you can still make money off a product, retailers aren’t going to stop stocking it.”

What’s going on here? As usual, it’s the ultimate motivator of men forced to buy clothing: convenience.

Clothing stores have been mining these big-pocketed moneymakers since they attained widespread popularity in the late 1990s, a pragmatic garment that let people lug around their chunky wallets and mobile phones. Such brands as Gap Inc., Old Navy Inc., and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. spearheaded the surge, backed by their giant distribution networks and supply chains. Cargo shorts took over high schools, colleges, and weekend wear. If you were a guy and you were dressing casual, chances are you owned a pair of baggy cargos that hung past the knee.

In the late 2000s, men’s fashion slimmed down considerably, and everything from suits to T-shirts became more sleek and fitted. So too did bottoms, as men ditched their big, slouchy jeans for straight or skinny cuts. Meanwhile, longtime wearers refused to ditch their roomy shorts. Still, cargo shorts recently took a hit, as sales fell for the first time in a decade, according to data from market research firm NPD Group. 

Retailers with high percentages of cargo shorts among their summer shorts selection this year were Kohl’s Corp., Macy’s Inc., and H&M, each with 10 percent to 15 percent of their new arrivals devoted to those patch pockets, according to the WGSN data collected from 30 major U.S. men’s retailers. Target, however, led the way with 43 percent of its new shorts sporting the style that GQ’s style guy recently called “the scourge of men’s fashion.”

Despite that, retailers still sell more than $700 million in cargo shorts annually, according to NPD. But they are taking some cues from changing styles and adapting to trends. Many new cargo short designs lack the bulk of their predecessors–they’re shorter and tighter than ever before and available in colors that aren’t limited to various dull shades of khaki.

So cargo shorts remain a summer closet staple. Or, as Morgan-Petro put it, they’ve become the “man-purse for Americans:” The default method of toting everything you need without having a fat wallet accentuate your rear or, god forbid, being forced to carry a bag, satchel, or backpack. Europeans have their little bags; Americans have their enormous pockets.

“They're buying them because they're functional,” she said. “I don't think they’re going anywhere.”

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