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Deck the Halls

Children returning to school this week are wearing pleated Dockers shorts, ribbed Esprit shirts and fitted jumpers from Gap. And they’re in uniform.

With thousands of public elementary schools enacting strict dress codes, fashion labels seeking to boost back-to-school sales have gotten into the uniform business. Some labels, like Gap Inc., are dressing up their usual collection of preppy fashions with a heavy emphasis on navy and khaki--the colors required by many schools.

Others, like Esprit de Corp, have developed designs that fit into school dress codes, bringing flourishes like lettuce-edge collars and waffle-weave shirts to a no-frills business where plaid ranks as an innovation.

The irony is that many schools adopted uniform dress codes in part to stamp out fashion competition among children more interested in clothing labels than classwork. President Clinton last year advocated uniforms to prevent teenagers from “killing themselves over designer jackets.”

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School administrators in economically diverse districts like Long Beach credit uniforms with blurring the lines between rich and poor students--lines that could become more distinct with fashion labels available.

“One kid will have a shirt from Kmart and another from Esprit,” said June Million of the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals. “If this is what is happening, clothes competition is falling back to where it was.”

Apparel companies are sensitive about igniting label wars. Esprit, for example, doesn’t put logos on clothes in its uniform line, though it liberally does so on its other fashion apparel.

“We know what the schools allow,” said Carrie Dawes, the Esprit vice president who heads the uniform business for the clothing maker. “There are no logos anywhere.”

It was probably inevitable that fashion labels would get into the uniform business. Encouraged by President Clinton, thousands of public schools across the nation implemented uniform dress codes, making the business too large to ignore.

While some public schools use private uniform companies, many schools allow students to purchase any brand--so long as the colors and styles meet the dress code standard. Such policies have opened the uniform business to apparel companies that don’t specialize in uniforms as well as retailers.

No one tracks school uniform programs, but a survey last spring by Lands’ End, the catalog company, provides some scope. It reports that 8% of parents said their children attended a public school with a uniform program. Significantly, an additional 15% of parents said their children’s schools were considering a policy--one reason why Lands’ End created a school uniform catalog this year.

Southern California is a uniform stronghold, led by Long Beach--the first district in the nation to require uniforms in all elementary schools. The Inglewood school district is implementing uniforms this school year, joining Lynwood, Monrovia and West Covina, to name a few. About half of the 600 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District require uniforms, up from a third a year ago.

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Macy’s West, which opened uniform boutiques in 75 stores this year, said the clothing accounts for 10% to 15% of its back-to-school sales--a number that it believes will grow as more schools require uniforms.

“That’s business we would have missed if we did not have the uniforms,” said Ellen Shamaskin, who oversees children’s clothing buying for San Francisco-based Macy’s West, a unit of the chain owned by Federated Department Stores.

Retailers and apparel makers contend that kids--and parents--want uniforms with fashion labels. In a test last year, Macy’s West found that Levi Strauss’ Dockers shirts for boys outsold its own, less expensive private-label polos. This season, Dockers clothing anchors Macy’s new uniform department for boys.

“Our customer is very label conscious,” said Dawes of Esprit, which targets girls ages 6 to 12 at uniform boutiques in Macy’s and other Federated stores. “They don’t want to wear little pleated skirts and knee socks. They are buying fashion apparel and not traditional uniforms.”

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Lollytogs Ltd., a leader in bargain-priced uniforms through its French Toast brand--sold at Target, Wal-Mart and other discounters--evidently saw a need to become more stylish. It recently licensed the Bugle Boy name to build a more fashionable, mid-price uniform line.

“Kids can walk around feeling that the clothing they are buying is at least a brand-name product that symbolizes fashion,” said Howard Finelt, director of licensing for Bugle Boy.

School administrators agree that traditional uniforms are a hard sell. Westchester High threw a fashion show last spring--amid groans and skepticism--to sell students on its maroon, gray and black dress code, which takes effect this month. Westchester administrators aren’t opposed to fashion labels--as long as logos aren’t visible.

“It can be from Gap as long as it doesn’t say Gap,” said Brenda Manuel, assistant principal at Westchester. “If uniforms are fashionable enough, kids will wear them--that’s the bottom line.”

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School administrators said that even if uniforms can’t prevent clothes competition, dress codes offer other benefits--such as restricting gang colors and providing a sense of belonging.

“One of the things we like about uniforms is that they provide a sort of leveling” among students from different economic classes, said Mary Marquez, principal of Long Beach’s Whittier Elementary, a school in a poor neighborhood that buses some students to a more affluent school. “But it isn’t the only reason why we back them.”

Fashion labels are being aggressively promoted with such incentives as free watches, discounted backpacks and special shopping days for specific schools. Gap Kids has created in-store boutiques stocked not only with uniforms but also shoes, socks, coats and scrunchies to match. In Mobile, Ala., where administrators opted for uniforms weeks before school opened, Gap provided customers with shopping checklists, and got itself named an official vendor after persuading a key school administrator to visit the store by offering him a gift certificate.

Lands’ End ships clothing samples to public schools planning fashion shows and provides school administrators with catalogs. Dockers is a staple in the uniform department of not only Macy’s but also J.C. Penney, though Levi Strauss said it conducts no uniform promotions of its own.

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If the experience of Los Angeles designer Clotee McAfee is any indication, fashion labels in uniforms are probably here to stay. McAfee, who has designed outfits for Stevie Wonder and other celebrities, consulted students at Crenshaw and Dorsey high schools and in Orange, N.J., about uniform designs, allowing the teens to shape the results. They gave McAfee a clear message: We’ll buy it if it has a fashion label.

Now she’s testing her label, Uniformity, at Macy’s in the Crenshaw Mall. The line includes reversible bomber jackets, wraparound skirts, double-breasted vests and other mix-and-match sportswear pieces--in either black or gray. She’s planning to put a discreet UI logo on her clothes next year.

So is McAfee fostering label competition? Yes, she admitted. “But,” she said, “these aren’t labels anyone will get killed over.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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A Uniform Approach

Many public elementary schools have started requiring uniforms in part to end clothes competition among students. Yet strict dress codes are an imperfect solution, now that fashion labels are in the uniform business. Higher style means higher prices. It costs $1232.50 to dress these children--excluding the boy’s Nikes. The breakdown:

Gap shirt: $14.50 (Boy)

Esprit shirt: $18 (Girl)

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Dockers belt: $14 (Boy)

Esprit jumper: $26 (Girl)

Gap socks: $3 (Boy and Girl)

Gap shoes: $28 (Girl)

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Her total: $75.00

His total: $57.50

Grand total: $132.50

*

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What Are They spending?

Parents in the West plan to spend an average of $228 per child to outfit their kids’ return to school. This is less that the $307 parents plan to spend on average nationwide. Percentage of parents in the Western U.S. who plan to spend the following on their oldest child for clothes and supplies:

$0: 12.8%

$1-$50: 4.6%

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$51-$100: 17.4%

$101-$200: 31.6%

$201-$300: 16.7%

$301-$499: 1.5%

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$500-$999: 5.0%

$1,000-plus: 2.1%

Don’t know: .4%

* Numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

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Note: The West includes California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Source: American Express Retail Index--Back to School Survey.

Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times


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