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Cha-Ching! Retailers bring '90s fashions back

Sunday, 28 Jul 2013 | 3:00 PM ET
Source: American Apparel

Break out your jelly sandals and overall shorts: 1990s fashion has staged a comeback, prompting U.S. retailers to respond with fresh inventory of the decade's hottest looks.

At online retailer eBay, interest in '90s-related items has surged. Between July 2011 and June 2013, searches for crop tops rose 119 percent, while use of the phrase "acid wash jeans" was up 39 percent.

"The decade was front-loaded with lots of edgy silhouettes, bright accents and zany looks, all of which are feeling fresh again," said Heidi Ware, eBay's head of fashion editorial and creative.

Source: Urban Outfitters

Google searches echo this trend. During June, searches for crop tops were up 130 percent from a year earlier. Searches for acid wash shorts rose 78 percent.

On both sites, searches for bucket hats and jelly shoes were also markedly higher.

Google results for overall shorts indicated a jump in interest of more than 175 percent last month compared with 2011, while those for grunge clothing jumped 260 percent.

Google's retail industry director, April Anderson, attributed part of the trend's rise to people who grew up during the decade. The nostalgia of the digital-native generation has been fed online through viral posts from sites including Buzzfeed.

(Read more: JC Penney's big sales are misleading, say employees)

"That's what I think is a really interesting thing about the trend," Anderson said. "The people that are interested in this sort of trend tend to be the generation that grew up in the '90s, and they also grew up online."

This age group, whom Anderson calls describes as "cultural tastemakers," is an important one for retailers such as such as Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and American Apparel, all of which were quick to hop on the '90s bandwagon.

The adoption of '90s trends by celebrities such as Rihanna and well-known fashion bloggers has also spurred consumers to pick up on it, said Dana Telsey, CEO of Dana Telsey Advisory Group.

A recent Urban blog post about the '90s graphic tees featuring images of "Saved by the Bell's" Kelly Kapowski and vintage MTV logos, waxes poetic about the decade's importance.

(Read more: Hot trends from Fashion Week Swim 2014)

"It's no wonder that people want to go back in time and revive the music, movies, TV shows, killer fashion, and overall vibe of the youth," the post opines. "The '90s was the best decade ever, hands down. If you miss it, or just missed it in general, relive the good times with our graphic tees of some of the most iconic '90s things ever."

Prior decades' looks often see resurgences with new interpretations as retailers search for ways to capture customer dollars, Telsey said.

"I think we see this over time as apparel retailers are trying to find ways to stimulate consumers to buy and being able to take what worked in the past is always helpful," Telsey said.

(Read more: EBay pumps up retail wars, and you could benefit)

After last year's strong sales of colored jeans, retailers are looking to deliver further gains, and a '90s revival could help, she added.

"We just came from a tough first half of the year, especially with the weather," Telsey said. "You always have to find a new way to get consumers to open their wallets."

For customers who can't wait to rock their overalls with a bucket hat, this is welcome news. But others who hope the trend fades faster than a boy band may have to wait until the retail ebb and flow repopularizes a different era.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the growth rate for Google searches for overall shorts.

—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her @KatieLittle.

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