From Trash Can Straight To Seventh Avenue

You look disgusting. Your ripped and filthy jeans don't fit. Your T-shirt is the lowest form of rock-concert paraphernalia, and the flannel shirt you have wrapped around your waist is stained. And those boots! Would your mother let you out looking like this? She might, if she had just forked out $1,500 for your outfit.

The new look is called "grunge," and it's all the rage on Seventh Avenue. Such hip New York designers as Donna Karan, Christian Francis Roth, and Anna Sui have introduced their pricey versions of a style that springs from the laid-back tastes of suburban twentysomething slackers. The question now: Is this one of fashion's 15 minutes of fame? Because if grunge has staying power, big retailers--who generally are tepid on the trend--risk missing a major fashion shift.

What exactly is grunge, anyway? You will recognize it immediately if your son, daughter--even significant other--has been looking slovenly. It's the unwashed, I-don't-care-what-I-look-like style of bored teens: worn Levis, flannel shirts, T-shirts, and work boots.

MOVERS. A few high-price designers are trying to turn the look into big cash. Donna Karan New York, with sales of some $200 million last year, says grunge tank tops ($80), denim jackets ($95), and sloppy cut-offs are moving well.

Those prices are a major markup over what Christina Thompson, 24, a grad student at Columbia University, pays for her grunge. A typical outfit: two flannel shirts (one around the waist) at $2 each; torn Levis she scavenged for free; a $12 T-shirt, and a $10 pendant. Total: $26.

Low-cost alternatives are one reason mainstream clothiers are leery of grunge. Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and other tony outfitters are selling only selected grunge items. Discount retailers, meanwhile, are registering downright hostility to the fashion phenomenon. "Working women today are not going to go to work in grunge," says Corinne Salfeety, merchandise manager for Dress Barn Inc., a moderate-price discount clothing chain.

Given the style's popularity with the twentysomething set, though, grunge is gaining wider influence in a toned-down form. Midrange retailers The Gap and Banana Republic are filled with a diluted grunge look: jeans, T-shirts, and flannel shirts. Don't wash them for a few weeks, layer them properly--and voil a, grunge.

To old-time grungers, the idea of mainstream grunge is ludicrous. "I've always dressed like this," says Thompson. "It's because I'm a slob and like to be comfortable. It's hilarious to think that I'm suddenly in fashion." Jonathan Poneman, co-owner of Sub Pop Records in Seattle, where grunge is purported to have been born, contends that "grunge was never really anything to begin with, but it's even less now" that the Establishment is adopting it. Maybe. But many in the rag trade are going to have some quick shuffling to do if grunge turns out to be more than they were expecting.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.