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TGIF (Thank goodness it's fashionable)

Now that corporate America has learned that Casual Fridays don't hurt productivity, the nation's menswear mavens have seized on the trend to stir up their once-stagnant business.

For the first time in years, menswear sales are on the upswing, thanks to the willingness of most employers to let office workers shuck their business suits on the last day of the work week.

At Burdines, they've beefed up selections of wrinkle-free cotton pants and added shirts to the dress shirt collection that look fine with or without a tie. Levi Strauss & Co. has taken on its first-ever business-to-business marketing campaign to convince stodgy corporations that casual clothes are fine for business situations. And a Clearwater sportswear company has parlayed the trend into a $2-million-a-year business.

The menswear industry has even coined a new buzzword for the phenomenon: Fridaywear.

"Initially, Casual Fridays meant employees showed up in grungy clothes," said Jack Herschlag, executive director of the Men's Sportswear Buyers Association in New York. "Now it's become dressier, more like the way men would dress to go to a singles bar Friday night. It's becoming the all-purpose wardrobe for the weekend. And eventually we think it's going to end up being what men wear to the office Monday through Friday."

Women have been switching to the casual look at work, too. But women's apparel sales are still in a funk because women have been stocking their closets with casual career clothes all along.

For many men, dressy casual clothes are a whole new concept.

"Once the boss decreed you couldn't wear your sweats to work on Casual Fridays, men had to go out and buy something else," said Carl Steidtman, research director for Management Horizons, the Price Waterhouse retailing unit based in Columbus, Ohio.

"Most men who work in offices have a few tailored suits, but the rest of their closets are full of grubbies _ the stuff suitable for coaching a Little League team, working in the yard or for assembling a pseudo-casual outfit suitable for a semicasual dinner," said Cynthia Cohen Turk, president of Marketplace 2000, a retail consulting firm in Coral Gables. "Casual Friday has created a need for the entire male population."

The men's apparel industry needed a wake-up call. Since 1985 _ the peak of Wall Street wheeler-dealers' infatuation with Armani suits _ formal men's fashion has been slipping.

Suit sales have slumped 13 percent, sports coat sales 48 percent, dress slacks sales 15 percent and dress shirt sales 16 percent, according to MRCA Information Services. The growth of casual clothing has accounted for almost all of the growth in the menswear industry.

What sort of clothes are we talking about here?

Actually, nothing much different from the informal clothes seen by the creative advertising types on thirtysomething a few years ago. (Hey, this is men's fashion, an industry where change is measured in decades.) Since then, the fashion industry has been able to gain grudging acceptance of the look by dressing up an endless parade of TV sitcom characters in the same duds:

Updated shirts in denim, solids, plaids or stripes. Polo-style shirts. Soft shoulder sport coats in natural fabrics and shades. And in colder climates, office workers this fall are buying cardigan sweaters and plaid flannel shirts. Unlike the days when grunge was a youthful fashion statement, the flannel is bright and new, not faded and torn.

Even independent retailers who have lived and died with fine tailored suits are folding more pricey sportswear into their mix.

"For the first time we're going to be bringing in more updated sportswear for spring," said Augie Greiner, owner of Greiner's Clothing in downtown Tampa. "It's sportswear that's dressier, mostly linen and cotton shirts and slacks in the $55 to $100 price range."

Indeed, Casual Fridays have become the norm, according to industry-sponsored research.

Today 67 percent of employers allow casual wear occasionally or more often, according to a survey of 750 major employers by Campbell Research Inc. Eighty-one percent said loosening office dress restrictions improved morale, and 47 percent said it improved productivity.

In a survey Kurt Salmon Associates, a New York-based retail consulting firm, found that 22 percent of men expect to spend more on jeans and casual wear in the coming year, a figure that rose to 52 percent among executives and managers.

Levi Strauss & Co. was the last of the big pantmakers to venture into the wrinkle-free business. But the San Francisco-based inventor of blue jeans and Dockers does not want to miss the boat on casual office wear.

Last month, it mass mailed newsletters to chief executives and human resource department managers, offering advice on how to rewrite the rules to be sure employees are dressed up enough for the office. CEOs also got fashion tips on how to fit in themselves.

The company got 8,000 responses on a toll-free line, including 81 Fortune 500 companies, that wanted the company's kit for writing casual business wear guidelines.

Last week the company began its first big TV campaign for wrinkle-free, all-cotton Dockers. In its commercials, the pants and casual Levi's shirts are all seen in corporate boardrooms or business travel situations.

"The perception of jeans has changed," said Dan Chew, Levi's corporate marketing manager. "Baby boomers grew up wearing them in all sorts of new environments. Now those people are middle- and senior-level managers."

Many banks have adopted Casual Fridays, but still require some form of uniform look among employees who meet the public.

That has proved to be an opportunity for William Short, a Clearwater apparel dealer who came up with a "Corporate Pride" catalog of looser-fitting clothes sporting company logos.

Short gets his catalog exposed in company break rooms, where employees can choose from a wide selection of casual wear priced 20 to 40 percent below retail. Polo-style shirts, for instance, come in six colors with the employer's name or logo done in embroidery. Typically employees can wear any of the clothes in the catalog on Casual Fridays.

Short started the catalog to capitalize on company picnics and sales meetings. But Casual Fridays propelled what were small annual sales to more than $2-million in 1994.

"Five years ago the catalog would have been all dress shirts, ties and blazers; now it's almost all sportswear," Short said. "As far as sales growth is concerned, it's been huge."