Tickling fickle teen-age fancy is big business


NEW YORK - It's Fashion Week, a time when couture oracles Donna, Calvin, Ralph and more than 100 other designers gather in this city to unveil their collections for the coming spring. Yesterday morning, however, during a show in a stark white tent in Bryant Park, something seemed amiss.

The models all looked about 15 instead of the customary late teens/early 20s. Not all of them appeared to be impossibly thin size 2s like many of their counterparts in other shows. And some actually smiled as they bopped down the runway to the beat of an up-tempo dance track.

The Girls Rule! Show, in its 13th season at Fashion Week, is the only teen event during the fashion extravaganza. It features the collections of six usually lesser-known designers who specialize in teen clothing. And in recent years, as the 12- to 19-year-old fashion market has rapidly grown in the United States, this show has become increasingly important to stylists, retail buyers and fashion magazine editors who are battling more competition than ever before for that coveted prize - the lucrative teen dollar.'The teen market is the one that's totally exploding ... and teens have a lot more money," said Tara McBratney, fashion editor for Cosmo Girl!, who was perched in a Front-row seat to gather ideas for her magazine, which caters to teens. "We look to this runway to see a lot of brands that we're hearing about and different styling. It's a different sense here, compared with other shows. They're sort of 'No Rules' here; they can have a lot of fun without taking any big risks."

The idea for a Girls Rule! show first began in the early 1990s when friends and budding teen designers Darren Greenblatt and Oliver Dow sought a venue to show their collections. At the time, no teen designer had ever shown at Fashion Week, and Greenblatt and Dow felt they were not well-known enough to hold their own shows. So in fall of 1994, the friends pooled their resources and staged the first Girls Rule! show featuring them and three other young designers.

The first show was a success, drawing 300 curious fashion watchers who squeezed into a tiny venue that seated 150.

"It was so crazy," Greenblatt said. "Six years ago, no one was interested in this market. I think they didn't realize how big this market was, how much money these kids had and how many kids there were. ... But we had high-level people like (Vogue magazine editor-in-chief ) Anna Wintour who came just to see what we were about."

Since then, the show has grown along with the teen market it targets. Last year, there were 31 million 12- to 19-year-olds, and they spent $153 billion.

Yesterday, about 900 fashion watchers packed a tent to check out the visions of the Girls Rule! designers, who included Gasoline, Planet Yumthing and Gia Ventola. The show, which has landed the sponsorship of Teen magazine, also has been popular because it sometimes enlists young television or movie stars as models. Elizabeth Moss, who plays the president's daughter on NBC's Emmy-award winning "West Wing," took to the runway yesterday. Former Girls Rule! models include teen R&B; star Brandy and Jennifer Love Hewitt of "Party of Five."

"In 20 minutes at our fashion show," Greenblatt said, "you will see the entire cross-section of the junior market."

And the collective Girls Rule! vision yesterday featured a heavy '80s influence both in clothing and accessories. All the models had their hair teased up high on both sides and hairsprayed in a look reminiscent of David Bowie. Many donned large pink or bright yellow plastic earrings in the shape of hoops or triangles and multi-colored fishnet stockings paired with black, studded boots a la Madonna in her "Like A Virgin" heyday.

The miniskirt was big, topped with the low-slung thick belt in white, black or bright red, which if studded was even better. The six designers seemed to think chunky gold bangles, loud pink thick wristbands and long gloves in gaudy colors with the fingers cut off will be must-haves for teens this spring.

And then there's how the clothes were worn. Jacket and shirt sleeves were pushed up (Think Michael Jackson in the "Beat It" music video), large silver safety pins were essential items on tank tops, pants and shorts, and one model wore a long, black leather dress with the collar turned up and a thin, bright pink "Bowie" tie.

Patricia Field, the award-winning costume designer for HBO's show "Sex and the City," said she enjoyed the show for the accessorizing ideas and detail it offered.

"I'm here to get the young perspective," said Field, who showed a touch of '80s chic herself in a mauve skirtwith a black and gold chain link belt around her waist. "It's good to see what they're doing and how it could work for the show."

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