After unsuccessfully scouring stores in Old Pasadena for hip new back-to-school clothes, 16-year-old Danny Boghossian and his pals made a decision that would horrify many clothiers: They plan to buy their fall wardrobes from a close-out store because it sells clothes from last year that are "cooler."
"We've looked, but there's nothing I really want," said Danny, who lives in Pasadena. "It's getting more tacky and more expensive. We're going to Marshall's. They don't have all these new weird things."
Judging by retailers' reports of slumping sales throughout the men's category--from which most male teens shop--millions of young men are finding themselves in the same quandary. Even with money for back-to-school clothes in their pockets, many young men aren't buying.
A fashion miss in the men's lines couldn't come at a worse time for apparel retailers, which already are suffering from the lagging economy and were hoping for a boost from back-to-school sales.
So far this year, women's and girls' clothes have been far outpacing sales in men's and boys' clothing. Analysts say this may be the worst fall season in years for men's apparel.
The problem for many young men and boys is that the current offerings are too high-fashion for their taste. For example, basic bluejeans this fall are not necessarily either basic or blue, but rather are adorned with more pockets than ever, have multiple zippers or snaps and come in shades ranging from navy to brown.
Boys say they find all that too fancy.
Clothing designers and retailers may have misjudged young men's wear by looking to pop music headliners, such as 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, for clothing trends. But bands like those are geared mostly to girls.
"The music images they're getting, which are such fashion cues, are so stylized that boys wouldn't feel comfortable wearing them," said Jane Rinzler Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a market research firm focusing on youths in their teens and 20s. "If you're in the boy band 'N Sync, you can get away with sparkles, but if you're the average 16-year-old in public school, good luck."
Taking fashion hints from music worked in the early 1990s for both girls and boys, who were fans of grunge music and the laid-back clothes that went with it, including flannel shirts and work boots.
It's also working this year with rap music, although those clothes haven't been as heavily stocked by retailers. Rapper Sean "Puffy" Combs' casual clothing line called Sean Jean, for example, has been a hot seller.
"We're in a feminine fashion cycle," said Jeff Klinefelter, an analyst with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis. "More recently, we've gone into a bubble gum pop-star trend, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and that's been a driving force in fashion."
In part, many retailers are victims of their own success. Cargo pants, which debuted a few years ago and put retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch on the cool men's map, set sales records, with boys, teens and even hip parents favoring the look.
But as that look grows old, retailers have yet to find anything close in terms of appeal to replace it.
Danny and his friends, standing across an Old Pasadena street from a movie theater--where they get the best views of the girls, they explained--described the offerings this way.
"Cargo is out," Danny said, adding particular derision for the newest style of cargo-type pants: "There are too many holes in those new ones. What are you supposed to put in all those pockets?"
On Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, 18-year-old Marc Mund came out of Abercrombie & Fitch with just a polo shirt. The USC freshman said the basic forest-green shirt was all he could find.
"I didn't like the jeans at all; the style doesn't fit me," Mund said. "There are years with lots of good clothes and there are years where there's a lot of uncool stuff I wouldn't buy, and this is one of those years."
Boys and men, in general, always have been a harder sell than girls and women.
Girls, conditioned at a young age to want clothes that keep up with fashion trends, are willing to update their wardrobes frequently to keep up with fast-changing styles.
But boys' fashion tends to change more slowly and less dramatically. That slower fashion cycle means that when nothing strikes their fancy, even boys who want to look cool can delay purchases until they outgrow or wear out the clothes in their closets.
"There's a men's malaise going on," said Millard "Mickey" Drexler, chairman of Gap Inc., in a recent conference call with analysts. "We need to work on giving men more compelling reasons to buy."
That's true for older men too. Men who shifted to business casual styles bought more new clothes at one time than many had since they were teenagers, said Todd Slater, a retail analyst with Lazard Freres & Co. in New York. At this point, he said, men are all shopped out.