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From the Old School

It Won't Be Tough Figuring Out the Look the Kids Are Crazy for This Year--Some of Us Had the Same Stuff About 20 Years Ago


Face it. There's nothing adults can do to keep that little yellow smiley face out of our lives.

This year, back-to-school shopping means running into the unmistakable icon around kids' necks, on girls' fingers, on T-shirts, purses, pencils, book binders, lunch boxes.

"At first I groaned," Cathy Amalfitano, district manager for Limited Too, a countrywide hip kiddie and preteen clothing chain, said of the smiley visage. "But there is absolutely nothing we can do to keep these things in. The kids just are in love with them."

There doesn't seem to be a scientific explanation for this resurgence. As one laconic 10-year-old girl remarked: "Why not?" Kids apparently don't care if things are original, "just cute."

A happy face T-shirt runs about $12 to $18; happy face rings (especially popular with the younger girls, ages 4 to 9), about $8; purses, $12 to $24; oversized, chunky pencils, $4; watches, $18 to $34; dog tags, $12; earrings, $10; denim patches, $4; lunch boxes, $12. Look for these goodies at smaller boutiques, such as Afterthoughts and Carimar for girls, and department stores.

Also unscientific but helpful for '96 school shopping is studying an episode of Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In" or "The Brady Bunch" (back again in the cinema). The fact is, the late '60s and '70s--at least for girls--are back with a vengeance. Flower power, psychedelic prints, velvet tops and hats, hip-huggers, peace signs and, believe it or not, love beads--but in '90s style, made brightly and glow-in-the-dark--are being recycled in kids' closets.

A simple rule of thumb: If it ever left, it's all back.

Look for retro shoes, say shoe buyers. Kids are in platforms and patent leather, clunky clogs and Mary Janes for girls, Etney tennies and Oxford tie-ups for the guys. And remember Frye boots? They're back.

As in the '70s, the coolest material now is polyester, because, for kids, it's totally new. In their lifetime, today's children have not experienced wash-and-wear, uncrinkable fabrics.

With lunch boxes, forget un-chic plastic: Tin is making a comeback. The most popular sets (if you can still find them) are--you guessed it--based on '60s and '70s TV shows, i.e. "The Partridge Family." If not, boys (little ones) will be just as satisfied by a Goosebumps lunch box, based on the popular R.L. Stine series.

Loud, colorful, late '60s paraphernalia is what the new jewelry is about. Try some gum ball rings (unisex), flowers (girls), or peace signs (girls) or peace patches (boys). Crosses are also popular, especially as necklaces for teenage guys. Both genders like the new metal dog tags; some kids even take them to pet shops to have their names scrolled on.

Nail polish is a cottage industry unto itself. According to department store cosmetic salespeople, Hard Candy ($12 a bottle with matching gum ball ring) started the craze on "Beverly Hills, 90210." Don't be shocked to see your little ones with lavender, metallic gold, bright blue or glow-in-the-dark white nails.

"The light shades are most popular now," advises a group of four preteens in Beverly Hill's Saks Fifth Avenue. "White, powder blue, magenta, hot pink." Apparently they've yet to figure out how much cheaper it would be if each friend bought one color and everyone shared. "But whenever you go over to a girlfriend's house, you always try on her nail polish, for sure. But you have to have your own colors," said one.

Usually unshockable parents are still shocked at the price of kids' sunglasses. Most are unisex, but kids aren't about to share these toys. In for the guys, said Mike Dill, manager of the Southland chain Becker Surf & Sport: almost anything from Oakley, $90 to $130 (even a pair for $230) or Arnette's, $50 to $100. For the girls: Fly Girls ($45 to $100), the wrap-around glasses first seen on U2's Bono and his Zoo TV tour character, the Fly.

For the not-so-moneyed child: all the above glasses sport dozens of knockoffs. Thus, no child dare look eye-wear uncool. They can be found at stores like Target and the Gap.

Of course, schoolwork has its place as well. Hip for education-minded kids means covering books in Hotcovers: neon, clear, shiny, patterned and / or psychedelic vinyl (removable and self-adhesive) that protects those expensive school books. Staples carries a full selection.

What to write in? The old, standard composition books remain but are updated in thick, chunky and mod-lettering styles. Book binders are drenched in flower power, psychedelia, and such '60s and '70s icons as Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and David Cassidy. The Tasmanian Devil and good old Bugs Bunny are still popular. Pastel-colored calculators will be found in many backpacks.

"Duke Nukem 3-D" is the hottest-selling entertainment computer game, according to Software Etc., a computer software chain with 713 stores nationwide. Their tally shows the doom-type shooter game by Formgen has taken the market by storm. For studious computer students, popular titles are Mavis-Becon Teaches Typing by Mindscape; Mathematics Box Set by Sofsource (math programs ages 6 to 12) and Freddy Fish by Humoungous (for little ones).

For kids this year, nostalgia rules. After all, if John Travolta can resurge, why not polyester?

More back-to-school coverage:

* WEDNESDAY: Transporting kids to school safely

* THURSDAY: Dark denim crosses clique lines on campus

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