Kooka"i fashions: kooky to a T

WHO'S that girl? The prissy little miss pictured in the ad wears a monumental fur-trimmed hat, a tailored cape, tapered pants, and high-heeled boots. The silhouette is fortyish, but the model is a 12-to 18-year-old junior high or high school student who has never modeled before. And there's something odd, too, about the cape she is wearing: Patches of black and white checked trimming are stitched across it like band-aids on a toddler's knee.

She is a Kooka"iette, one of the French teens plucked off the streets to embody the spirit of Kooka"i, the hottest new ready-to-wear for Parisiennes. Her outfit is a typical fun-loving Kooka"i outfit, impertinent and fashionable. Her mom probably owns one, too.

Until Kooka"i came along in 1983, it looked as though the Benetton knitwear company in Italy had the junior set market all wrapped up. With its hyper-successful knitwear coming in all the colors of the rainbow, and at affordable prices, Benetton grew into an international empire nearly unchecked by serious competitors.

But Kooka"i's founders, Jacques Natif, Jean-Louis Tepper, and Philippe de Hesdin, saw a clear field for their own knitwear that not even Benetton offered: cheap, mass-marketed, yet unusual clothes for hip teen-agers on the cutting edge of fashion.

With an investment capital of $16,600, the trio turned out their first series of cotton knit sweaters at a low-low $11.50 apiece. A fancy knitting stitch gave the Kooka"i creation a relief that set it apart from the run-of-the-mill sweaters for the same price.

Four years later, the company's turnover has increased eight times over and will gross $43 million this year. Seventy-six new stores opened in France since February, but the Kooka"i managers are still not satisfied. Their goal from the start has been to create an empire like the Italian Benetton company.

``We're just a speck of dust compared to them,'' says Mr. de Hesdin.

But the gap may narrow as Kooka"i develops its international network. Four stores just opened in Belgium and Switzerland, and two in Germany and Canada. And that's just a beginning. This year England, Spain, Portugal, Japan, and the United States will have Kooka"i, as well.

Competition is already keen. Both brands have sweaters at starting prices of just under $35, and Kooka"i's most expensive sweaters, like Benetton's, are now in the $100 range. ``Surprisingly enough, they are selling very well,'' says de Hesdin. But the company has no intention of straying too far upmarket.

Kooka"i clothes are cheap, cheeky, and kooky to a T. A typical outfit is a polka-dot sweater, a matching miniskirt, and a calecon (long johns) with a row of miniature buttons.

The separate items can be mixed and matched, and a single size (about an 8) fits all and keeps production costs down. Yet each Kooka"i model has something roguish - pockets in unexpected places, sideways zippers, over-size buttons, weird color combinations, or a daring hemline - to make it voguish.

The Kooka"i team doesn't pretend to be fashion innovators, just rather adroit imitators. Kooka"i's own designer, Catherine Marnata, formerly with Chanel, proposes two basic collections a year using simple designs and 10 colors.

Saleswomen in all Kooka"i stores wear the prototypes for a day and report customer reaction. The models that catch the public's eye will be pouring off the assembly line by the thousands and onto the store racks in less than one week. New models - as many as two a week - are created constantly, to keep abreast of evolving street fashion.

The company estimates that, in all, about 2.5 million Kooka"i sweaters will be sold this year - though a common complaint is that the knitwear isn't good quality and tends to lose its shape quickly. But Kooka"i tosses that off: The clothes, like the fashion, are meant to last only a season.

Another innovation is the publicity campaign launched by Kooka"i this year. The youthful models that figure in the black-and-white ads on television, billboards, and in magazines are not only amateurs, but many are not even pretty. Their self-assurance is disarming and downright arrogant.

``I will scratch the first person who doesn't look at me,'' says a bejeweled model wearing a bell miniskirt with a cinch belt, polka-dot stockings, and low-cut bodice, with her hair in a sophisticated twirl atop her head. ``Everyone here has eyes only for me,'' says another. French kids either love their verve and humor or are shocked.

``The clothes are super, but the ads are awful,'' says Axel Villechaise, a 16-year-old Parisian high-schooler.

The French agency that produced the ads made a point of using a plethora of accessories to give the clothes their sophisticated woman-of-the-world aura. The implication is that, with a little imagination and a Kooka"i, girls can come up with their own look.

The gimmick worked. Kooka"i claims its eye-catching campaign has produced a 60 percent increase in name recognition of their brand.

``At least it's something we didn't copy from anybody. It's all our own,'' says de Hesdin.

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