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Athleisure Pants: Friend or Foe?

DEADBEATS OF THE WORLD, rejoice!    Fall’s New Chino Alternative? It’s No Sweat

{For Randa Accessories:  Most of these trousers have no belt loops: Clearly an outrage.  DJK}

This menswear hybrid—sweatpants made with tailored silhouettes and more-polished fabrics—is no longer a niche item, but does it deserve a place in your closet?

Cast down your remotes and arise, for we bring you tidings of great pants, which shall bring joy to all slobs. (The rest of you might like them, too.)

Sweatpants—the slacks of slackers—have come into their own this fall, elastic waistband and all, but with a twist: The latest variations are made from premium fabrics and cut into more tailored silhouettes. So call them “sport pants” or “track trousers”—but for Pete’s sake, don’t drip any dip on them.

It’s a surprising sort of fashion moment. These trousers pay homage to a garment that for decades has all but thumbed its nose at high fashion from a safe perch on the couch. It’s like water collaborating with oil, Superman embracing Kryptonite or Karl Rove coming out for gay marriage.

What Jerry Seinfeld said in a 1993 “Seinfeld” episode still holds true. “You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants?” his character told George Costanza. “You’re telling the world, ‘I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so, I might as well be comfortable.”

But these aren't your everyday schlump wear. These sweatpants have been spruced up, produced in slick high-tech fabrics or luxurious trouser-worthy wools; slimmed down, to imply the legs underneath have actually seen actual sweat; and, of course, repriced in a way commensurate to all this design intelligence. And they’re not all exorbitant: J. Crew offers its “un-sweatpant” in a polished wool blend for $98.

What’s doubly surprising is that, unlike cool but problematic trends (see “jeggings”), this one delivers clothes that are mostly practical and actually comfortable—if not made for everyone. This is one feat of daring that’s safe to try at home, but dressing them up for anything beyond dog-walking is a bit trickier.

“Still, fashion professionals are quite bullish on the hybrid garment’s future. “It’s one of those rare great collisions of comfort and high style,” said Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Manhattan department store Bergdorf Goodman, who said that virtually every high-end brand in the store has made fancy sweatpants this season—Thom Browne, Lanvin, Bottega Veneta, Neil Barrett, Givenchy, Alexander Wang—and that steep prices haven't deterred customers from buying them freely. “They’re like a new alternative to the khaki or the jean,” said Mr. Pask. “Men don’t really have that many options when it comes to casual trousers.”

‘Most guys wouldn’t admit it, but they would love to sit around in sweatpants every day.’

Mr. Pask sees these trousers as part of a bigger merger of fashion and athletic gear. (He calls it “athleisure.”) “One of the best manifestations of that trend is these pants,” he added.

The trend has helped make at least one designer a star. John Elliott, a young Los Angeles-based talent, went to his first Las Vegas trade show, in February 2013, to sell his line, and almost left his samples of slim-cut sweatpants in luxurious gray French terry cloth at home, afraid buyers might think his line was slacker-wear. But he was glad he took them: The “Escobar” sweatpants (the name pays homage to the tragically murdered Colombian soccer player AndrĂ©s Escobar) were his biggest seller at the show. Earlier this year, Kanye West wore his Escobars to a basketball game, LeBron James wore them in GQ, and in August—with over 2,000 Escobar pants sold, according to Mr. Elliot—irreverently opinionated menswear website Four Pins declared him the best new fashion designer in the country.

SPORTING GOOD // The Best Sweats Upgrades
From left: Herringbone Sweatpant, $595, Band of Outsiders, 212-965-1313; Wool Sideline Pant, $98,; Mark McNairy New Amsterdam Higgins Pant, $398,; Super Skinny Leg Trouser, $535, Neil Barrett, +39-02-4951-8850 F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas (4)

“Most guys wouldn’t admit it, but they would love to sit around in sweatpants every day and wear them to work,” said Mr. Elliott. “But you can’t wear your Sunday sweatpants on a date. That’s one of the reasons I think guys find these attractive.”

These, however, are so deeply not your Sunday sweatpants; in fact, there is a serious push by designers to convince men that the perfect accompaniment to these luxe lounge pants is a sport jacket (thus delivering fashion’s favorite yin-yang balance of high and low). And to be fair, it isn’t the worst idea designers have come up with. What guy doesn’t want to be so cool that instead of changing into “nice” clothes to go to that cocktail party or date, he just throws on his favorite blazer over a fine-gauge polo knit and his sporty-chic Neil Barrett pants?

“They seem to make sense, and they are really comfortable, which is why guys keep going back to them,” said Jon Moy, a writer for Four Pins who has waxed eloquent on the trend. “But can you really wear them with anything? I think that if you’re not wearing them with sneakers or Timberland boots, it can look a little weird.”

That said, designers like Mark McNairy and Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier showed them on the runway with monk-strap shoes and polished leather lace-up boots to pretty persuasive effect. Perhaps the best way to navigate them is to do as Bergdorf Goodman’s Mr. Pask suggests, and style them as you would your other casual trousers, whether khakis, chinos or jeans.

A final note: Couch potatoes, be warned. Sweatpants may be your uniform, but that doesn’t mean this trim-line version will suit you uniformly. Today’s high-style sport pants—like the rules of fashion itself—only stretch so far.

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