WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?
THE SEX-ORIENTED NAMES AND IMAGES OF MANY JUNIOR BRANDS DON’T ALWAYS MATHC THE MERCHANDISE, BUT CAN STILL CAUSE GENERATIONAL ANXIETY.
Byline: Joshua Greene
NEW YORK — In the hormonally charged junior market, clothing companies with names like HotKiss, XOXO, Pornstar and Playboy evoke one thing — and it’s not sugar and spice.
Though executives in the field don’t openly claim to use sex to increase popularity and drive up sales, their ads say it for them. Pouty lips and provocative poses are standard in ad campaigns across the board from design houses such as Gucci and Versace to more hip and youth-oriented brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Bongo. But hypersexual clothes don’t always end up in junior sportswear showrooms like they do with designer labels, so when they use the same advertising techniques it prompts the question: Are hot junior brands really that hot?
Stylist Hayley Hill, known for her work with Britney Spears and ‘NSync, said runway and reality are separate worlds.
“[Junior companies] definitely use sex to sell their brands,” Hill said. “But what you see on the runway or in an ad campaign is very different from what you see in the showroom and ultimately in the stores.”
Unlike so many parents that point the finger at pop stars for corrupting today’s youth, Hill said they are not to blame. Instead, she cited an obsession with sex in society — not the action, but the essence.
“I think we’re all obsessed with looking good and appealing to the opposite sex,” she said. “Young women want to be sexy, for sure.”
Richard Leonard, vice president of marketing consulting company Zandl Group, which specializes in young consumers, said sexy is in the eye of the beholder.
“When you ask a teenage girl about something that adults think is provocative, they say it looks cute,” Leonard said. “Pop singers like Britney Spears in super-low-rise jeans that highlight a pierced belly — they don’t necessarily think it looks sexy.”
Leonard said teenage girls don’t fully appreciate the sexual message of junior clothes until they encounter the dynamics of the workplace.
Well established in the sexy ad arena, Guess, which bought multiple foldout ads last year in junior magazines like Teen People and Cosmo Girl, declined comment for this story.
However, executives at HotKiss Inc. said the company name and sexuality in its advertising are about the freedom of expression rather than pushing buttons. For director of marketing Jamie Gluck, sexuality and teens go hand in hand.
“It would be stupid to not acknowledge that young adulthood is preoccupied with sexuality,” said Gluck, labeling the HotKiss target customer as an independent thinker who is confident in mind and body. “According to our marketing research, our brand is ethnically diverse and caters to a wide range of body types. It’s not all about one skinny body. We appeal to an independent girl with enough self-confidence to wear our body-conscious and provocative clothing.”
Gluck also believes there is a freedom associated with wearing skimpy clothes. As for what’s appropriate for the junior customer to wear at school, he said HotKiss doesn’t promote crossing the sometimes fine line between appropriate and offensive, but instead represents making independent decisions about clothing and style.
“What we choose to show in our advertising, some is appropriate for school and some isn’t,” Gluck said, in regards to the company’s spring ad campaign that’s running in junior magazines, including Seventeen, YM, Teen and Cosmo Girl.
The ads feature a young Latino girl on the beach in Miami — bare midriff in almost every shot.
“But do girls wear miniskirts, jeans and tank tops to school? Yes,” Gluck said. “I think HotKiss is absolutely appropriate for school.”
Gluck said the company’s commercial approach to merchandising paired with today’s restrictions about what students can and cannot wear to school keeps the company in line. He said no problems have surfaced regarding the clothes, thanks to his sartorially savvy consumers.
“We feel our market is highly intelligent and they’re good decision makers — the junior girl knows what she’s doing,” Gluck said, adding that sex represents a newly found freedom.
In addition, he said wearing sexy clothes has become empowering for some girls, a theory comedian Janeane Garofalo recently dubbed “Thong Feminism.”
At the High School of Fashion Industries, a vocational school in Manhattan, principal Charles Bonnici said he let his students rewrite the dress code last year to avoid any misunderstandings about proper attire in the classroom.
“I don’t think I could have come up with a better list,” Bonnici said. “The appropriate dress is not what you see on Britney Spears. Appropriate dress is what you see in a showroom and in an office. Some designers you consider the most edgy actually dress on the business side of things in their office and our students are getting that message.”
The school’s dress code prohibits clothing with offensive words and pictures, extra-short midriff tops, see-through items, micro-minis and HotPants. Hats are not allowed in class for boys or girls, and “tops held together by a few strings” are also banned.
Playboy apparel has built a reputation among junior consumers as a sexy company with attitude. Plus, the brand’s approval from young men doesn’t hurt when a girl has to decide what to wear on Friday night.
Despite the sexual aura surrounding the name, however, the apparel is mainstream. Miniskirts, tight jeans and baby Ts are inspired from what’s going on in the fashion industry, not the adult entertainment world, according to Aaron Duncan, vice president and creative director of consumer products at Playboy Enterprises.
“The most risque thing is our logo,” said Duncan, who compared Playboy’s rabbit to another animal logo: Ralph Lauren’s pony. “The Polo pony transcends to all of [Lauren’s] brands and the rabbit has the same type of effect.”
Though the apparel is targeted to girls age 18 to 34, the trendy junior customer picked up on the brand and started searching for it at suburban malls around the country. The bunny gear has been sold at junior chains like Hot Topic, Wet Seal and Gadzooks.
“The buyers approached us and felt it was appropriate, so they started to buy it,” Duncan said. “They picked our tops and T-shirts, as well as our lingerie for the junior market. We’re careful, but it’s up to the individual person and if they feel it’s comfortable. It’s a free country.”
Duncan also said he gathers inspiration from what’s on the street. He said the T-shirts and jeans are mainstream styles that just happen to have the rabbit logo on them. Prices for T-shirts are $28 to $35, with jeans running between $60 and $80.
The brand is licensed to different manufacturers around the world and will expand into apres-skiwear, sunglasses, shoes and accessories in the coming year. Los Angeles-based manufacturer California Sunshine Activewear holds the apparel license in the U.S. Duncan said he expects double-digit growth in sales for 2002.
Despite the controversial name, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Pornstar, which is named after a now-defunct punk band, has no affiliation with the adult entertainment industry, said president Scott Kaufman, who established the company in 1996. But he said the name still doesn’t sit well with parents.
“In 2000 we were the most hated brand by parents for back-to-school,” he said, in reference to a newspaper article about the company.
Kaufman said the firm specializes in designing graphics using the Pornstar logo for prints on T-shirts, something he said is far from controversial, compared to miniskirts and midriffs from other junior brands.
“Most of the [clothes] I see are more provocative than our T-shirts,” Kaufman said. “Our tanks and T-shirts are basic body styles. For people to not want to wear our clothes doesn’t make sense to us. [People] complain about the word, but it’s just a graphic.”
According to Kaufman, though, the word is enough to keep retailers away.
“One of our biggest problems is that we get a lot of people e-mailing us wondering where they can get it because retailers don’t always feel comfortable carrying it,” he said.
Kaufman cited incidents where enraged parents return their children’s purchases while yelling at salespeople in conservative parts of the country.
Much to parental dismay, however, Kaufman plans to expand Pornstar into an edgy lifestyle brand and is heading in the music and car racing industries to rev Pornstar’s engine. The company recently signed a licensing agreement with KMC, an after-market wheel manufacturer for SUV’s and Type-R racing cars. The company also sponsors street racing teams throughout the U.S.
So as to not isolate junior girls who like the brand, Kaufman started Starlette in 1998, a similar feel with a name that sits a little easier with parents and schools. Kaufman said he estimates sales for Starlette to reach $1 million this year. Currently the younger line makes up 20 percent of the total business. Both labels are housed under Jasco Apparel Inc. Price points for both lines are similar, with wholesale T-shirts for $10 and jeans for $31.
Stylist Hill said that despite the differences between a girl who grows up in Manhattan and another in Idaho, junior vendors offer clothes to all regions in the teen market, racy or not.
“But when girls see their peers and celebrities getting all kinds of attention from the opposite sex, it definitely feeds the fire,” she added.
ON THE COVER
Just Cavalli’s cotton velvet tailcoat over Loyal Tee’s cotton T-shirt with denim jeans by Seven Jeans. Belt by Ecko Red. Boots by Lagerfeld Gallery.