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“If Paris owns it, they want it,” said Fraser Ross, owner of Kitson in Los Angeles. “Really, anything that Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson or Lindsay Lohan have is what girls want.”

The store’s Web site even has tabs shoppers can click on to get “Paris’ bag” or “Lindsay’s bag.”

Welcome to this year’s back-to-school role models (Britney who?). And while some parents may groan at the thought this trio is setting the trends, retailers are hoping most will be dragged to the stores by their daughters to snap up ponchos, preppy schoolgirl skirts, Ugg sportswear and hoodies, blazers and denim and corduroy jeans.

So far, that appears to be happening as hip boutiques from L.A. to New York are seeing sales increases of 20 to 30 percent, although their counterparts among moderate and mass chains are having a more difficult time. The specialty growth comes after stores celebrated a spring season that was the strongest in years, which had many retailers wondering if the boom days of the Nineties were back.

Teens are buying jeans from True Religion, Citizens of Humanity and Joe’s Jeans; outerwear from The North Face, See by Chloé and Montclaire, and tops and knitwear from Juicy, Diane von Furstenberg, Marc by Marc Jacobs and See by Chloé, among other labels, all of which are bound to make them among the best-dressed in their dorm or cafeteria.

“Teens and college-aged kids don’t hold back,” Stefani Greenfield, owner of New York-based Scoop, said of the b-t-s season. “They know that if they don’t buy now, they won’t be able to find it later.”

At the end of August, Greenfield said Scoop was 23 percent ahead of last year. The year before, it was 30 percent ahead. “Business for fall has been amazing.”

According to the National Retail Federation, the amount of spending on clothing and accessories is expected to increase 6.4 percent in 2004 over 2003, compared with a 1.3 percent drop in the total amount of money spent on school supplies. The overall amount of money spent on b-t-s-related items is seen increasing to $482.28 per consumer this year, from $450.76 per consumer in 2003.

This story first appeared in the September 9, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But moderate department stores and mass merchants like Wal-Mart and Target are having a tougher time with the b-t-s season, the second busiest of the year after the Christmas holidays. August sales were a washout for many nationwide as a result of soaring gas prices, the Labor Day shift to September, hurricanes in Florida and the Republican National Convention in New York. As a result, retailers across the country are counting on key fashion items to save September.

They will need some really irresistible items because they already face big hurdles. While gas prices have stabilized recently, they remain high. Hurricane Frances, which swept through Florida over Labor Day weekend, already has such retailers as Federated Department Stores estimating it lost $20 million in sales as a result. Meanwhile, stores continue to come up against tougher year-on-year comparisons as they head into the holiday season. And another hurricane, Ivan, is brewing in the Caribbean and could potentially result in more damage to Florida.

At Proffitt’s, a division of Saks Department Store Group based in Alcoa, Tenn., Toni Browning, chief executive officer, described b-t-s as “a nonevent.” Consumer buying patterns have shifted to a buy-now-wear-now philosophy, rather than big buys before school starts.

“People are delaying fall purchases through August, but September should be strong,” she said. “In juniors, anything new, unique or price sensitive is selling well now.”

As one major retailer said, “Business is just OK. It’s slightly up. Business has been getting progressively softer.”

Still, some strong trends are emerging. At Bloomingdale’s, chairman and ceo Michael Gould, noted, “The kid’s business is good. The designer portion of young men’s is extremely good, and Young East Sider [contemporary sportswear] is spectacular.”

At Macy’s East, ponchos, babydolls, hoodies, bouclé jackets, belted denim jeans, and denim with back-pocket details are strong trends, according to Daphne Pappas, vice president and divisional merchandise manager, junior sportswear.

“We’ve also seen some preppy trends à la Le Tigre, including polos and rugbys, and we’ve got some strong early reads on outerwear,” including items with fur trim and fleece hoodies, which will be “maximized” for fourth-quarter selling, she added.

She said Macy’s East has about a six-week b-t-s selling season, and that’s another week of potentially strong business ahead.

Retailers also expect that once girls see what their friends are wearing at school, they’ll want to have it, too. This should drive more sales later this month and perhaps into October.

That “I have to have it” anthem is alive and strong at specialty retail stores in L.A., where b-t-s buying has become a near frenzy for key fall items such as denim, blazers, boots and accessories. Armed with frothy frozen drinks and iced lattes, Southern California shoppers flocked to the malls and specialty stores to shop for b-t-s clothes, despite scorching Labor Day weekend temperatures that crept into the high 90s and triple digits.

“The heat wave didn’t matter a bit,” said Fred Levine, ceo and co-owner of the M. Frederic stores, which operates 19 locations in California. “We’re selling a ton of cashmere.”

Levine, who estimated that M. Frederic is already up 20 percent from this time last year, said he’s had the best July and August in 24 years and September was off to a great start as well. Tweed jackets from True Meaning, embroidered shirts from Johnny Was and anything from Smith’s, whose T-shirts have become the new must-sell logo T-shirt, were snapped up.

Levine attributed the success during these transitional months to all the great offerings. “The embellishment, embroidery and tweeds are so interesting and fun that I think it’s sparked a [desire for] a whole wardrobe change,” he said.

There were 20-minute lines just to get into Kitson, the trendy specialty boutique on Robertson Boulevard, where business for key fall items has been brisk. In fact, August was a record-breaking month with a 30 percent increase from its last record-breaking month in December.

Kitson already has a waiting list 700 strong and counting for the Mukluk boot, a suede-and-fur boot that looks more appropriate for riding a woolly mammoth in the tundra than walking around in balmy Southern California. But neither the weather nor the $400 price tag have kept shoppers from clamoring for the boots owned by Lohan, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Gwyneth Paltrow.

“It’s seriously out of control,” said John Eshaya, buyer and vice president of women’s at Ron Herman in L.A. of the frenzy the store has experienced. “We get something in and it’s gone in two days.” Eshaya said the hottest-selling items at his stores are fitted blazers in the $200 range, such as those from Marc by Marc Jacobs to corduroy jackets from Juicy Couture, as well as preppy sweaters in argyles and cable-knit.

“The look is very classic schoolgirl, in a preppy joking kind of way, but still sexy,” said Eshaya.

Elizabeth Pierce, retail analyst at Sanders Morris Harris, said she, too, sees the blazers and coats as winning looks that have the potential to generate big dollars for specialty and mass retailers.

“I think things like outerwear as sportswear, like brocade coats and Chanel-style blazers, are going to be huge,” said Pierce. “The key fashion trends are really still vintage and retro, anything from the Forties through the Eighties.

“While we haven’t quite seen the robustness of sales we’ve seen in the first quarter,” said Pierce, “I’m still optimistic because it’s a protracted buying period. Back-to-school happens in two waves, and the second is when a whole lot of kids go back to see what other kids are wearing before buying.”

While shopping at these directional boutiques doesn’t come cheap, parents are still willing to pony up for the must-have items — but not always for the reasons expected. “We have a lot of guilt money that goes out of the door,” said Kitson’s Ross. “Like parents who didn’t spend the summer with the kids and feel bad, so they come in and go shopping with them.”

In many cases, it’s also the chance to snap up some of the same brands their kids are snapping up, like $175 to $220 jeans and corduroys from high-end denim lines such as True Religion.

“Jeans have become the new bag,” said Ross. “They are the designer bag today — everyone wants the new jean du jour.”

On the opposite coast, Greenfield’s Scoop, which has seven stores and plans to open an eighth unit in Las Vegas in October, agreed. “My girls are hardcore. They’re buying the Marc Jacobs ‘Stella’ bag for their college back-to-school bag.”

The most coveted looks in denim are the ones you can’t get your hands on. She said the new bootleg Earnest Sewn jeans have been selling extremely well. “We’ve had to start a wait list for the new Marc by Marc Jacobs Jean in light and dark denim.” Citizens of Humanity (the Ingrid flare in the biarritz wash) and Levi’s Fold Over Jeans are also bestsellers at Scoop.

At Intermix in New York, owner Khajak Keledjian said distressed vintage jeans by True Religion have been his bestseller. At Infinity on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Hudson Jeans are doing very well. “We’re moving a lot of beat-up denim, but some schools won’t allow jeans with holes in them,” said owner Liza Ball. “We also have been doing very well with Infinity Jeans that are very low cut.” More conservative shoppers have been snatching up Miss Sixty corduroys in basic colors like navy and khaki, as well as trendier shades like baby blue and light pink.

Christine Lee, buyer of women’s wear at Atrium, said if it’s unique, teens will want it. “We have over 10 vendors like Joe’s Jeans, Citizens of Humanity, and Seven for All Mankind who do exclusive washes for us,” said Lee. “Teens will pay $200 for jeans if they’ve got something special to them.”

Pencil skirts, tweed cropped jackets, and autumnal colors like bordeaux, green and chestnut also are selling briskly at New York’s boutiques, as are the bulkier anoraks and bomber jackets — particularly the faded yellow See by Chloé anorak. At Infinity, girls are covering up in Ugg hoodies. Thermal tops are doing well (“Layering is a big trend this fall,” said Ball), but ponchos and fitted blazers (especially in tweed) are unstoppable. At Scoop and Intermix, Vince cable-knit ponchos are selling very well, while Ball said girls are buying them instead of sweatshirts. Intermix is offering them in everything from open weave to cashmere.

In fact, cashmere remains key for b-t-s, such as the exclusive V-necks and turtlenecks Juicy did for Scoop. Elsewhere, girls are clamoring for ladylike tops, like those from Roberto Rodriguez, Diane von Furstenberg and See by Chloé.

In Massachusetts, home to one of the nation’s highest concentrations of private schools and colleges, boutique owners are delighted with b-t-s selling, reporting indulgent, affluent parents sending well-bankrolled children back to the classrooms.

Native Sun, a five-store regional chain with locations in Andover near Philips Academy and Newburyport near Governor Dummer Academy, the nation’s oldest prep school, is seeing sales ring up 15 percent over last year, according to co-owner John Darke.

“It’s definitely higher than we anticipated,” he said. “It’s always surprising to me the kids coming in with the money. It’s not like they buy tons of stuff, but they buy what’s important to them — cool jeans and T-shirts.”

Tess Enright, co-owner of Tess & Carlos boutiques in Harvard Square near Harvard University and Newton, Mass., near Boston College, expects to be up 30 percent once the dust settles on fall selling. “The economy is back,” she declared. So is Jil Sander. The line’s cropped, fitted tweed blazers and cords have performed well among a Harvard Crimson crowd that perennially favors the “Love Story” look.

“If you are a classic [fashion] store that can bring a little edge, this is your season,” she said. “The blazer has replaced the sweater for this season.”

Montclaire’s $550 puffer down jackets, particularly the apple-green version, have also performed well.

In the Washington, D.C. area, Fabiana Mesquita, co-owner of two upscale contemporary stores, Daisy in Washington and Daisy Too in Bethesda, Md., said business has begun to pick up as students get settled in on campuses or came home for the Labor Day weekend. “People are not holding back,” said Mesquita.

Mesquita said her two boutiques traditionally do well in the fall but she is expecting an increase in sales over last year due to the presidential election. “Any time there is a chance of a new administration, you find the people in the city really excited even if the same administration stays,” she said. “There will be a lot more parties to go to this year, including fund-raisers for both parties and the inauguration.”

Mesquita said she recently sold out of a crocheted heavy wool poncho in pink, green and black by Nally & Millie, which retails for $290. Other bestsellers include a flared pencil skirt with an applied satin bow in the back, which is paired with a shrug by Free People or a cropped top. In the denim category, Mesquita’s top-selling brands are Salt, which offers a boy cut, solid stretch jean and straight leg jeans by AG and Citizens for Humanity.

Nancy Pearlstein, owner of two Relish boutiques in Georgetown and Chevy Chase, Md. — clearly catering to the well-heeled college student — said she has done surprisingly well with down coats by Junya Watanabe and Alegre Donna, retailing for $850 for a long coat and $695 for a shorter version. Feminine skirts with bows and ribbons by Marni, with a vintage twist, are also among her bestsellers. On the denim front, Pearlstein has gone for the “cleaner, classic look” and Rogan jeans are her number-one seller.

Among department stores like Proffitt’s, ponchos, even heavier fabric versions, are the must-have item now, in demand even though temperatures have been in the high 80s for most of the Southeast. Preppy looks are influencing sales, in argyle patterned vests, and shirts with collars and turned-back cuffs. Color, so big in spring-summer, is continuing, with pink still big, but green and pumpkin are strong shades emerging for fall.

Jeans business is driven by waist interest, such as stitching, piping and self-belts, as well as unique washes, rather than leg interest or ripped treatments. Proffitt’s is picking up more premium washes within popular labels, such as Mudd, at retail prices of $34.99. Skirts and skorts sold well for b-t-s, but Proffitt’s underbought in the emerging category of school uniforms, which have become more pervasive in the Southeast.

At Goody’s, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based moderate apparel chain, b-t-s sales were “later than anticipated,” according to Max Jones, executive vice president, merchandising.

“We’re at the tail end of the season now,” he said. “The later Labor Day holiday, and tax-free sales days in late July affected the consumer mind-set, delaying sales.”

Liz Sweney, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for women’s apparel at J.C. Penney Co. Inc., said she was pleased with b-t-s business. “All categories — juniors, young men’s, girls’ and boys’ — performed well for back-to-school. These areas had a big impact on our 8 percent increase for July and 3.8 percent gain for August.

“In juniors, our best-selling categories were polos, sheer layering tees, ponchos, lightweight and chunky sweaters, corduroy, belted denim and premium denim washes, track pants, and career suitings and shirts,” said Sweney, adding the store has done well with its Arizona Jean Co. brand as well as with such national brands as L.E.I.; Bongo; Energie, and Levi’s and contemporary labels like Bisou Bisou, Mixit and Parrallel.

Specialty stores in the Southwest said b-t-s sales were ahead over a year ago with most reporting gains of at least 10 percent.

Armhole, a women’s and men’s contemporary store in the Lakewood Shopping Center in east Dallas, is selling lightweight boot-cut denim jeans in darker washes and lower rises from such labels as Miss Sixty and Rock & Republic. Open just over a year, Armhole is charting gains of at least 10 percent compared with last August.

Krimson & Klover, a women’s contemporary store in the hip Uptown neighborhood of Dallas, has already sold out of Image’s cropped pants made of ultra-soft T-shirt cotton, at $69, while other bestsellers include Miguelina’s jewel-tone dressy tops, at $220, Tracie Reese’s Plenty line of separates that have a strong Asian-Indian feel, with prices varying depending on styles, Lucca Blue’s brocade jackets with rhinestone brooches, at $325 and Hudson Jean’s fitted and flared jeans in destroyed washes, at $135. Sales at Krimson & Klover are up by at least 8 percent compared with a year ago, said Kathryn Anderson, who owns the store along with her sister Kristin Anderson.