Mix it up with back-to-school looks.
By Jackie White
Not so long ago, the arrival of
August triggered hordes of families rushing store to store to stock up on just
the right back-to-school stuff.
The uniform varied from year to year, but it was usually predictable. Trendy
sweater coats, colored denim washes, chunky high-heeled boots, graphic T-shirts
and status sneakers came and went.
But today so many ideas are floating through the teen market, it's impossible to
narrow the field to a specific look.
"People talk about preppy, urban or surf. It's not about any of those. It's
about all of those," says Marshall Cohen, a senior analyst with NPD, a sales
tracking company. "Kids have more diversity with their associations. They mix
and match everything."
Today's teens are more confident about making choices and less concerned with
following a leader. They want to assemble their old and new clothes in a way
that reflects their own style and sets them apart.
Like their parents, they have become savvy shoppers. They tend to check a
variety of discount and conventional retailers and vintage stores to get the
best bargains for their dollar. "And they know if they wait a week, it will
probably go on sale," Cohen says. "It's not such a priority. They're willing to
Technology is a big part of teens' wish lists, and it has eroded the clothing
budget. "Teens are spending money on (cell) ring tones and text messages," says
Jillian Hertzman, spokeswoman for Youth Intelligence, a New York-based market
research company. "They are spending more than they were five years ago because
there is so much more out there. And they wear their technology as status
symbols. They wear cell phones and iPods, which come in a million different
For the beginning of school, many hold off on making the big purchases until
after the year gets well under way. Many girls, for instance, are starting this
year layering T-shirts with their summer tank tops all in a dazzling mix of
"The days of it being the first of August and everyone rushing out to shop have
gone," says Gina Kelly, fashion director of Seventeen magazine. "Girls like to
kind of wait and see what's going to be popular. It's kind of prolonging the
life of their summer stuff, working in tank tops with other shirts or a shrunken
Experts tell us brand names have waned in importance. Big logos have given way
to an occasional small signature.
Other fashion news starts with a paradigm shift. High school students are
expected to look a bit more polished. It's a subtle change and not a
groundswell, but pants are coming up a tad on the waist, leaving less flesh
"It is a little bit of a Britney backlash," says Patricia McCune, trend and
fabric development manager for the Lee Co. "It's not so much about baring the
Lee and other companies are also offering dark denim that can be dressed up.
Guys may add a vintage blazer, a polo or button-down shirt in the mix. Some
trend-conscious girls may want to include a short close-fitting blazer in their
wardrobe. Guys are even appropriating skinny ties and brim hats from long-ago
eras. "Grandpa" hats, they are called, Hertzman says.
As trends go, the preppy look takes center stage for both genders. It's "huge,"
Hertzman says. But what makes it especially cool is mixing the prep with other
styles. A guy wears a preppy sweater vest over a rock T-shirt, or a rugby shirt
or button-down oxford with frayed, worn-looking denim. He also adds suspenders
and a blazer to baggy cargo pants. Ditto for argyles.
Girls are putting plaid miniskirts with flip-flops and T's. They pair argyles
with denim pleated minis and short tweed jackets with jeans. They're pulling on
girly-girl tops with ribbon trim, ruffles, lace, pearls and broaches but then
diluting the femininity with jeans that look as if they've been around forever.
"It's a little edgy," says Aimee Sands, a spokeswoman for Target stores. "It's
sweet but not too sweet."
Layering in general is on the to-do list. Guys put short-sleeved sweaters over
long-sleeves. Girls put vintage-looking embroidered sweaters over T-shirts and
get sassy with ponchos topping tank tops.
Ponchos, by the way, are available in all price ranges and are expected to be
popular. Tina Hodak, the St. Louis-based fashion and marketing director for the
Jones Stores in the Kansas City, Mo., area, calls them the single most important
THE JEANS THING
Selecting jeans is probably the most significant decision in the teenage
shopping process. McCune, at Lee, says teens want vintage jeans with
authenticity. "They like the history connection with history repeating itself,
the idea that everything old is new again," she says.
Lee is offering vintage washes with a little fraying and the signature patch Lee
first used in 1889. Some have colored top stitches or a belt with worn leather
and an old belt buckle.
Another idea on the horizon is the Western look, which comes and goes with
regularity. Lee and other companies are offering cowboy jeans for girls and
guys. Co-ed choices include tops with Western buttons or embroidery. Retailer
Aeropostale expects Western to be one of the top three favorite trends along
with preppy and denim. It predicts guys will want funky vintage print Western
And finally, dressier, darker denim is available to add polish for both genders.
"The options are limitless," McCune says.
Other favorite accessories for girls appear to be hobo and messenger bags. And
girls are heading out to school on warm days in flip-flops and moccasins. Some
are probably saving money for sheepskin or faux suede boots with fleece or the
Ugg, which is available in more jewel tones this winter.
Perhaps as an answer to last winter's Ugg boot craze, Wal-Mart expects to sell a
No Boundaries leather shoe with a built-in fleece sock and lining.
Meanwhile, boys are returning to boat shoes, or more specifically Top-Siders,
part of a preppy wave.
For all the reported teen confidence about mixing up things to please
themselves, they must still have a bit of sartorial anxiety about the first day
In a national poll conducted by Insight Express for Levi Strauss Signature
brand, 42 percent of interviewed teens between ages 13 and 17 said they
considered choosing the outfit for the first day of school a major stress factor
in their lives. They believed it was more stressful than homework or being
called on in class.
It's all about having the right jeans.