Teen-fashion mysteries and the origins of fads
It's one of the great mysteries: Where do those crazy youth fads come from? How did wearing a rubber band as a bracelet get cool recently? And who was the first teen to walk off an airplane with a chunky buckled belt that doesn't just look like an airplane seat belt but is one?Skip to next paragraph
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Not so puzzling is how some home-grown fashions make their way into stores. Designers and "cool hunters" who work for market-research companies are constantly out on the street scouting trends.
When neat things trickle up to the racks of mainstream stores like The Limited, the insiders move on, under the watchful eye of companies like Lambesis in Del Mar, Calif.
Lambesis is one of the many companies that puts an army of analysts and every market-research technique to work ferreting out the next new thing.
Spotted recently in New York: camping gear as urban fashion. Those on the cutting edge are starting to convert the pouches used to hold canteens into purses, according to Maria Vrachnos, manager of the Global L Report, Lambesis's report on trends. Likewise with tent bags, thermal food pouches, and treated bags made to keep Kleenex and matches dry - Kate Spade, look out.
Element, a company in New York that sniffs out the tastes and desires of Generation Y, reports that jeans covered with patches could be making their way from the streets to the stores, and that the coolest kids may soon be wearing pajamas everywhere.
There's nothing new about kids dreaming up wacky outfits. In the 1800s, young fashion plates were mixing parts of a sailor's uniform with something a cowboy would wear, explains Joe Austin, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio.
There are common denominators in many of these trends. "Whatever's cheap and whatever will shock people," says Mr. Austin, who specializes in youth culture. "Shoplifting has always been a prime way to acquire these things," he adds. That could explain the allure of the airplane seat belt.
"It's different and it's new, and it doesn't look like what everyone else is doing," says Marie Essex, director of the fashion-critics program at the Parsons School of Design in New York.
Braathens, a Norwegian airline, started losing seat belts from its fleet about a year ago. Young people popped them out and wore them over baggy pants. Similar styles are said to be available in stores, but some teens feel there's no thrill like the real McCoy.
Stealing seat belts is against airline regulations, and can get perpetrators slapped with a fine, not to mention causing flight delays when seats are missing belts. Braathens has since reconfigured its belts with a splint, to make them harder to steal.
Austin has seen this sort of "theft" trend before.
At one time in his hometown in Arkansas, it was all the rage among some high school students to steal the gas caps off heavy machinery and make them into belt buckles. "You get the coolness of the belt buckle, and the extra 'coolness' of having stolen it," Austin says.
The antifashion statement
The root of many trends is taking something not meant to be a fashion accessory and using it as one. In the 1960s, it was cool among hippies to bend ornate silverware handles into rings, Austin says. Not so long ago, the fad was wearing safety pins and pacifiers. Today it's the rubber-band bracelet. "It's the antifashion statement," says Ms. Vrachnos of the L Report.