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Smells like 1992

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Like most retail buyers of teen fashion, Jason Schreiner, of the Buckle chain, looks to MTV for cues. What he sees there today: 1992.

"Just about every rock band you can name out there has got that same shaggy haircut," he says, naming buzz bands the Strokes, the Vines and OK Go. Rock 'n' roll and unkempt hair are inextricably linked, but the last time the two coalesced in such an impressive shift in the teen aesthetic, it was called grunge. The emergence of a kind of nouveau grunge in the music scene could be a problem for retailers used to selling flashy fashions of the teen pop era.

Remember grunge? The economy was soft, "slacker" was a lifestyle choice, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam were in heavy MTV rotation.

Retail experts think this holiday season may mark an early stage of grunge redux, which could have some dire implications for the teen economy. The signs are there: Record companies are scrambling to sign rock _ not rap-rock or metal _ acts, retail spending has slowed and unemployment is up. The original triumvirate of the Seattle grunge scene has even resurfaced on the charts: Pearl Jam with a new album, Nirvana with a greatest-hits album and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell with a new band, Audioslave.

Evidence of the ennui is on display at the mall, where threadbare jeans and Converse sneakers have started to replace boys' preppy-jock image. Girls, for the first time in years, seem to have moved past bare midriffs, sequins and other elements of what the industry calls "fast fashion." On the music scene, Britney Spears has been replaced by messy-looking guitar acts such as Avril Lavigne, a 17-year-old Canadian who looks like a teenage Annie Hall with a skateboard. She and many other style-driving music acts are taking their cues from the "antifashion" look that prevailed a decade ago.

Marketers and analysts think a change in attitude may be taking hold among teens. Irma Zandl, whose Zandl Group maintains a "panel" of 3,000 teens across the country, says money is a big issue. "It's been a long time since you heard so many kids worry about money," she says.

For kids who were in diapers a decade ago, the new acts may be their first exposure to raw rock 'n' roll style. "It sounds crazy, but this is the first time a lot of teenagers are hearing this music," says Dan Heitkemper, who buys rock T-shirts for the teen chain Hot Topic Inc. and keeps "a steady supply" of Nirvana merchandise in stock.

It's all a little worrisome for retailers, for whom grunge is a touchy subject. In 1992, the year grunge gained household status and thus was disowned by its originators, teen spending on clothing entered a four-year slump.

Still, the first grunge era taught retailers a thing or two. Chains such as Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters and Pacific Sunwear grew by catering to an "alternative" crowd. That's important in getting kids to spend money emulating stars such as Lavigne. "Girls equate artists like Avril with control over their own careers and their own image," says Laura Morgan, entertainment editor at Seventeen magazine, which ran a "tomboy style" spread in September and put Lavigne on its January cover. "And realness is important these days . . . more important than glamorousness."

On the boys' side, the Strokes and their contemporaries have been so often imitated, they're almost parodies of themselves. Schreiner, the Buckle Inc. buyer, says the bands' no-frills look has brought boys into stores. "Guys are responding to this fashion very quickly, and we're able to sell them the beat-up, vintage-type jeans and Western shirts to complete that whole look," he says.