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Pulling On an Attitude

Message-bearing T-shirts have caught fire this summer, offering teens an edgy aura and helping retailers with their back-to-school sales.

August 24, 2004|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to say who's more likely to mouth off when school convenes this fall: kids or their T-shirts.

Statement T-shirts-- also known as attitude tees -- have caught on with teens outfitting themselves for the classroom: "Too cool for school," boasts a guys' shirt from Urban Outfitters. "I'm not doing homework tonight," warns an Old Navy girls' top.

Plain T-shirts are dull, explained 13-year-old Kassie Quackenbush, in a "surf 85" top as she shopped recently at Gap Inc.'s Old Navy store at Metro Pointe in Costa Mesa.

"When you're walking through the halls, you can read someone's shirt if you're bored," the Tustin resident said, fingering a $9 turquoise top that cajoled, "Oh bee-have."

Message-laden T-shirts aren't new, but they've caught fire this summer, a bright spot in a lackluster retail season.

Though overall apparel sales rose 0.2% year-over-year through June, the most recent figures available, T-shirt sales jumped 16%, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. He predicted that their sales would grow 20% in the big back-to-school months of July and August.

"The T-shirt's really the statement piece for the season," he said.

One reason is that as clothing styles have become tamer, with khaki pants and button-down shirts almost as cool for school as they were in the 1980s, the shirts give teens a way to be a little edgy.

If your closet is full of the plaid skirts and crocheted ponchos every other freshman is wearing, you need a few proclamation tees to catch the eye.

"What can you get away with? That's the point," said Christy Glass Lowe, a managing director at USBX Advisory Services, an L.A.-based investment bank.

Some get away with a lot, or think they can. Junior high and high school students are snapping up double- entendre tees.

"The parents think it's innocent, but the kids at school think it's talking about something completely different," said a clerk at Old Navy who declined to give her name.

One Abercrombie & Fitch Co. offering, for example, says, "North Carolina, it's great to be on top." Jay Smith, a 21-year-old clerk at Streetz, a clothing store in Glendale Galleria, wore one that said, "Big Boys Handyman Service. You'll love what we do with our tools." Meaning? "It's all interpretation," he said.

Most inscriptions are tame. Tilly's sells one for girls that says, "Take a picture! (...It'll last you longer)," and another that proclaims, "I am never wrong, I'm always right. I thought I was wrong once, but I was wrong."

As for boys, they for the most part continue to align themselves with sports such as surfing, skateboarding and BMX riding by collecting T-shirts bearing Southern California brands such as Volcom and Element.

"It's a message of, 'I belong and this is the kind of stuff I wear,' " said Tom Kennedy of Anaheim-based Pacific Sunwear of California Inc.'s PacSun division.

Retailers are happy to wield any magnet to pull customers into their stores during the $40-billion back-to-school season, which gives retailers a chance to develop momentum for the important holiday shopping season.

In a survey last month by the National Retail Federation, retailers said they expected back-to-school sales to rise 7% over last year. But there wasn't a stampede as the season began. Sales at stores open at least a year rose a ho-hum 2.6% in July.

"This time around, a lot of parents will be cutting back a little bit to try to save money," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group, which studies consumer spending. "The tax refunds have played out, mortgage refinancing has pretty much played out, and all of that together means fewer dollars to go shopping."

T-shirts offer hope partly because they're generally less expensive than other items. In fact, message-bearing tees have become this year's loss leader: They pull in customers who may then buy something more expensive, said Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.

"A retailer would not be upset if somebody left with a $15 T-shirt and an $80 pair of jeans," Tolley said.

Not all graphic tees, as they're known in the industry, are cheap. At Abercrombie & Fitch in Costa Mesa, shirts reading, "Some squirrels have all the nuts" and "Trust Me I'm a Doctor," go for $24.50.

Last month, American Eagle Outfitters launched a promotion giving students who buy jeans with a graphic T-shirt or a hooded sweatshirt a free kit of iron-on letters. "We encourage customers to make a statement of their own," spokeswoman Emily Leon said.

This might not be the best news for schools that have struggled with dress guidelines as students strolled onto campus wearing mini-skirts, low-slung jeans, belly-baring tops and even bedroom slippers. T-shirts would be hard to regulate, the retail association's Tolley said.

"It's not easy for a school to say you can't wear a T-shirt that says one thing but you can wear T-shirts that say another," she said. "It's so subjective."

Schools have become stricter in recent years about what they will and won't accept, said Aubie Goldenberg, a retail expert at Ernst & Young in Los Angeles. And an inappropriately worded T-shirt would probably land on the no-no list.

"As students take liberties," he said, "the schools will push back."


Times staff writer Dawn Wotapka contributed to this report.

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