August 16, 2004 Student Chic Is Remaking Itself, Trading Grunge for Cable Knit By TRACIE ROZHON ast year, Benjamin Spoer, a college sophomore in Berkeley, Calif., was just another grungy teenager, with his long hair, dirty jeans and favorite black T-shirt with a gory red bird on the front. Now he is transformed. He has cut his hair, and in a couple of weeks, he plans to go shopping for some blue button-down shirts. He threw the bird T-shirt away. "The guys at school used to come to class in T-shirts with four-letter words on them,'' he said. "Now they wear clothes from Gap and American Eagle. Since grunge is starting to fade away, they're going with what's out there.'' Maybe young people are getting more sophisticated, or maybe they are just getting bored. But from kindergarten to college, America's students are cleaning up their acts. And while they do not generally want their fall fashions to be labeled "preppy" - they insist they are putting their own twist on the look - they say styles are definitely getting simpler. Goth is also out. The numbers have plummeted at Hot Topic, a clothing chain that was the darling of the spooky, blood-and-darkness Goth crowd. American Eagle Outfitters, meanwhile, whose figures fell as Hot Topic's rose, is suddenly soaring, with its stripped-down, cleaned-up khakis flying out the door; July sales were 22 percent higher than they were last year. And Polo Ralph Lauren, whose expensive children's clothes are the epitome of prep, just reported that profits more than doubled from a year ago. Sewell Robinson, 15, from Stonington, Conn., said that many, if not most, of her classmates have kissed grunge goodbye. "That punk look is going away, all those bracelets up the arm. Black and pink is out, and those shirts that say, 'Funky Monkey,' " she said. "Now it's clean-cut, like looking 'nice' for the day." Merchants call the new style "classic" or "retro" - just not "contemporary," which now translates as too baggy or too tight, too low-slung and too low-cut. Students are "taking themselves a little more seriously; they're thinking a little more of the image they're projecting," said John D. Morris, a retail analyst who holds focus groups with teenagers in malls around the country. "It's a backlash to what was sexy, what was distressed or dirty or grungy. Now they say that look is too affected." In case that sounds too Pollyanna-ish to believe, another analyst is hearing the same thing from students, but with a subtext that suggests their motives are more refined - and more manipulative. "This year's kids seem much more sophisticated, savvy,'' said Marshal Cohen, chief researcher with the NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y., "and they are telling their parents they'll buy this preppy stuff because it will last three or four years - and then arguing that with the extra money the parents will save, they can buy them high-speed Internet for $40 a month. Or maybe a digital camera." Mr. Morris agrees that there is more wheeling and dealing going on. "It's all about responsibility this season,'' he said. "They'll argue that a cellphone is justified for security reasons. And they will say they need to have access to the Internet; that it is required for schoolwork." With that kind of maturity, who wants cleavage? Michael Wood, the vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill., said the young people he surveys say they are simply sick of what is in their closets. "They're notoriously fickle," Mr. Wood said, "and they've moved on to something new. The last several years, necklines and waists were going lower and lower and showing more and more skin, and they realized you can't go any lower or show any more. The pendulum swung." Although the preppy look may seem old hat to many parents, Mr. Wood, who said he surveyed teenagers daily, said that it is fresh to young people, who may think they "discovered" the style in thrift shops. Like other pollsters and merchants, Mr. Wood said that few teenagers would do preppy head-to-toe. "They'll wear the polo shirts with the collars turned up, with the surf or skate, or both, in a smorgasbord of styles." Indeed, turned-up collars seem to be in vogue again - even turned-up jacket collars. On Thursday, Nathan Watters, 19, from St. Louis, stood on a SoHo street corner and modeled his latest purchase: a charcoal gray corduroy blazer he had just bought at French Connection for $168. "I just pop the collar - like this,'' he said, posing for a photographer. Jeans are still big, he added, as his three friends nodded. "Cut is still O.K., but neat,'' he said. His friend Jessica Mantel, also 19, added, "You're paying a fortune for clothing, so it might as well look good, instead of torn.'' At Old Navy, students - from grammar school on up - are layering striped and solid T-shirts and taking last year's camisoles and covering them with $39.50 corduroy blazers. Did the store even sell blazers last year? "Not at all," said Sheryl Clark, senior vice president for merchandising. "For last year's back-to-school, it was, How many pockets can you get on a cargo pant? This year, it's, How few can you put on?" Blazers are also big at J. Crew, which offers a "schoolboy" navy blazer for girls. And it may seem hard to believe, but this summer, merchants have started selling oxford-cloth shirtwaist dresses and Peter Pan-collared blouses. Can circle pins and penny loafers be far behind? At J. Crew, the chief executive, Millard Drexler, spoke about revamping what had become a stale brand. While some other merchants play down their preppiness, J. Crew revels in it. "We're over the top," Mr. Drexler said, laughing. This summer, J. Crew started selling patch-madras jackets. Now it has introduced "critter" pants embroidered with dogs and geese. And rubber "Wellies" printed with bumblebees, Scotties and hunting dogs. And an argyle sweater the color of a new-mown lawn. As a consequence of its extreme preppiness, J. Crew said, its sales jumped 25 percent in July, including catalog and Internet sales. Eleanor Killian, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Washington, D.C., cannot get enough of the embroidered animals. She also buys cable-knit sweaters in multiple colors, labeling them "classy and appropriate.'' While rejecting the word "preppy," Christopher Heyn, president of Nautica Sportswear and Nautica Jeans, defined the company's clean-cut image. "One of our fall collections is called Cambridge," he said. "The other is called Academy. See where we're going with this?" This fall, he said, khaki orders were up 50 percent over last fall. At J. C. Penney, too, the prep look is driving sales. "Plaid is exploding," said David Hacker, trend director for women's and girls' clothing, explaining that the fashion contributed to Penney's standout showing last month. Crocheted ponchos and short skirts are a big part of the retro back-to-school business at Lord & Taylor, said the chief executive, Jane Elfers, "particularly three-tier knitted skirts, sometimes with shorts underneath - they're called scooters.'' And even children are begging for so-called premium jeans, those costing $50 or more, she said. Young people are telling researchers that they are, specifically, off tacky celebrities. "Kids are really asking themselves who do we want our role models to be," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C. In his surveys, he found that more children were shopping with their parents than in the last three years. To Sewell Robinson, the teenager from Stonington, Conn., some of the move toward the cleaner-cut may not be a matter of choice. "A lot of schools are getting stricter dress codes," she said. "At school, the boys have to wear shirts with collars and nice clean pants." Even in schools without dress codes, she said, students are influenced by the trend. Not surprisingly, that makes parents happy. Danelle Morton, Ben Spoer's mother, said she was delighted when he finally let her buy him a blue blazer, khaki pants and a white shirt to replace the Goth T-shirt he had worn "three to five times a week,'' she said. A few years ago, she said, "he wouldn't have gone anywhere near that stuff." According to Mr. Cohen of NPD, parents will spend about $485 this year for their children's back-to-school needs -virtually the same as last year - but the children are demanding more than just clothes. Spending on gadgets will increase; this year, 45 percent of parents and their children said they would buy electronics for back-to-school, up from 38 percent a year ago. "This year, their spending will be more diversified, on things like cellphones and Internet connections," Mr. Cohen said. "That's why stores like Hot Topic, Abercrombie & Fitch and Wet Seal have had such disastrous months. Kids are not so motivated by fashion anymore." But not all parents are willing to spring for a cellphone. "I tried to get one,'' said Clair Bartholomew, 13, of Nashville, just leaving the American Eagle store in New York City. "My parents said I'm not getting one till I'm 16."