IN THE QUEST FOR COOL, ROLE REVERSAL TAKES A WHOLE NEW MEANING

Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — When Liz Claiborne makes an 18-inch leather miniskirt, what does it mean for the edgy street brands?
In the quest for a hipper, younger consumer, once conservative companies like Liz Claiborne, Levi Strauss, The Limited, Kmart, Lee and Reebok now find themselves in the unaccustomed position of becoming trend hunters, waiting for the next hot fashion to emerge from the street. To get plugged in quickly, they’re hiring street-savvy consultants or naming executives whose sole job is to pinpoint the next hot look or cool trend.
As mainstream companies embrace the prepackaged downtown style — the sheer blouse, leather hipster pants, black leather jacket, stiletto heels and funky nail polish colors — the result has been a backlash by the smaller companies that traditionally set trends. They are now developing a new conservative antistyle that includes such looks as Fair Isle sweaters and chino pants.
“They [mainstream brands] are going to our backyard, so we are going into their backyard,” said Joel Fitzpatrick, owner and manager of Pleasure Swell, a showroom and shop in Los Angeles, which has become a hub of alternative fashion. He also designs Pleasure Swell, a streetwear line. Fitzpatrick paired his fall 1995 women’s line with glow-in-the-dark Hush Puppies. Now, he said, he’s “discovering the strange phenomenon of the suburbs.” He spends most of his time in “second and third-tier markets,” rummaging through dead stock at discount malls for inspiration for his Pleasure Swell line.
“I am seeing all this gold lame stuff and Versace-knockoff silk disco shirts that have Jesus and Madonna on them. I am feeling inspired,” he said. For fall, he is influenced by designer jeans labels of the Eighties such as Gloria Vanderbilt and Sasson.
“I feel that it’s harder to shock,” said Sara Kozlowski, designer of Cake, a New York streetwear line. “Everyone is scouting out what is cool. Suddenly, the norm is blue and green hair. It forces individual inspiration, rather than trying to go for the supercool look. My reaction is trying to get away from it all. I don’t know whether I want to play this game. If you come up with a certain look and Kmart can make it at half the price, it makes designing difficult.” Her fall line, she said, is a response to all this “brash coolness,” and features puckered lace fabrics and stretch wool.
“We are doing the opposite of what is traditionally cool,” said Leora Lenney, the designer behind Wyt of San Francisco. She has been spending time in the suburbs of northern California, Portland and Arizona.
“The more wrong it is, the more right it can be,” she said.
For fall, she has moved away from clubwear looks, including lacy satin designs, and has gone for clean, classic styles, including pantsuits and dresses in cotton nylon. She has also raised the waistline of her pants, getting away from the currently trendy low-slung hipster styles.
Sniffs Lenney, “Coolness comes from within. If you have to work hard to create it, then you aren’t cool.”
But just what is cool these days? Street designers such as Fitzpatrick, Kozlowski and Lenney say it is getting harder to keep their edge, with mass brands — now aided by a network of consultants — snapping at their heels. Once these big names discover a style, it is no longer cool, they said.
It’s part of fashion’s trickle-up theory, said observers. In the Eighties, such designers as Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and Christian Lacroix influenced the trends; now, designers are looking back to the street for inspiration. The move started with grunge, then went into nightclubs where young downtowners were wearing vintage Gucci and Pucci. European designers later picked up the vintage looks.
Liz Claiborne has been updating its image over the past two years. For fall, it showed leather micromini skirts, jackets and hipster pants. At its flagship store on Fifth Avenue, the window display featured disco divas against a black leather curtain.
Even designers such as Ellen Tracy, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera showed downtown street styles such as black leather dresses and sheer, tight looks on the runways last month at 7th on Sixth.
Kmart Corp., which has been churning out hipster pants, opened a store last October on student-heavy Greenwich Village’s Astor Place, which caters in part to the trendy urban customer. The store’s sales are not on level with volume at its other new unit here at One Penn Plaza, so company officials are working with local teen focus groups to help get its merchandise up to snuff.
Other big-name retailers and manufacturers, eager to raise their cool quotient, are hiring consultants and tapping into an extensive national teen network, which feeds them trend information. The trends are then interpreted directly or translated for specific customers.
The Limited, which this year eliminated the fashion director position, which had been held by Ellin Saltzman, now has a new post called “scout.” It’s filled by 32-year-old James McFate, who had been fashion director at Structure, the company’s men’s wear division.
“You have to eliminate this ivory tower attitude. Just looking at trend forecasting services is no longer valid,” said McFate, who spends most of his time on the streets of many cities, staking out clubs in Tokyo and cafes in San Francisco. “You have to have a window on the street. It provides information for your current and future customers.”
McFate, who counts 1,000 club owners and club kids as his core network, said his job is to interpret street styles for all Limited’s divisions. Those include Lerner, which caters to the customer from her mid-30s to early 50s; The Limited, whose customer is in her 20s to 30s; Express, which targets an urban, trendier woman; Lane Bryant, the large-size division, and Structure.
Footwear giant Reebok, trying to make headway against Nike, the dominant player in the market, is also trying to get on the cool track.
“You have to be out on the streets; you can’t be in your office,” said Ruth A. Davis, a global product director for Reebok’s Classics division, who is out to make the fashion shoe division more youthful. She recently returned from a trip that included visits to London and Liverpool in the U.K. and Frankfurt, Germany.
Reebok has hired Sputnik, a New York-based trend consulting service. Last year, it developed the Drop Squad, a network of eight people assigned to New York, Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The mission of the Drop Squad, all around 30, is to stake out urban retailers and teen haunts and feed information to Reebok’s product and marketing managers.
With this data, Reebok has doubled its footwear offerings in the Classic division to 25 each season. One of the hot styles has been the aerobic shoes in pearlized bright colors, with a platform bottom.
Levi’s, which has been challenged by the rapid growth of private label brands and designer denim labels at competitive prices, has been chasing street style for the past two years. The denim maker has employed a variety of consultants, and created what it calls its trendsetter panel, made up of about 400 customers from 15 to 21.
The panelists, who come from different parts of the country, feed the company information about the latest in street chic. “We take them shopping, out to lunch, and we talk about product developments,” said Joe Thompson, Levi Strauss senior advertising manager. “The whole fashion cycle has become faster. This gives us the brainpower to act.
“We had been very sporadic when it came to spotting trends,” he continued. “It was not as defined. Now, we have a more systematic way of identifying the trends.”
That’s how Levi’s was able to bring out hipster wide-leg pants last fall for the fashion-forward SilverTab label. The pants were so successful, the style was added to the more widely distributed Red Tab division this spring.
Suzi Chauvel, principal of Pop-Eye, a trend and market research firm in Laguna Beach, Calif., likens the trend hunt to “the classic tale of your high school geek who is desperately trying to be cool.”
The strategy, she said, could very well backfire for the mainstream companies who are counting on it.
“The streets can be very treacherous,” said Chauvel. “If you think you can go out and talk to kids to get the right trends, you are wrong. You could be talking to the wrong kids. You have to have a gut feeling.”
As Reebok’s Davis and other trend watchers point out, it is becoming more difficult to define a style, as cultural groups become more entwined. Now, such diverse cliques as urban hip-hop consumers and skateboard fans are adopting each other’s looks: exaggerated wide-leg jeans, loose T-shirts, body piercing and tattoos and baseball caps. “You can’t peg a kid anymore,” Davis said.
Another trend that’s emerging is the preppy look — headbands, Fair Isle sweaters, classic cotton blouses and lightly frosted hair, according to Janine Misdom, a principal of Sputnik.
Corporate America’s obsession with street style has created a cottage industry of “cool” consultants.
Even Fitzgerald of Pleasure Swell said he is now consulting for five major firms, including Taco Bell. He designed three uniforms for the fast-food chain — a modern twist on a hockey jersey, a flash techno outfit and a mountain biking design.
“I am kicking butt,” said DeeDee Gordon, supervisor of market research and product development at Lambesis, an image and advertising firm in Del Mar, Calif. She said she gets 350 calls a week from prospective clients. Her latest is the National Football League, which she promises to “make cool.”
Gordon produces the L Report, a quarterly guide that details what cool kids are wearing in major American cities. It costs $20,000 per year for the 24 volumes.
“People like me make trends die quicker,” said Gordon. Referring to the short shelf life of most trends, she said, “The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight.”
Hush Puppies is another solid but lackluster brand that suddenly became cool when it was adopted by fashion followers. Now that the shoe is being mass distributed, it appears to have lost its edginess.
Liz Claiborne and other mainstream brands are going after low-rise pants this season, so the edgier designers are raising the waistlines. Sheer, which was all over the spring runways, has become a bit passe; the look has been copied at all prices.
Given fashion’s frenetic pace, many of the young innovators are learning to stay away from gimmicky styles that can be grasped by their corporate counterparts.
“In order to be successful, you have to jump on trends that are subtle,” said Steven Alan, owner of the showroom and SoHo store bearing his name. “Sheer, hipster and asymmetry, these are trends that big companies can jump on. You have to use unusual fabric or something that will help you define yourself.”
“It does make you feel like you are in a mine field,” said David Dalrymple, the designer behind House of Field, which has a showroom and two stores here. “With the Gap and other places knocking you off, it makes you not want to go in any direction.”
Dalrymple said he is staying away from the trends he believes will be mass marketed — asymmetrical tops and mandarin style collars.
For fall, the House of Field features gowns with plunging necklines and dresses with high slits.
Dalrymple has raised the waistline on his boot-leg pants and is showing slimmer silhouettes now that mainstream companies are jumping on the loose-pants trend.
“Everybody is going after what is cool, but we are sticking to our guns,” he said.
Pam Capone, designer and co-owner of Chaiken & Capone, said she is undaunted by trend followers.
“We are not concerned,” she said. “The mass brands are coming out with the look a season or two behind.”
The company, which got its start three years ago with its boot-leg pants, is now onto the next silhouette: high-waisted, men’s wear-inspired trousers.
“I was in the Gap the other day, and they had what resembled my boot-leg pants, at $58,” she said. Her designs sell for $170.
“I thought, ‘Kudos to them,”‘ she said. “I didn’t like the fabric they used anyway.”

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