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."
Southern California is a uniform stronghold, led by Long Beach--the first district in the nation to require uniforms in all elementary schools. In Orange County, for example, student uniforms are required in Santa Ana elementary schools and in La Habra City schools, as well as in individual schools in several other districts. Uniforms are voluntary at elementary schools in Garden Grove.
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.
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."
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, Bugle Boy licensing director.
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.