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Duds for dudes

hen it comes to fashion, the story is usually about what women want. That includes hours of shopping, uppity catalog and boutique brand names and a near-unlimited budget. But in fashion, men (especially college guys) don't play by women's rules. They want their stuff available, more affordable, durable and easygoing. You don't find many college guys who squeeze themselves into stretch pants, but you'll find even fewer who want to spend three hours shopping for them. But fear not: This spring's fashions offer options for boys who want to look beachy as well as upscale guys who like to dress like adults-and they're all readily available.

This spring's men's fashions walk a thin line between stylish and overdone. While clean cuts still abound, even the most conservative designers have injected a hefty dose of color into their gear. Spring also sports a print explosion, with every theme from surfer dude to cowboy representing. And even though it's been 30 years since the '70s, an overdose of Village People leftovers has invaded the counters and the streets. For adventurous types, this season's coats (and pants, and shoes...) of many colors can be a great opportunity for exploration. But what about guys who like going back to basics?

Turns out there are some modified options-old styles with new spins. A summer staple, graphic tees are back, but this time their print is intentionally grainy. (Apparently, the just-washed-ashore look is big this season.) Abercrombie's faux-weathered appliqué shirts ($24.50) shoot for authenticity, but the screen-patterned tops look more tired than tattered. Gap's crew-cut two-tone ringer tees ($16.50), best in navy, are a simpler, cheaper and solid option.

For bottoms, summer's perpetual bedfellow-the board short-is back big-time. Now available in screaming shades of color, spring's biggest fling is Hawaiian prints, a recurring theme at popular chain outfitters. Check out J. Crew's flyweight swim trunk in Brit khaki ($38) or Abercrombie's equally outrageous Higgs Beach surf shorts ($39.50), available in orange, yellow, green or blue. For the beach-bound, J.Crew and American Eagle score, offering a number of appealing swim trunks. AE's best is the wakeboard short ($30), cut to land low on the thigh but comfortably above the knee. Also a winner is J. Crew's shorter side-stripe swim trunk ($38), a head-turner in flame. Since board shorts can make it in and out of water (and even to class if you put them with a good neutral-color top), they might be a staple worth the investment.

For those endowed with a clean supply of underwear, you might want to check out some jeans-the once-again popular pants that weren't too popular until recently-when Diesel picked up some fuel. Their jeans (a steep $95) have a good fit, clean lines and come in heaps of different cuts. One awesome addition almost makes them worth the price-they don't shrink in the wash.

Other bottoms popular for spring include straight-leg pants in all colors and super-prep slacks with swooshy nylon fabric and a slight flare. Many stores suggest pairing these items with the here-today, gone-tomorrow fabric belt, a gender-crossed accessory popping up at Gap, Abercrombie and American Eagle. Gap's "ribbon" belt ($9.50) is cheap but flimsy, while AE's D-ring web belt ($12.50) is a lucky charm in rainbow bright. The durable option? A&F's solid-tone alternative ($19.50), classic in navy and a standout in orange. Also spotted-seat-belt bucklers left over from the early '90s, and even a few daring attempts at plain old rope.

But if you're looking for pants that can stand on their own, we cast our vote for Banana Republic's slate-gray flat-front Dawson pants, which can be dressed up, toned down and paired with just about any shirt out there. We also like Banana Republic's flat-front "hacking" shorts ($38), clean-cut and comfortable for warmer weather. If you want a plain-cut, vibrant-colored shirt to pair with the new pants, check out Gap's pique polo ($26), which comes in no less than 20 different hues. Also amusing are French Connection UK's logo tees, featuring the slightly obnoxious, always ambiguous "FCUK" across the front. Anyone who enjoys looking like a precocious 16-year old or clubbing Eurotrash college kid should feel free to indulge-and so should you if you think you can pull it off.

One of spring's biggest overdue accomplishments? The death of all things cargo. The new rule: if you really need that many pockets, go to North Face and buy a knapsack. If you want to look like you're in the army, join it. Otherwise, get rid of the many-pocket pants! But if you must buy a "utility" item (and you're not a carpenter), check out the toned-down shorts with fewer mindless fabric additions (e.g. hammer loops). Also, be sure to thank the fashion police for losing last year's dangerous, mid-calf chinos, which have slunk quietly onto sale racks. Shants go home!

For nights out, dressier looks get more of the synthetic treatment, as Lycra- and polyster-blend v-necks abound. Armani Exchange's coverstitch v-neck ($38) is sleek and sleeveless in black, and French Connection's basic short-sleeve button-down ($49) is a slim-fitting nightlife asset. Also spotted on the town: no less than four pairs of bright orange Saucony sneakers (about $70) in one night! As always, night-wear is what you make it. Whether you snatch a tight-fitting tee from Wet Seal or some vintage poly pants from Thrift World, if you can have fun in the clothes, then the clothes will look great on you.

So what are must-haves for spring? As long as the pants hit your ankles, it doesn't look like there's a wrong choice. Jeans are fine, shorts are good, color is in and clean cuts make the best impression. Men's styles are still conservative, but the gender divide is narrowing (guys in flare pants and ribbon belts might want to check out the women's section for their soul-mates). But if you're not into colorful retro wear and sleek-yet-casual designer items, legitimate options are plentiful. As the thermometer rises, staying cool and comfortable is obviously the priority, as well as feeling good in your own skin. And if you're not interested in a single spring trend, don't stress-as long as guys pretend not to care about their clothes, you can always hang out in khakis and a tee shirt.


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