It's a fine August day, and 16-year-old Collier Cole from Lake Forest, Ill., is reveling in the many wonders of nearby Hawthorn Center mall. Shoes? Collier already owns seven pairs of Converse high-tops in as many different colors--but one more pair couldn't hurt. How about some tie-dye? And a couple of flannel shirts. And jeans. "I don't have a significant style," she says. "I'm not a preppie. I wear what I like."
Auugh! Retailers find Collier as, like, exasperating as her mother does. It's the start of the back-to-school season--the two months in which the nation's 28.5 million teenagers, with their parents, will spend close to $9 billion, about one-half their total annual clothing tab. After two anemic years in a row, the fashion industry is hoping for a break.
But it won't be a sure thing. "The teen market is very difficult," complains Kal Ruttenstein, fashion director for Bloomingdales Inc. "When there's a novelty aspect to clothes, they like it, but they get tired of it quickly. When you hit it right, that's great, but peer pressure is much stronger than any fashion message a store can sell." Between whims and mood shifts, it's a difficult game to call. "It's a hormone-driven business," says retail consultant Alan Millstein.
After a two-year stand at the top of the teen-clothes heap, for example, the amalgamation of ripped jeans and tattered flannel known as grunge is out. Very out--though its spirit lives on, some teens say, in a restyled sort of preppie look that's "bigger, or more beat-up, or looser, or something," according to Jean Brownell, a San Francisco 16-year-old.
MINI-TARTANS. What's in? "For skirts, the new thing is plaid," says Erin Murnane, 12, of Johnson City, Tenn. Mini-tartans found their way into department stores after two seasons on fashion runways. Cut well above the knee, they're often matched with black stockings stretched to the thigh and with updated round-toe versions of Mary Jane shoes--or clunky boots. Suspenders are optional; the safety pin, designers' one concession to modesty, isn't.
For the doubly hip teen, how about an accessory in silver? Silver-colored biker boots and miniature backpacks are sparkling on the shelves and at the cash register this year, according to Sears, Roebuck & Co. trend manager Kathie Betts. "Our junior customer has a sense of humor about what she's wearing," she says of teens' often-offbeat combinations.
The less adventurous retreat to the comfortable world of blue denim and T-shirts. This is the stuff for kids such as Joe Spitz, a high school senior in Philadelphia and self-described "regular person." His style: jeans, with baseball caps and Nike shoes. In fact, J.C. Penney Co.'s top seller this season is classic five-pocket jeans--good news for Levi Strauss & Co., which counts on back-to-school as its biggest season.
Sneakers remain a hot category, accounting for $3 billion in teen sales in 1992. Teenage Research Unlimited, a marketing consulting firm in Northbrook, Ill., found Nike the brand most often mentioned by teens as "coolest." But blue-suede Pumas and Converse high-tops are back in, too.
SENSIBLE SHOPPERS. Can designers and retailers sort all this out? The season has started "a little on the disappointing side," says retailing consultant Kurt Barnard. Teenagers, he says, are earning less at part-time jobs than they used to, so discretionary spending is weak. Their surprisingly rational drive for value has pressured pricing. "Department stores have moderated price points in apparel and taken the specialty stores head-on," says Irwin Cohen, a Deloitte & Touche partner.
As a result, says Barnard, stores such as Penney's and Sears should have relatively solid teen sales this autumn. The Limited Too, which caters to girls up to age 16, says sales have been very good at its 200 mall-based shops. In fact, says consultant Millstein, "this could be the best fall in five years." Unless teenagers change their minds.
HOW TO TALK FASHION WITH A TEENAGER
A brief guide to current trends
MINI Grunge meets New England preppie. Short plaid skirts,
REDUX often with suspenders, tall socks, and work boots.
FOREST Unisex anoraks, reflective clothing, overalls. Inspired
CHIC by environmentalism--and by Stallone's Cliffhanger.
SPACE Silver knapsacks, boots, and jewelry. Moon-landing
SHOTS nostalgia, or just an adolescent twist on haute couture.
SAFE Can't decide? Stick to the middle ground: Jeans, T-shirts,
DARDS baseball caps--the last worn backwards and askew.