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Shopping for style this back-to-school season

From politically correct shops to anything hot. By Teri Goldberg

American Apparel is hot, at least according to pro-union, gen Y shoppers this back-to-school season. “American Apparel is the politically correct version of the Gap,” says one college-aged shopper at a downtown Manhattan store — one of seven stores to spring up in New York City since Nov. 2004.

“I shop here because [American Apparel] pays its employees a decent wage,” she says about the L.A.-based company reported to pay its employees a higher-than-average wage compared to other retailers.

American Apparel

American Apparel, however, is best known for its moderately priced line of cotton clothing, touted to be made in a “sweatshop free” environment in downtown Los Angeles.

In the end, most Americans seek out goods that fit a certain style and budget, regardless of politics. Bargain hunters will shop at low-end department stores, such as Wal-Mart, Target  and Kmart, especially now that they offer designer goods made exclusively for them. Style-conscious shoppers are drawn to collections by Issac Mizrahi, Liz Lange, Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rosenzweig at Target. In addition to products by Martha, brand-name goods, such as Thalia Sodi, Jaclyn Smith and Joe Boxer, bring shoppers to Kmart.

Preppy types will do their best at old stand-bys, such as J. Crew, Lands’ End and JCPenney. All three stores stock a wide selection of preppy garb, including Chinos or Dockers, button-down Oxford shirts, cardigan sweaters and loafers.

Kmart

Trend setters will hit mall-based Aéropostale stores and national retailer American Eagle Outfitters, which offer a hip, urban look at moderate prices. The super hip will gravitate toward specialty cyber shops, such as Karmaloop, which stock even trendier and pricier brands including Boxfresh, Freshjive, Junk Food, Obey and UFO.

Tweens and teens will find hot fashions at The Children’s Place and the slightly trendier Limited Too.

Clean or cluttered jeans

Aeropostale

OK, so what is hot this season? Shorts are hot as long as the weather stays warms, says Swenson. Mesh and Terry cloth shorts are hip for both boys and girls, he says. American Apparel mostly stocks tight-fitting short shorts, compared to Old Navy or the Gap, where cargo shorts still dominate the racks.

This back-to-school season, as several in the past, also will start with a new, cool pair of jeans. Many retailers even feature denim on its Home page as the rock-bottom essential. The “Get your denim” campaign on Old Navy’s Web site highlights the classic five-pocket jean, priced from $29.50 to $32.50. Aéropostale offers up more variety, where styles range from unadorned jeans, on sale for $19.50, to deconstructed or destroyed (as in ripped) jeans dotted with rhinestones for $49.

Which denim look will be the hottest depends on who is doing the talking.

“What is not hot is all the ‘affected denim,’” says Swenson who sees this season’s jeans sans the pockets, extra zippers, studs, semi-precious stones or embroidery. “A little less excess can be a good thing,” he says.

Designer discounter TJ Max suggests otherwise. Whether cropped, embroidered or distressed, jeans will be beaded, studded and covered with rhinestones, and sometimes all of the above, according to a trend report released by TJMax.

The emphasis on details will extend to accessories. Think big buckles, studs and turquoise, when it comes to belts. And anything that can be attached to a handbag will this season, including fur, faux fur, chains, charms, ribbons, studs and more.

Back on trackThe other must-have essential this season is a zip-front track jacket. And there’s little disagreement among retailers about the popularity of the sporty jacket.

“The most popular item to add to any back-to-school wardrobe is the zip-front track jacket, worn with jeans” according to the TJMax trend report. Track jackets also appear on both the boys’ and girls’ must-have lists generated by Wal-Mart company spokeswoman Jacquie Young.

Cotton/polyester blend track jackets at Wal-Mart sell for $15.88.

There are even track jackets at American Apparel this season for all those politically correct shoppers. The 100 percent cotton jackets, available in fleece or velour, range in price from $46 to $54.