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FASHION : Youth Scour Thrift Stores in Search of the Right Look : Many avoid labels such as 'grunge.' Especially popular are uniform shirts with old company logos and name labels.


Among the racks of faded jeans and rhinestone gowns at The Thrift Factory on Ventura's Main Street, teen-agers move intently. Hangers squeak on metal as the teens check through the motley hoard, searching for the right look . They pause, glance and move on, set on what they want and not ready to compromise.

As fashion analysts, we tried to figure out, in the space of a week, what the look is, and why the kids want it. We met nearly 20 young people who buy offbeat clothing, and asked those questions. They spoke more of the quest than the goal.

In fact, they didn't like having the look named. It was them , they said--their personal expression, that's all--it's what they're comfortable with.

But it's not what fashion analysts are comfortable with. We like to generalize and offer conclusions, so that we appear to have a handle on things. It's what we do.

So, sometimes we offered them phrases, like dressing down , and '70s , and grunge .

Instantly, everyone distanced him-or herself from the declasse' grunge look. Purists, they explained the term is specific to plaid flannel shirts and Doc Martens boots; or T-shirts, Converse shoes, white socks and shaved necks.

These anti-fashion seekers had something different in mind.

"At Moorpark (College), everyone wears, like, Mervyn's clothes," said Tony Ross, 18, of Simi Valley, who would stand out in such a crowd.

"All my friends wear preppy stuff. They say I dress like a clown," he said.

As he spoke, Ross wore a Yankees ball cap, a '50s button-down plaid shirt over a large frayed sweat shirt, even larger nondescript trousers and ancient Puma sneakers. (Neatly trimmed hair, no jewelry, no tattoos.)

In high school, he wore his hair long and white, but he's growing it out to its natural black.

An art major with a 3.3 grade point average, Ross is steadfast in dressing down. He makes an exception only to attend weddings--when he wears a "respectable" three-piece '70s polyester suit.

He makes regular thrift-shop rounds to get the look he wants, and especially prizes used uniform shirts with the owner's name patch still attached.

"I have a plethora of shirts like that," he said. "My favorite is my 'Calvin' one from American Airlines."

Also into uniform collecting is Missy Gibbs, 15, of Ventura. We met her recently wearing a huge Wonder Bread jacket with a "Bob" patch on the chest, a fitted white thermal shirt, and extra-large frayed jeans.

Like all of the teens we met, she had a freshly laundered look, little makeup, no body piercing. Her only jewelry was an Elvis button. She wears the shirts, not as a statement--she just likes them.

"My friend Scott is supposed to get me a Roto Rooter shirt," she said happily. "His folks own it."

Names seem to be especially prized; not slogans, real names.

"It's those old T-shirts that say weird things; old companies that you never heard of, like Bennie's Bait Shop," said Andrea Kerr of Ojai.

Rosie Jones, 16, of Ventura, wore a T-shirt with "Rainbow" printed across the front. The tie-dye colors she had added muted the remainder of the logo. She makes her own beaded earrings and shares clothing with her friends in a "communal" process.

Chris and Roxy Seymour of Ventura, both in multicolored shirts and threadbare jeans, pointed out their boots were other than the trendy Doc Martens.

"These are from the actual Army," said Chris, 14, indicating his footwear.

His 16-year-old sister, who wore layers of shirts, homemade necklaces, an embroidered vest and poems painted on her boots, said it's good to have contrasts.

"I like baroque stuff--and outfits from your grandmother's day, like the '20s, with combat boots," she said.

"By society's rules it may not work; but if you can make it work for you, everything just flows. Then, it's cool. It's like not having a prejudice on yourself--I'll always be able to care about myself even if the next day I'm a different person."

So, what did they have in common? Well, none of them wanted to be an engineer. Several mentioned art majors, film or literature. One, dress designing!

They seemed to have a certain intensity, strong opinions--maybe even self-determination.

And, the uniforms . . . . Real clothes with a real past. Good fabrics, one said. You can't afford silk or wool except second-hand. Old, loose clothing avoids the come-on look of most girls' clothes, she added.

It seems inconsistent--when at first it all looked like costumes. But it works for us; it flows. Just give it a minute while you think it over. If it works for you, then . . . it's cool.

Kathleen Williams writes the weekly fashion column for Ventura County Life. Write to her at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.

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