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Gotta Have It

Magazine's team of savvy young shoppers 'hot picks' coolest fashions


LAS VEGAS — Doug MacInnis has just been "hot picked" by two 17-year-old girls. "Awesome" he says, chatting up the teens who have declared his retro rock concert T-shirts--emblazoned with the Who, the Doors and Miles Davis--"sweet." Translation: cool.

Never mind that their parents grooved to these musical legends, Natashia Lewis of Woodland Hills and Ashley Jackson of Cincinnati agree the garments deserve their "Hot Pick" tags of righteous teen style.

MacInnis realizes that the trend-spotting duo from Teen People magazine may be too young to vote, but their nod to his Jonny Rock creations is as solid as a vote for "American Idol's" Kelly Clarkson. So he proudly displays the "sweet" badges.

"This is as good as a celebrity endorsement," MacInnis says as the two politely apologize for not hanging around to gab at his booth during last week's MAGIC trade show for store buyers. The girls are shopping, in a manner of speaking. So are the other two girls and two guys who beat out thousands of the magazine's readers for the free trip, $50 and the challenge to sniff out trends for the monthly's staff and advertisers.

Lewis and Jackson scramble off, maneuvering a maze of products on a football field-sized convention floor at the Sands Expo Center, searching for whatever catches their fancy. In other words: stuff a girl's gotta have.

In one day, the style posse will whittle an initial 50 picks each down to two. The next day they'll rap about their selections in a panel discussion before retailers eager to learn which items the young shoppers predict to have "ka-ching" power. Teenagers 13 to 17 spent $21 billion on apparel--their biggest expenditure, followed by entertainment--in 2001, up 4% from the year before, according to NPDFashionworld, a market information firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.

The trend spotters shamelessly love clothes, visiting malls five to 10 times a month, spending anywhere from $250 to $1,500. They play fashion like a game of blackjack, sometimes forking over entire paychecks from their part-time jobs to buy looks they believe will have style longevity. But here, they can only browse. And jot down notes about color, fabric and price as if researching a term paper.

For nearly six hours, Lewis and Jackson and the other scouts, ages 16 to 20, roam among the 3,000 clothing and accessories booths that exhibitors have set up in various convention halls tempting visitors with vintage-looking tops and dresses, jewelry, paint-your-own tattoos and denim with every imaginable rinse application, bleached to near extinction. At the Sands alone, more than 1,000 vendors lure buyers with the newest, latest and hippest this and that.

But the sleuths, paired in three teams and shadowed by three chaperons, are nobody's fools. They've done the bohemian/hippie chic/disco diva/surfer dude/hip-hop/denim-to-death style thing. They've created their own rebellious looks, deconstructed clothes, frayed and fringed garments, turned them upside down and inside out with nothing more than scissors and a razor. And whenever possible, sure they'll break school dress codes.

"We can't wear spaghetti straps, can't show any midriff even when you raise your hand, skirts and shorts can't measure more than 6 inches from the middle of your knee and up," Jackson laments. And get this, she says, laughing, "no fringed or frayed jeans because that's a fire hazard."

On this day their radar is homing in on "what's next" not "what's now." They're too savvy for even the slickest of hawkers in this carnival sideshow atmosphere, though many tempt these pop-culture human sponges with silly come-ons and promises of one-of-a-kind looks.

"Look at this, we're the only ones with this vintage look," announces a woman holding up a brown boogie-woogie 1940s sheath.

"I've seen that same brown color on vintage stuff everywhere," says Jackson, a lover of all things that look thrift-shop cool. "I'm waiting to see some fun colors, something that will catch my eye. But right now I don't see anything. Where's green? Yellow? Pink? I want something new."

As if on cue, she spots a retro pink, cherry-print cotton dress inspired by Marilyn Monroe, says its designer, Nicole Beckett, in a sweetly alluring MM-like voice. "I love cherries," Jackson tells her. "This is definitely something I would buy" and hot picks the dress she describes as school-and date-appropriate and would meet the parent test. The dress, which will retail for $35, is edgy enough to become one of her two selections, along with a French terry miniskirt.

Like her new pals, Jackson's no pushover. Neither is she easily swayed by advertising gimmicks nor duped by low-quality stuff with high prices. She's loyal to certain brands but open to others. Most purchases are planned, but like the others, she never leaves a mall empty-handed, even if it's with an inexpensive pair of earrings.

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