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The Price of Pep : Stripes, Sequins, Fine fabrics. Today’s cheerleader wardrobes inspire copying by designers--and complaints from parents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let’s hear it for the T-E-A-M!

No, not the hunks on the field but those girls (and, occasionally, guys) who cheer, dance and drill-thrill the fans.

The hours. The practicing. The splits. The yells. And those costumes. These days, uniforms have so much oomph and cost so much moola they are fuel for fashion designers--and fodder for lawsuits.

A 22-piece wardrobe, totaling nearly $1,000, was required when Heather Delaney made the varsity cheer squad last year at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach. Delaney and her parents have sued the school district and several administrators, alleging illegal charges for uniforms, transportation and other expenses.

Influenced by televised competitions that have pushed the activity to new heights, pep squads are expensive fashion enclaves. Nothing, from their shoes (made with special grooves) to their perfect ponytails (think hairpieces), is left to chance or penny-ante expense accounts.

Big on spirit this fall, fashion houses--from funky Anna Sui to conservative Esprit--are showing chic renditions of pleated skirts, striped cropped tops, football jerseys and varsity jackets. Sui even throws in pompon accessories.

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Memphis, Tenn.-based Varsity Spirit Fashions, the nation’s largest manufacturer of pep paraphernalia, is expected to gross $38 million this year.

“We cheered in high buckle shoes with leather soles and rubber heels,” says Kline Boyd, Varsity Spirit general manager, who was a cheerleader 23 years ago. “Now you have companies like Nike designing shoes specifically for cheerleading.”

Innovations include active-wear fabrics that are virtually weightless, stain-resistant and perspiration-friendly. “So we’re not just trying to come up with what looks better,” Boyd says, “but things that help these people perform better.”

And cheering performances aren’t limited to the big game. National cheerleading competitions are broadcast on ESPN.

“Those are ours,” Boyd says. “We don’t make any money on them, but we’ve set them up to spotlight the best cheerleaders and dancers, to give them a forum to show their wares.”

In addition to the competitions, the parent company of Varsity Spirit Fashions operates summer training camps, for which participants (more than 135,000 this year) buy shorts, T-shirts, caps and shoes.

“But we’re kind of big in fashion,” says Varsity Spirit designer Kraig Tallman, a former cheerleader and graduate of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. “You look at name design firms like Calvin Klein, they’re much smaller. You don’t realize it because cheerleading is a special niche. But cheerleaders always need uniforms.”

Compared to the rest of the country, West Coast high schools, Tallman says, have more competitions--"every weekend it seems.”

“Their routines are a little more developed too. They’re looking for something a little bit flashy to catch the eye and they buy new uniforms every year,” he marvels.

After doing his usual research (fashion magazines, yearbooks, friends’ photo albums), Tallman filled the company’s catalogue this fall with “more of a streamlined, fitted look. It’s not so bulky or oversized. It’s more like fashion.”

There are body-hugging shell tops, slimming mini pleats, new color blocking and V-shaped hemline treatments. Changes are necessarily subtle, and the color palette is limited to the 18 “athletic” colors used by high schools and colleges.

Lisa Daniel, Varsity Spirit’s sales representative in Huntington Beach, was so impressed by the business that she quit her job as a high school drill-team coach five years ago.

“I used to purchase all the uniforms for my girls, and I realized I was at the wrong end of it,” she says. Her L.A. to Southern Orange County territory is a mixed bag: “It’s like night and day. The Orange County people are real picky, and they’re pretty much up with the trends, where some of the L.A. schools are more traditional.”

Not, however, East L.A.'s Garfield High School. The drill team’s new night dresses ($100 each, partially paid for by candy apple sales) are slathered with sequins. And the dance team struts its stuff in corset-top unitards.

Drill team coach Rosa Velasquez says the new uniforms--custom-made by Texas-based Cheerleader/Danzteam--were necessary to help the girls perform better. “East L.A. is a low-income area. So when we went to the competitions, we didn’t match up with the other kids at all.”

Now, everything fits in--from the girls’ sequin-trimmed leggings to the sequin scrunchies in their hair, which is coiffed uniformly in ponytails, buns or French braids. Ricardo Hernandez, who choreographs the drill, dance and pompon teams, says the music he will use, “from Spanish to the ‘Lion King,’ ” influenced the design of the uniforms.

So did shape. Unlike some schools, “we have shorter girls,” Hernandez explains. “I like them to wear short skirts, a darker color around the waist and all the sequins on the shoulders and above the waist. That way the brightness will always be seen, and they will seem slimmer and have a tall presence.”

Hernandez looks for attitude in the tryouts: “I look at their eyes more than their movements. If they have that little sparkle that says, ‘I can do it and I want to learn,’ they make it. I’ve had some girls who came in raw. They looked awful. Now they are the best, totally awesome.”

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Performance is one reason for yearly uniform updates. At Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, cheerleader adviser John Merino explains the psychology: “We’re very competition-oriented. We’ve won national championships, so having been in the limelight, we feel we like to change the image of the group every year.”

But they eschew catalogue merchandise. Mater Dei designs its own rah-rah attire and has earned a reputation for innovative, classy striping--of which there will be less this year. “It’s more of a basic, clean look,” Merino says.

Explains cheer coach Ross Dickie: “I want to make the kids look as small as possible. So the sweaters are closer to the body--they come in at the waist. In my opinion, oversize makes them look overweight.”

Skirts and sweaters for the Mater Dei cheerleaders run about $225 to $300 for the pair, depending on the amount of striping. And an entire wardrobe for the co-ed team, which includes a sweat suit, shorts, T-shirts and pants, totals about $400 to $500 this year.

The school’s supplier is L.A.-based Broadway Cheerleading Sales. Company president George Ainslie, a former cheerleader, calls the Mater Dei designs “very visual.” He says the school “is copied for their programs and their uniforms. They are one of the groups that from the beginning went after cheerleading more athletically and gave it credit that way.”

The athletic moves have brought changes, including less fabric: “It’s a consideration. The uniforms can’t be sloppy,” Ainslie says. “If there is too much garment, especially if (the cheerleaders are) doing pyramids, the feet could get caught.”

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Changes also are dictated “by how up on the fashion world the girls are. From body-huggers to incorporating peplums--all things have been tried,” Ainslie says. “And some things don’t work, obviously, because of the athleticism.”

Or adult disapproval. A halter top selected four years ago by pep squad members of Marina High School in Huntington Beach was nixed by the principal for showing too much skin. Yet skirts have risen without much comment.

Priscilla Cid, 27, volunteer cheerleading coach at Roosevelt High School in East L.A., remembers when skirts were five to six inches above the knee and too heavy for today’s athletic routines. “I like them no longer than three fingers below the buttocks,” she says.

This year, her girls will have three uniforms, including a new outfit to cheer the basketball team. They will pay about $500 for the works, which includes shoes and pompons. She plans to donate about $400 in total, much of it spent on accessories.

“I was a cheerleader myself at Roosevelt. I know being on the team really boosts their image, their self-respect.”

Cynics might not agree. But for such parents as Jesus Quezada, whose daughter Andie is captain of Garfield’s drill and dance team, it is time and money well spent. Although he will pay about $300 this year for his daughter’s uniforms, Quezada says, “I don’t mind. She brings home better grades and shows more responsibility in school and in the house.”


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