For teens who want to make the fashion grade this fall, the operative word is choice.
And with a wide range of back-to-school looks to pick from, fashion-conscious teens face a major challenge in the search for the kind of gear that gets them psyched for school.
So before heading out on a back-to-school shopping expedition, sharpen your pencil: With this many choices, a study in style means doing your homework first.
For girls: Cool back-to-school looks range from oversize shorts in bright new colors worn with spandex leggings, to a feminized and tailored menswear style, to glen-plaid skirts and rib-knit oversized tops, and to a Western style that's not so much cowboy as a cleaned-up Ralph Lauren look.
For boys: Look for classic styles featuring chinos and crew-neck sweaters in updated colors, oversize baseball jackets and caps, and a baggy look executed with loose-fitting jeans, a silk bomber jacket and extra-thick soled, 10-eyelet Dr. Martens shoes.
In other words, this season's back-to-school fashion attitude reflects the sophisticated tastes of today's teens.
"There is a tremendous amount of individuality and no single consistent look this fall," reports Patricia Saraceni, a spokeswoman for Benetton in New York. "Teens of today have a mind of their own and an invigorating level of independence."
While fashion apparel retailers and manufacturers agree that eclectic is in, they do report a common thread in this fall's teen clothing styles: the uninhibited use of vibrant colors.
"Color is really it," says Hannah Hosom, a spokeswoman for Marshalls in Andover, Mass. "A lot of fashion this fall is taking the classics and updating them with color."
As in the fashion hit of the year, Cross Colours: It's an apparel line that blends splashy colors, natural fabrics and a message. The look? Cross Colours fashions are an urban-inspired array of loosely worn, brightly colored T-shirts, jeans, baseball jackets and caps, and hats.
And it comes with an attitude that's not only ultra def, but politically correct: Part of L.A.-based Cross Colours' profits goes to fighting gang violence.
"Cross Colours is a blowout right now," reports Eric Cook, an assistant buyer for Merry-Go-Round headquarters in Joppa. "It's the biggest trend in denim bottoms. It's all very basic, but turned into fashion with colors."
The apparel line is known for uplifting logos with messages that lean toward the preachy -- "Increase the Peace," "Educate to Elevate" and "Stop the Violence," are just a few.
"Cross Colours sends out a message -- 'clothing without prejudice,' " says Stephanie Zannino, assistant manager at Attivo in Owings Mills Mall. "Also, big and baggy is a style that's coming in."
In fact, the surge in popularity of oversize clothing with an attitude catapulted loose-fitting jeans into top sellers with major retailers. "Loose-fitting jeans are the strongest selling jean right now, and I think it will continue to be through the end of the year," says Dave Asquith, special events manager for J.C. Penney in Alexandria. "We're also selling a lot of girls' colored denim jeans in fuchsia, teal, hunter green and purple. It's surprising us."
What makes baggy jeans and shorts so popular with teens? The answer may be comfort and a relaxed fit.
"Nylon jogging shirts, sweat shirts, baggy shorts and jeans -- it's almost like kids are trying to grow into their clothes," says Carolyn Moss, fashion director for Macy's in New York. "It's a very comfort-oriented way of dressing."
Girls are taking the baggy look a step further and combining a loose fit with a sophisticated body consciousness. "Body suits, a lingerie-type of piece that you don't have to tuck in, come in all colors to match denim bottoms," points out Lisa Jarrett, a dress buyer at Merry-Go-Round.
"Girls are using all types of Lycra, then layering piecemeal on top of it," adds Ms. Moss. "An example is a scoop-neck, three-quarter sleeve top layered with a droopy skirt, vest, sweat shirt and hood. It's almost a personal statement."
Beyond baggy, this fall some of the best girl's clothes are menswear-inspired. But as a style, the classic menswear look for girls is a far cry from stuffed shirts.
"Teen styles reflect adult fashions to a point," explains Ms. Hosom. "So the menswear look is big. Not Annie Hall, but a feminine tailored look with vests and appliques."
In fact, a vest worn with a crisp white shirt is a sophisticated way to feel dressed up but not weighed down.
Another adult-influenced look for girls is decidedly Western -- but not ala Roy Rogers. "The Western look means long, prairie-style cotton or denim skirts, white ruffled shirts and cowboy and granny boots," Ms. Hosom reports.
While girls can choose from street, men's or Western-influenced fashions, boys often look to sports for clothing inspiration. "Boys are influenced by sports figures," says Ms. Moss, adding that baseball jackets and caps worn turned around, knit shirts with bold stripes and jogging suits are popular this fall.
An updated preppy style is also making a comeback with young men. "Old classic looks like chinos and crew neck sweaters, double-breasted jackets and wool sweater vests are popular," says Ms. Hosom. "It's a preppy look with updated earth-tone colors, and featuring superfine wools and microfibers in jackets and suits."
So this fall, what will it be? Baggy or body conscious, neo-preppy or black urban, Western influenced or menswear inspired -- or a combination of all of the above? It's enough to give an adult a headache.
"I don't think there are any trends any more," sighed Ms. Moss. "For teens, it's just a question of choice."