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"If you go to the mall, it's basically all you see," says Irene Hukkelhoven, a sophomore at Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights, N.J. "They have dedicated themselves entirely to this preppy style." Hukkelhoven, for one, seems relieved. "When that whole skin-is-in thing was happening, you could not walk down the hall [at school] without a girl bending over and her panties sticking out. Now it's looked at as slutty if your jeans are really low." So what's on the 16-year-old's fall shopping list? She's on the lookout for Polo shirts (which she'll wear with the collar up) and jeans in different washes (with special attention paid to the stitching). She has already found a faux-pearl necklace and matching bracelet.
Polos and pearls? They're quite a change from T shirts and thongs. But that's just the point. "When designers and manufacturers want to elevate fashion interest and counter the trends--like the low riders that have been going for three years--they need to go in the opposite direction," says the NPD Group's Cohen. "That's the only way the industry can catapult consumers into buying. So darks become lights, pastels become brights, short becomes long."
Urban labels like Rocawear, Sean John and Phat Farm, which made their names with warm-up suits and athletic jerseys, are introducing more dressed-up looks in an attempt to expand their customer base and achieve mega-brand status along the lines of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Jay-Z, who founded Rocawear with Damon Dash, even sang about the sartorial shift: "I don't wear jerseys, I'm 30-plus./Give me a crisp pair of jeans ... Button up." (Concertgoers quickly followed his lead, he says.) Dash, Rocawear's CEO, isn't a fan of the new trend. "This is the dress-shirt winter. I'll just stay warm and still while that winter blows by," he says. But he knows dressier styles are an important way to build the brand. Rocawear is billing fall as the season when "the hip-hop look graduates." Classic warm-up suits are still a key part of the collection, but now there are striped button-down shirts for men and corduroy blazers with collegiate-style crests for women. Says Dash of the move: "Ralph Lauren does it all the time. Why can't we?"
Industry observers also suggest that teens are turning to more traditional styles as an antidote to the uncertain times we're living in. "As a society, we're running scared and looking for security," says David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a fashion-trend-forecasting company. "For young people, that manifests itself in classic, preppy clothes. It means the end of the pop-tart influence in fashion. Britney Spears may have to ride off into the sunset."
Or she could pick up a few polo shirts and some pearls.