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Oiling The Teen Machine

Like a bloodhound, Everlast design director Ivy Mamet tracks her teenage customers online: going to chat rooms and content sites like Alloy.com, shopping sites and browsing teen flicks homepages. She checks out online polls, questions asked in advice...

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Like a bloodhound, Everlast design director Ivy Mamet tracks her teenage customers online: going to chat rooms and content sites like Alloy.com, shopping sites and browsing teen flicks homepages. She checks out online polls, questions asked in advice columns, product reviews and poems and stories teens post.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I like to see what’s being said, get into their heads and see how they’re getting their feelings across,” Mamet said. “I’m not that age anymore. I can’t pretend to know what they’re thinking. I have to get in and see for myself.”

Mamet is among a core group of activewear designers, merchandisers and marketing execs trying to infiltrate teen girls’ lives, to understand how they’re different consumers than their mothers and to reach them on their own playing fields.

Although the generation gap is closing somewhat — as teens covet more sophisticated product and their mothers stay fit and youthful longer — there are still crucial differences between the two consumers. For instance, while women aged 25 and up are likely to wear activewear to the gym, teen girls are more likely to wear it lounging around or out with friends, said activewear designers.

Teens are generally less impressed by hangtags describing a product’s technical features and more likely to become impatient with a limited color palette or style range, executives said. They’re interested in a range of sports, from soccer to snowboarding to break dancing, and gravitate toward athletes like Venus and Serena Williams who are as fierce in fashion as they are on the court.

Teens “push us harder than any other demographic,” said Jan Sharkansky, vice president and general manager of Reebok’s women’s business. “But the power of the young opinion-maker is tremendous nowadays.”

The good news is what teens like has enormous “trickle-up” power, meaning that women in their 20s and 30s will eventually adopt many of the trends that teens embrace initially. The better news: With new hunger for retro and authentic brands and the surge in athletic-inspired sportswear, teen girls are not only receptive to athletic brands, anecdotal evidence suggests they’re actively seeking out the labels and allotting a greater share of their budget for such purchases. Sales of retro-inspired sneakers, velour sweatsuits and nylon track pants have boomed in the past year, bringing new prosperity to Puma and other old-line athletic labels.

“In the last year, business has gotten much stronger for younger customers again,” said Mark Westerman, Fila’s vice president of marketing and communications. “Kids are looking for what’s real and credible — brands with a strong heritage.”

Fila has a strong tennis heritage, though the company has struggled with financial troubles and a parent company, Holding Partecipazioni Industriali SpA, that hung a For Sale sign on the brand in June 2001. Regardless, the U.S.-based team believes the brand has a “huge opportunity with teenage girls,” according to Westerman. Recent teen focus groups revealed that many knew and liked Fila, but associated it with a brand for parents and older siblings.

“They want it, but they’re not sure where to get it, so that’s where we need to do some work,” said Westerman.

Because Fila’s research indicated teen girls admire athletes as much for their physical strength and spirit as for their competitive record, the company has shifted its approach, promoting Jennifer Capriati as a fitness icon rather than strictly a tennis star. They’ve started testing new in-store displays and hangtags with Lady Footlocker as part of the program.

Reebok is also looking to capitalize on and reinvent its heritage. Its pastel high-tops were de rigueur in aerobic studios 20 years ago, but now the women who Velcroed on those shoes have daughters the brand needs to woo all over again. Sharkansky calls the effort “the world’s biggest makeover.”

Accordingly, starting this spring, the Canton, Mass.-based company will launch a multipronged approach to renew its ties with teen girls. New product, more targeted advertising in a deeper assortment of teen books and more event sponsorship are in the works. Sharkansky has been regularly meeting with staff at MTV and teen magazines to toss around ideas and share intelligence.

“You’ve got editors fully plugged in to the lifestyle,” she said. “They eat and breathe this stuff and they’ve been very generous about sharing information. These magazines have a tremendous amount of power. Girls read them, tear out pages, pass them along to friends.”

The advertising schedule hasn’t been set, but Sharkansky is reviewing Cosmo Girl, Teen Vogue, Nylon and Jane, among others.

The Weekend Exercise Co. has been working on two new concepts to court teenagers and similarly young-at-heart consumers. A yoga collection, Shiva Shakit, will hit specialty and department stores in May. Los Angeles-based yoga guru Shiva Rea, who helps design the line, appeared in contortionist poses on a short video called “The Future of Fitness,” which ran on the Jumbotron in Times Square during the holiday season.

Norm Zwail, president and chief executive officer of The Weekend Exercise Co., said, “With 2.2 million people walking by the Jumbotron, we figured we’d be able to reach the teenage girl.”

Shiva Shakit takes into account teens’ hunger for fashionable activewear, using spicy colors such as chili pepper red, gold and white. The latter is typically a tough sell among older consumers planning to sweat in the product, but Zwail believes white will be popular with teens.

The company has also whipped up lightweight cotton and Lycra spandex pieces, such as boy shorts, cami tops and zip hoodies, for a layering concept dubbed Caya. Teens can mix and match pieces in order to create a personalized look, Zwail said, citing his 14-year-old daughter and her friends who routinely layer on funky combinations of clothing.

“They’re not into splashing logos across their chests to look like everybody else,” he said.

Fila has also been looking to find lifestyle activities that connect with teens. In a sharp departure from its traditional tennis whites, the company will stage “Ultimate Breakdance Thrown Down” dance contests in The Bronx, N.Y., and Miami’s South Beach in March. Winners will receive trophies and gear as prizes. The event is cosponsored by ESPN the Magazine and Maxim. Though those two books have a predominantly young male readership, Westerman believes the event will draw both sexes to socialize and compete for prizes.

“We certainly recognize that sports and entertainment have merged,” he said. “A lot of fashion trends are driven by the music industry and by dance.”

And by celebrity. Which celebrities to use — and how heavily — has been a key challenge for many activewear companies. On the men’s side, companies have been successful by simply signing endorsement deals with the most dominant athletes they can afford. Teen girls, however, look to a broader array of role models.

A designer’s challenge, according to Everlast designer Mamet, is to know teens’ mothers are still role models, and shopping buddies with veto power, but that style cues come from personalities like Gwen Stefani, J.Lo and Avril Lavigne. The pop power trio have popularized low-rise pants, roll-down waistbands, rasta stripes and boyish gear like baseball T-shirts and cargo pants — all of which companies like Everlast, Puma and Nike have used to create more fashionably relevant activewear.

“When teens really like something, they vote for it and the effect is powerful,” said Reebok’s Sharkansky, citing actress Kate Hudson’s Seventies bohemian turn in “Almost Famous,” which ripped through teen consciousness like a cannonball. “That movie was probably shot five years ago and that trend is still playing out.”

For its part, Reebok has been betting on music celebrity Shakira, who appears in the company’s Classics footwear ad campaign. Sharkansky said she looks for celebrities who can evolve and reinvent themselves, an appealing trait to teens who are also experimenting with identity.

“They like to see a makeover. That’s powerful for teens,” she said, citing J.Lo, Stefani and Madonna as exemplars. It’s also important to pay attention to young, up-and-coming celebrities because “kids are getting branded younger. The eight- to10-year-old crowd has opinions and they’re very cognizant.”

New Balance also believes in making an impression young. But it takes the road less traveled, forgoing celebrity endorsement for grassroots heath-and-wellness programs tied to its “Achieve New Balance” slogan. New Balance does not officially market products to teen girls, but that should change as the tweens the company targets grow up.

New Balance currently sponsors a community-based fitness initiative called Girls on the Run for tweens. It’s a 12-week program of fitness, team-building and self-discovery activities designed by runner Molly Barker and culminating in a 5K run. The program has editions in 30 cities, partnering with YMCAs and tied into local retailers carrying New Balance product. Girls get discounted or donated shoes and New Balance team T-shirts.

“It’s important to introduce girls to running because it’s the core of a lot of sports: soccer, gymnastics, field hockey,” said a New Balance spokeswoman. “At that age, self-esteem is an issue. We love to bring people to running and to the feeling of self-confidence in finishing a race.”

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