NEW YORK — Urban fashion brands aren’t the only ones vying for young suburbanites’ affection. Preppy specialty stores like Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. are fighting to maintain their dominance in the fickle teen market, while niche players such as Hot Topic and Pacific Sunwear offshoot D.E.M.O struggle to make edgier lifestyle fashion appealing to the masses.

“Something like Hot Topic, even though it sells itself as really Gothic and edgy, is really a suburban brand,” said Annette McEvoy, president of McEvoy & Associates, an independent specialty retail consulting company based here. “You do not see those designs in city streets. You see that in the malls.”

Selling its suburban-meets-Goth apparel in malls is a mixed bag. Despite a 17 percent gain in net sales in the first quarter of 2005, Hot Topic’s women’s apparel was down 5 percent, primarily because it has no presence in the denim market, said Hot Topic chief executive officer Elizabeth McLaughlin on a company conference call. Novelty T-shirts are the bright spot for the retailer, but even that is not an automatic moneymaker for the firm, which hit pay dirt with a line of “Napoleon Dynamite” branded tops last fall.

“You need to keep your brand identity but be able to move easily with the music and pop culture trends,” said McEvoy. “Hot Topic hasn’t moved quite fast enough to see what kinds of music other than rock would work for them. What about Christian rock in addition to Goth?”

Niche players are up against tough competition. Teen retailers did resoundingly well in the first quarter of 2005, with American Eagle netting a same-store sales increase of 27.1 percent compared with the prior year, Aeropostale jumping 26.3 percent and Abercrombie increasing 19 percent. Sales gains at Urban Outfitters Inc. swelled to 32.5 percent in that same quarter.

For urban brands and stores like Hot Topic, the polarizing experience of different musical styles — not to mention movies and television — makes creating a comprehensive fashion identity difficult. Diluting the lifestyle just to reach more customers and tap into the preppier customers in the market, like hip-hop and urban fashion players did, risks offending customers who love the brands and lifestyle in their entirety, according to industry analysts.

This story first appeared in the June 23, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The consumers won’t be fooled,” said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD Group. “The younger consumer does more homework than anyone else before shopping, and if it’s not true to the core, they won’t buy it.”

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