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Straight Up or With a Twist, Preppy's Back

Thursday, 9 Dec 2010 | 12:13 PM ET

The preppy style is making a comeback, but before you go digging through your father's polos and grabbing your grandmother's pearls, know that this time around "picnic chic" has some new twists.

Russell Simmons launched Argyleculture at Macy's in Fall 2010.
Mayc's
Russell Simmons launched Argyleculture at Macy's in Fall 2010.

From the stylings of the classic prep outlined in "True Prep"—Lisa Birnbach's updated version of the guide, "The Official Preppy Handbook"—to the "urban graduate" epitomized by Russell Simmons' Argyleculture clothing line to UrbanOutfitters' "vintage preppy" hipsters, preppy is truly an adaptive trend.

"Preppy is starting to make a comeback," says Christine Chen, a retail analyst at Needham & Co. "It isn't quite mainstream yet other than in the teen market where you see the varsity jackets, but it's definitely making a comeback. We're still very much stuck in the '80s, and seeing '80s [inspired trends] in the stores. But, that's done. The shift is happening. "

Macy's is on the forefront of appealing to consumers looking for professional clothing with an urban preppy vibe. This fall, the department store launched Argyleculture, a menswear collection designed by entrepreneur and media mogul Simmons.

"I designed a young men's space to a young men's culture," says Simmons, referring to how the urban-style line caters to hip, young professionals over the age of 25.

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Consumer Nation - Holiday Central Edition - See Complete Coverage

"We wore Tommy Hilfiger, we reaffirmed Ralph Lauren, and then the urban graduate grew up and they don't know what they became. Did they all become Ralph? Everyone of them? Did they all only buy Tommy or are there other brands that speak the language of that generation from a design standpoint? This is what's next," he says.

Phil Rutman, Vice President of Macy's Men's Collections says, "Argyleculture is an updated approach to the preppy look—appealing to men with more sophisticated and graduated sensibilities."

Simmons notes that the urban preppy is more contemporary than classic preppy. "The difference is in the color, the edge, the fit is a little tighter, the urban preppy is a little bit more colorful, [patterns and shirts have] extra detail although it isn't logo driven; there's a little bit more flash," he says.

The "urban graduate" may be the newest subculture to fall under the preppy umbrella, but it isn't the first subculture to adapt preppy influences.

Take Hipsters. Hipsters channel a vintage preppy, whether it's from ankle-rolled khakis or topsiders and a wrinkled flannel, it's preppy with an edge. Urban Outfitters is benefiting from the trend as it caters to a college market interested in this style.

"Preppy never goes out of style, yet is never fashionable." -"True Prep", Lisa Birnbach

"The clothes that have only been of interest to preppies are suddenly being worn by different groups," says Birnbach. "I think hipsters helped bring preppy back in a way.”

But why now? There has been a shift to a classic American look. Some of that stems from cultural influences such as the popular AMC show "Mad Men," but it also is the shift away from denim as shoppers grew bored with jeans and designers tired of reinventing denim pants. As a result, the style evolved to corduroy and khaki, which are inherently dressier fabrics that create more formal everyday style. This look can even conjure up a nautical feel that then lends itself to boat shoes, Breton stripes and a navy blazer, and eventually you begin to see a more classic preppy look emerge.

This transition has been helping the traditional preppy staple brands such as L.L. Bean, Brooks Brothers, Lily Pulitzer and Vineyard Vines. It even helps retailers who owe some influence to preppy such as Abercrombie & Fitch .

Onecould argue it's showing up in the sales. Abercrombie recently saw its November same-store sales surge 22 percent, while rival teen retailers Hot Topic and Wet Seal , which are sporting '80s trends such as should pads, booties and acid-wash denim struggled. Hot Topic saw same-store sales fall 2.1%, while Wet Seal posted a 7 percent gain in same-store sales during the same period.

There is some debate whether Abercrombie is a true prep, despite its polos and button-down shirts. Birnbach says it's not.

"It's not preppy anymore," she says. "What they are selling now is sex on the coattails of a brand name that's elegant, and 'American,' but it's not the same."

But this may be yet another interpretation of the style, showing that this time around the trend may encompass more groups. The last time there was a major preppy trend was from 2004 to 2005, and it was very much the Northeast preppy look, with polos and polka dot skirts.

Still, as Birnbach notes, "Preppy never goes out of style, yet is never fashionable."

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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