Dressed To Drill

School uniforms are hot--and merchants are cashing in

Flared jeans, plaid miniskirts, and chenille, short-sleeved, V-necked sweaters are among the hottest back-to-school fashions for 1997. But whatever style mavens say is cool for school this year doesn't apply to students such as Zalencia Dorrough, a sixth-grader at the Daniel Chappie James Elementary School in Dallas. She'll be wearing a uniform--and she couldn't be happier. "It makes getting dressed in the morning a lot easier," says the 11-year-old, who on a recent school day donned navy shorts, a white blouse, and white and purple Nike tennis shoes. "It also looks a lot more sophisticated and a lot cooler than normal clothes."

Indeed, for a growing number of students nationwide, uniforms are the "in" academic fashion, though not by choice. Long the province of private and parochial schools, uniforms are being adopted in public schools across the U.S. Officials say they blur class distinctions, help curb gang activity, and save students the competitive angst of trying to keep up with trendy peers. California's Long Beach Unified School District was the first public district to mandate uniforms in 1994. But uniforms in public schools have become increasingly common since President Clinton endorsed the idea in his 1996 State of the Union address. Today, school districts in some 20 states have uniform requirements.

Uniforms are becoming a big business for retailers. Department stores, discounters, and even catalogers are stocking navy pleated skirts, white polos, and khaki pants. "Uniforms have become an important development in back-to-school sales," says retail consultant Walter F. Loeb. For many retailers, uniform sales are a good way to offset some of the revenue they're losing as kids in non-uniform schools opt for more casual clothes.

J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy's, Target Stores, Wal-Mart Stores, and Kids `R' Us are among the retailers now hawking uniforms. This year, Lands' End Inc. joined in, launching a school uniform catalog featuring tailored oxford shirts, khaki chinos, and navy blazers. Michael Grasee, the Dodgeville (Wis.)-based retailer's director of school uniforms, says Lands' End jumped in after its research showed 8% of all public schools had uniforms and 15% more may follow suit. "When almost one in four students could be wearing uniforms, that's big business," he says.

GRASSROOTS TREND. Because the public-school uniform movement is spreading at a grassroots level, retailing experts are hard-pressed to pinpoint the size of the market. But with the trend spreading so quickly--in Chicago public schools, for example, 30% more students will wear uniforms this year than last--the potential appears huge. Isaac Lagnado, principal at Tactical Retail Solutions Inc., an industry research firm, estimates the market could reach "several billion dollars" if it takes hold nationally. The grand total for back-to-school sales this fall is expected to hit $18.9 billion.

Retailers say uniform sales are already helping at the cash register. Macy's West, a division of Federated Department Stores Inc., says its uniform business has tripled since it began three years ago. Sears, Roebuck & Co., which launched its program in 1995, is expecting a 50% hike in school uniform sales this year. J.C. Penney Co., which hawks its school uniforms in some 500 stores and a "Class Favorites" catalog, expects its uniform sales to see double-digit gains in 1997. "It's really been a nice complement to our back-to-school fashion business," says Carol Brady, a Penney merchandise manager.

Not all kids are happy with their new duds. "We used to be able to wear designer brands," says 10-year-old Jessica Rios. But there she was at a Dallas-area Kids `R' Us store with her mother, shopping for a blue skirt and a blouse with a Peter Pan collar--her school's new uniform. "Now we have to wear the same old stuff that everybody else is wearing." But Jessica has a plan. She'll spruce up her uniform with tights and a pair of black, chunky-heeled shoes. Even in uniforms, some kids will be slaves to fashion.

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