Short Change


Cruising through the city's urban centers, you might have noticed on young men a curious kind of pants, er, shorts. No, pants. Wait ... shorts.

Here in Baltimore, they're calling these too-short/too-long curiosities "men's capris."

But they're not the chic and slender capris made famous by fashion icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy.

Baltimore has added its own flair to the capri. And other cities are starting to take notice.

Over the past few years, these locally popular, long, wide shorts have become such a runaway hit that some manufacturers say they are now selling them in fashion centers such as New York and Philadelphia -- and retailers as far away as Atlanta and Nashville, Tenn., are clamoring for "the Baltimore short."

"Shorts lengths were already getting longer and longer," says Jack Weiner, vice president of sales for the New Jersey-based clothing company Webs, a major supplier of men's capris in the Baltimore area. "But the guys in Baltimore just took it to a little bit of an extreme. And now it's the look. Everybody wants it. I've got guys in Kansas City asking for 'the Baltimore short.'"

In fashion, spot trends often bubble up from the streets, or from the runway, and land in one region harder than another. In Washington, some years back, for example, city kids made wrestling shoes a back-to-school staple. And young men in Southern states were wearing "grills" -- gold or platinum decorative tooth coverings -- long before celebrities made them a mainstream fad.

Men's capris are just one example of a regional trend that started small and has gained popularity.

The long shorts start at the waist the way many men's shorts do, free-flowing and roomy, sort of wide-legged and boxy.

But they end the way many pants do -- long and modest, grazing the tops of tennis shoes or slouched socks, sometimes just kissing the concrete.

"Some of them are as long as 24 inches" at the inseam, says Stuart Silberman, chief operating officer of Changes Inc., a chain of Baltimore-based urban-wear clothing stores. "That's just above the ankle."

It seems oxymoronic, but in the eyes of the long-short wearer, longer is always better.

"I don't like to show a lot of the bottom of my legs," says Eddie Randle, 23, of Forest Park, who was shopping recently at Mondawmin Mall. "So if I can cover up most of my legs, I'm good."

Randle patiently explains that visible knees are "girly" -- echoing a masculinity theme that reverberates around the popular pants.

Curious, though, that knees are girly, but wearing something called a capri is not.

After all, the name evokes images of women in Virginia Slims ads -- those breezily beautiful women in slender cigarette pants.

Retailers were aware of the feminine connotations, too, but say Baltimore's men are unfazed.

"We were afraid to call them capris in the beginning because we have a lot of tough guys in Baltimore," Silberman says. "But they're proud to say it today."

Maybe it's because the pants have such a feminine name that so much bravado surrounds the wearing of them.

"I gotta wear 'em big, 'cause I'm a big man," boasted James Anderson, 26, in a retro acid-washed pair.

"You can't have your pants all tight," says a grimacing Dwight McFadden, 18, of West Baltimore, who prefers his capris in a lightweight khaki or cotton. "That's what girls do."

In his travels around the country buying merchandise for Changes, Silberman first noticed the trend some years ago where many urban fashions begin: New York.

Phat Farm, Russell Simmons' urban clothing line, had capris in a runway collection about five years ago, Silberman says.

Silberman remembers trying out the long shorts on the stores' showroom floors, thinking they would do well because T-shirts had just evolved from the traditional fitted version into the 40-inch-long "tall tee" popular today.

"I don't think it was overly successful that first year," he says.

The next year, one of the denim companies that sells to Changes made a longer short by mistake and sent it to stores.

"We put it out, and it was a major success," Silberman says. "So, then we started asking companies to make capris."

"Coincidentally," Weiner says, "an hour away in Washington, it's not a big deal. The guys won't touch it."

And in New York, some fashion insiders are still baffled by the long-shorts.

"I've seen them, and I think they're just one of those goofy trends that emerge and somehow get adopted," says Tyler Thoreson, executive editor at Men.Sty, the online home of GQ and Details magazines. "I mean, it kind of negates the purpose. The reason you're wearing shorts is because it's hot out and you don't want too much fabric, right? You do have to do a double take on some of these because you wonder if that's intentional. You wonder if those are just jeans that were in the dryer too long."

But capri-wearers swear the long shorts are comfortable.

"I don't like the way shorts feel around my knees," says 16-year-old Avon Wilson, of West Baltimore, wearing an airy, athletic pair -- perfect, he says, for playing ball.

"Shorts, they ride up when you sit down," says Avon's friend Jonah Davis, 19, tugging at his own denim capris, which have, incidentally, ridden down, showing his plaid boxers.

And despite the extra length, fans of capris say they really are not too hot for the summer.

"They're like pants," says Donte Anderson, 17, of Westport, "but they still got a little air up in 'em."

Even girls are wearing them.

"I have a girlfriend who owns 20 pairs," says Heather Edwards, who works in Mondawmin Mall and who says she is opposed to men shorter than 5 feet 3 inches wearing capris.

"They don't look good on short guys," Edwards says. "It's ridiculous. You might as well wear some pants."

The shorts are, in many cases, just a few inches away from being pants, which is why some stores sell men's capris 10 months out of the year.

"When the wintertime comes, just throw a pair of long socks on, and it's just like jeans," says John "Bubba" Sharp, 18, of Southwest Baltimore, dressed recently in a double-washed Rocawear pair. "Wear 'em with Timberlands or Nike boots."

They may baffle some, but capris are hip and versatile, Anderson says.

"They got 'em in all kinds -- army capris, different designs," he says. "You see everybody wearing 'em. White people. Chinese people."

The trend isn't just for young men, either.

Rahman Muhammad of West Baltimore recently wore his crisp, white capris with a white-striped polo, white ball cap and white sneakers in that immaculately pressed way only a 50-year-old man can.

"It's a fashion statement, something comfortable, lightweight to throw on," says Muhammad, peering out through sunglasses. "Especially dealing with all this heat."

As an older, practical man, he acknowledges that actual shorts would, in fact, be cooler.

But in the city, being cooler in temperature is nothing if you're not, actually, cool.

Wearing shorts "would be out of taste right now," Muhammad says. "It just isn't fashionable to do."

That, as they say, is the long and the short of it.

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