FASHION : Showy Sunflower Cashes In on Its Wholesome Image : The bright yellow blossom seems to be everywhere--hats, shoes, shirts, tote bags--and shows no signs of wilting.

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If daisies defined the '60s, what floral symbol would work for the '90s? Let's see--a passionflower's too effusive; a pansy's too effete. . . . Something that says back to basics, wholesome outlook, virtue, even. A family-values sort of flower. How about . . . a sunflower? Would they go for that?

They went for it.

At this writing, you can barely cross the street without confronting a sunflower on someone's hair band, tote bag or shoes (the Bayshore Sunflower by Keds $26).

If you haven't noticed this, you don't shop and you work in a shielded environment, like mine.

The city of Manhattan has planted sunflowers on its downtown traffic islands. They are on half of the straw hats at any patio party you may attend.

They show up in living rooms, in effigy and in life. At Pyramid Flowers in Oxnard, owner Fred Van Wingerden said his company is heavy into its second season of producing the crop.

"It's me and about 1,000 other (growers)," he said, "There was this demand from our wholesalers. They always asked us, 'Have you got any sunflowers?' so eventually you begin to say, "Well, maybe I should grow sunflowers.' It's just really caught on."

As a blase observer, you may be thinking: So, for awhile it was whales; now it's sunflowers.

But it's not that simple. Think about it. Did you see any whale shoes? Whale place mats? Whale cologne?

No. Women never longed for a redolence of whales. But many do long to smell like sunflowers, it seems. A fragrance by Elizabeth Arden called--what else?--is, according to the company's spokeswoman, "an absolute home-run hit," a phrase you will recall from a pre-1994 season. The fragrance sold so well, so fast, that the manufacturer has added sunflower soap and seven other products to its Sunflowers line.

All this in spite of the fact that sunflowers have no smell. The products contain sunflower oil for authenticity, but "sunflowers themselves don't really enhance the fragrance," we learned. It's the mood they invoke that counts.

That mood is "cheerful . . . it's upbeat, it's fun, it's loving," offered the company representative, excitedly.

As further evidence, at Wet Seal--a mod young women's store in Oxnard that is part of a chain--where we would have expected slinky silhouettes and the new dark fall colors, we noticed a plethora of yellow flowers.

They are embroidered on various garments, splashed across journals, used on yellow-petaled picture frames and, for good measure, their seed is offered for sowing in colorful boxes along the wall.

Nor are men immune to the upbeat flower. At Rains, Ojai, manager Eric Zacher took a small risk ordering a shipment of men's sunflower print shirts, but it paid off.

"They went fast; we're down to the last one--I'm reordering," he said.

What we're seeing here is icon history in the making. The sunflower is gaining in the emblem polls and may become one of the all-time major league (oops) symbols, like the happy face.

Already it's passed the Holstein and the frog and, from our reckoning, appears to be closing in on that past favorite, the dolphin.

What is crucial now is that the emblem not be trivialized by some trite phrase or association that will bring it to its knees.

This, you will recall, is what happened to the endearing happy face. In the prime of its glory, it became linked with that infernal cliche, "HAVE A NICE DAY!" and quickly dropped off the charts, never to regain its position.

The same fate befell the pyramid, a '70s symbol of vigor and renewal. The dreaded slogan, "Pyramid power!" linked it with fuzzy New Age energy, and thereby sealed its doom.

This is a constant hazard with icons and must be guarded against, particularly if the icon is a U. S. President, prone to inflict trivial phrases on himself.

So, we must be on our guard. It's important that the sunflower not be subjected to this sort of cheap sentiment. Imagine if someone, trading on the link of Kansas as the Sunflower State, should team the flower with Judy Garland's famous line, "There's no place like home."

Cashiers wearing smiles and sunflower pins might inflict the motto on departing customers. Office workers holding sunflower mugs would pass each other in corridors intoning the now hollow "There's no place like home!"

That's all it takes. In no time, tainted by triviality, sales of the perky flower would wilt. Industries would have to retool to a new image, perhaps the armadillo.

Then another ironic motto might emerge for that mascot, such as "Be all you can be," a phrase that almost single-handedly brought down the U. S. Army. The inevitable cycle would repeat.

So, our counsel is: Let's hang onto the sunflower while we're ahead. It may be gaudy and tend to clash with skin tones--but it beats an armadillo, hands down.

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