- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

What’s hot in back-to-school fashion is dictated by what children think is cool.

About 70 percent of the nation’s public school districts open before Sept. 1, so it’s still full-blown, sun-shining summertime when students walk out the door. That can make the new hoodies, dark-wash jeans and kilt skirts bought during the back-to-school shopping spree downright stifling — but nobody wants to wear summer’s faded duds back to school. So what are style-conscious students (and their beleaguered parents) to do?

This fall, they can revel in a slew of items designed to exploit the of-the-moment layered look, as well as some versatile pieces — using versatile fabrics — designed with seasonal change in mind.

“Shoppers want fall for back to school. It’s nostalgic for parents to go back-to-school shopping for their kids,” says Bradley O’Brien, vice president of design for Lands’ End children’s wear. It also can feel more like the beginning of the year than Jan. 1, she adds. “It’s a turning point. There’s excitement. You want to capture it with your new clothes, but the reality is, it’s hot out there.”

Lands’ End tries to offer some traditional autumnal designs without the autumn weight, she says, such as a half-sleeve Fair Isle cotton sweater, which could be worn with a button-down oxford-cloth shirt underneath it later in the season.

The same trick of using layering pieces without actually layering them will work well for high schoolers and college students, too, notes LeAnn Nealz, chief design officer for American Eagle Outfitters. She envisions older girls wearing knit dresses and denim miniskirts on the first day of school and adding leggings or skinny jeans under them in October and November. Girls even could wear those slim pants with the short shorts, Bermuda shorts and pedal pushers that represent another big trend, she adds.

“The new length — longer tops and dresses — are great for layers,” Miss Nealz says. “You can also wear skinny capris and roll them to the knee when it’s warm and then unroll them and put on boots for the fall. It looks great.”

Also, the funky open-weave sweaters that are proving popular don’t hold heat like the more traditional tighter stitches, Miss Nealz says, and the crochetlike sweaters complement a tank top as well as a turtleneck.

Talbots Kids fashion spokeswoman Betsy Thompson says parents should look for versatile fabrics in children’s early-fall clothes.

Cotton breathes well and feels good against the skin in any season, Miss Thompson says, and cotton is the backbone of corduroy, denim and twill. Cotton also holds color. This fall’s palette is more jewel than harvest, with dark pink and deep purple popular for girls and collegiate shades of navy, red, gray, gold, yellow and green popular for boys, she says.

Children need clothes with a “wear-now, wear-later sensibility,” she says.

Those bright colors will still feel right during the final days of summer, when many children will find themselves indoors.

Cargo pants that turn into shorts with the tug of a zipper and other cargo shorts made of corduroy, capturing the feeling of fall, seem to be available at every children’s retailer. There also are all the long- and short-sleeve T-shirts that are intended to be layered but certainly can be worn on their own.

Leslie Parlow of Richmond has another strategy when shopping with her daughter Carter, 6 — they head for the sale rack.

“The sale rack is summer stuff — it’s perfect. I let her pick out one or two new outfits from there, maybe a skirt or capri pants. That’s her ‘new outfit’ for back to school. We will also pick fall clothes to be worn later, which are, unfortunately, at full price,” Mrs. Parlow says.

Mrs. Parlow acknowledges being sucked in by the cozy sweaters and corduroy featured in the fall catalogs arriving in her mailbox in the middle of summer. “You look at it and say, ‘It’s so cute.’ It pulls me in, so I buy one outfit, and I remind myself that she won’t be able to wear it until November.”

That pushes back the whole shopping cycle. Most of Carter’s fall clothes are bought in October and then winter clothes in December.

Overall, the back-to-school shopping season is supposed to kick in later this year, according to the NPD Group, a research firm specializing in consumers and retailers. In 2005, 43 percent of shoppers had started by Aug. 1 versus a predicted 40 percent for 2006. Fifty-six percent of shoppers this year anticipate doing most of their buying between Aug. 1 and Sept. 1, up 5 percent from last year.

Laura Hopper, also of Richmond, says she partially buys into the back-to-school shopping spree because by that first day of school, she and her daughters, Laura-Taylor, 7, and Virginia, 5, are tired of the T-shirts and shorts that got splattered with paint during summertime arts and crafts. She also wants her girls’ school clothes to be respectful and tasteful to match a school’s environment.

“I do feel what the kids wear is a reflection on me. You teach kids that what matters is what’s on the inside, not the outside — but at the same time, there is also the whole package. I’m trying to teach them about dressing appropriately for the event,” Mrs. Hopper says.

Like her friend Mrs. Parlow, Mrs. Hopper has a multipronged approach to the season’s shopping. She buys lightweight clothes on sale in April and May — and tucks them away for the first day of school. New sneakers are bought in August or September, and in October, she delves into the piles of cords. “I like the rollout of new things,” she says.

Waiting until October gives her and her daughter “a chance to see what’s out there, what’s popular, what she likes, so we don’t end up buying things that she doesn’t like and won’t wear,” Mrs. Hopper explains. “I won’t hear, ‘No one wears those kind of shoes, Mommy.’”

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