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?

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.

"I like the idea of reinventing an item you have in your house and office and at the grocery store and making it new," says Ave Green, an entrepreneur in Minnesota. She has stretched the market for rubber bands by making them in bright colors with sayings on them like "Snap out of it" and "I was voted off the island."

"I showed them to friends and they said that's a great idea," Ms. Green says. They started to sell in local specialty stores, and are now distributed to boutiques around the country. Celebrities like Giorgio Armani and Regis Philbin have taken notice - and placed orders. Now Target stores are selling them. After 18 months, Green's company has put 7 million Wordstretch bands into circulation.

Wordstretch is an example of an entrepreneur's dream: Spot a fad early and capitalize on it.

"All designers and manufacturers are interested in 'cool hunting,' " says Valerie Steele, chief curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Younger staff are out aggressively looking on the streets, and videotaping cool-looking kids skateboarding in the park."

The kids they observe are likely to live in a college town, or in New York; Los Angeles; Seattle; Austin, Texas; or the like. Only a small number of teens are actually trendsetters, according to Shannon McClowry, research coordinator at Teen Research Unlimited in Chicago. "Only about 5 percent are really on the edge, and another 10 percent think they are," Ms. McClowry says.

TRU gets the inside story on usually uncommunicative teens by sending a 40-page survey to 2,000 randomly selected youths every year.

Lambesis keeps in touch by recruiting hip youth to act as "urban pioneers," a kind of local-trend correspondent. Element does it via Internet surveys. About 250,000 young people have registered at the company's Web site to fill out surveys in exchange for free stuff.

All of this information-gathering is supposed to let designers and fashion companies tap into how young people want to look and what they will buy.

Sometimes it works. There was a time when jeans faded on their own or were bleached out at home, when they were patched or frayed by hand, and when they had to be bought five sizes too big for the waist to droop down. Now those styles are off the rack at the local Gap.

Move over, beaded bracelets

Beaded bracelets went mainstream over the past year. "It used to be that kids were going into craft stores and making them themselves; now you can walk into The Limited or Contempo or The Gap, and you've got a rack with 110 kinds," McClowry says.

"Kids on the street wear it, the guy with a boutique shop starts to make it, it becomes cool but it's still underground," Austin says of a nascent fad. "Then a manufacturer steps in and waters it down and mass-markets it, and you don't have to be cool or in the subculture to know where to get it."

That process is moving faster than ever due to the Internet and an ever more aggressive fashion press.

"Trends are moving more quickly through the market now because teens are so connected to one another," McClowry says.

Fads are fast to travel not only through schools and around the country but also abroad. In Japan, for example. newsstands carry "as seen on the street" weeklies. "So a week after something appears on the street in the Bronx, it's in this magazine in Tokyo," Steele says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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