NEW YORK — The do-it-yourself and noncommercial nature of alternative sports is catching on in the activewear market.

Instead of buying and wearing T-shirts, sweatshirts and other basics as is, teenagers are customizing their clothes by spray painting stencils, drawing graffiti and slicing them up with scissors to reconfigure the silhouette. The finished product often ends up looking nothing like the item they picked up at the local athletic specialty store.

Determined not to dress in the logo-heavy attire favored by their parents, Gen-Yers and, to a lesser degree, Gen-Xers, are more inclined to leave their own personal stamp on their clothing.

“In general, we’re seeing a lot of emphasis on pure style. Kids who are not rocking just the small touches — but going all the way and taking it over the top,” said Brad Steward, founder of Bonfire. “Maybe humor is the biggest new thing happening. Maybe it was the war or maybe the [negative] headlines, but the escapism side of fashion seems to be hitting deeper this year.”

Retailers aren’t take any chances, forcing kids “to re-create the whole thing,” Steward added.

Grenade, Warriors, Howe and Stay Free — hard-to-find labels that rely on word-of-mouth advertising and bold graphics — earned Steward’s praise.

Salomon encourages free-form customization by supplying Salomon-sponsored athletes and taste makers with stencils, spray paint and heat transfers of graphic elements and logos to apply them where and when they want, said Kim Speed, apparel category manager.

“It’s been great because it allows them to express their individuality while providing more exposure for our products and brand,” she said. “Another way we’ve seen our products customized is through the way the kids are combining the pieces and colors, with boldly colored, monochromatic outfits and basketball-type ‘hook ups.’”

Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association of the U.S., said, “This is part of a larger trend to take almost an artisan approach to what we wear. We all want to do something now to affirm our individuality. It has to do with the fact there’s a Starbuck’s on every corner and a Gap store on every other.”Consumer interest in vintage clothing, graphics and designer boutiques in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and Lower East Side are furthering the individualistic movement, she said. In addition, much fashion direction is stemming from the Sixties, a period of “rampant individualism” and bold graphics, Walch said.

Athletic companies are getting into customized clothing for practical purposes. They understand people are more inclined to do mild alterations to T-shirts.

“There’s less of a freewheeling attitude with more expensive clothes,” Walch said.

The continued melding of art and fashion is helping to fuel customization. Walch pointed to Summer Sunset 2003, a 10-day exhibition, sale and fashion show held here last month by the Young Designers Showcase. Customized T-shirts were the more interesting pieces in the show, Walch said.

Bradley Gishen, YDS founder, said, “A T-shirt is something that costs under $5 and can be converted into a $60 item. It’s similar to art, where you can buy a canvas for $10 and sell it for $1,000.”

T-shirts were the focus of another exhibition this summer at the Daniel Silverstein Gallery in Chelsea. Billed as “150 Artists Make 150 T-shirts,” the show featured various designers, including nonapparel ones, and all items could be purchased.

Even Nike has tried to give its brand an artsy bent. In April, Nike unveiled a makeshift art show in NoLIta featuring Nike merchandise reconfigured by Project Alabama, Yves Béhar, Nicolas Ghesquière, Martin Margiela and other designers. Each was sent a box of old Nike apparel and other items and was asked to rework them.

This weekend, the company aims to help define “The Commodification of Street Art” through its sponsorship of Creativity Now, a Tokion magazine-sponsored seminar to be held this weekend here. The Japanese lifestyle magazine will host the event Saturday and Sunday at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall. Nike’s advertising agency, Wieden & Kennedy, will be on the street art panel discussion, along with street artist Shepard Fairey and a few others.

An avid skateboarder and Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Fairey created “Obey the Giant” stickers, a cartoonish character that caught on quickly with skateboarders and punk rockers. By the mid-Nineties, about 500,000 of his stickers were distributed and exemplified DIY — slang for do-it-yourself — art.The skateboarding and punk-rock social scenes of teens and twentysomethings were at the core of those “in the know” about Fairey and his “Obey the Giant” sticker campaign. Fairey has likened his movement to Heidegger’s theory of “Phenomenology,” the philosophy that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived in human consciousness. Fairey’s sticker experiment wound up exposing the “conspicuously consumptive” nature of our culture and people’s eagerness to buy, which results from image repetition, Fairey said.

Now, licensing deals for Obey merchandise are taking Fairey’s satire to the masses.

“The ultimate success of [the Obey art campaign] is commercial embrace because this demonstrates that the unaware consumer, as opposed to the hipster who is in on the joke, has been subversively indoctrinated,” Fairey said in his manifesto. “I’m trying to achieve as large scale a coup as possible with an absurd icon that should never have made it this far.”

Free-form customization is also widespread in the surfer world.

Jane Rinzler Buckingham, founder of Youth Intelligence, which was purchased in January by CAA, said the prevalence of the individualistic surfer look reflects a generational shift away from grungy, pessimistic Gen-X to hopeful, aspirational Gen-Y.

“It’s almost a move from the everyone-hates-us skater look to the hey-life-is-cool surfer look,” she said. “The surfer trend is definitely growing.”

This summer at DC Shoes’ premiere of a skateboarding video, some female fans like Domanik Nola turned out in DC Shoes logo T-shirts redesigned as halter tops. She started redesigning skateboard shirts for herself and friends to make them more stylish. FTC, a San Francisco skateboard shop, has hired her to design a line using their signature shirts under the DX3 label. Itis an abbreviation for Dom Done Did It, Nola said. Her line debuts next month.

Like other alternative sports that rely on personal finesse more than finish lines or time clocks, skateboarding lends itself to stylishness.

Customization also is gaining ground at retail, with sporting goods stores and other major retailers arranging for big brands to sell them exclusive products and colors. Foot Locker took the strategy a bit further last month, when it opened a store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Instead of using the cookie-cutter format favored by chain stores in shopping malls, Foot Locker selected a boutique-like setting in a trendy neighborhood and filled it with styles popular with its more fashion-conscious European customers.Foot Locker intends to give this new twist to many of the 200 stores it plans to open by next spring, said Rick Mina, chief executive officer and president of Foot Locker Inc. U.S.A.

“A lot of stores look similar,” Mina said, gesturing toward the rows of unusual sneakers in the new SoHo store. “We have a lot of European shoes here. They make us look different. I think Americans are ready to take hold of this concept. It tales a long time for products to take root. They can be popular in New York and L.A., but the rest of the country is slower to grasp.”

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