Anatomy Of A Fad

It had to start somewhere. Every third teenager on the street is wearing them--perfectly good blue jeans ripped to shreds. Celebrities, too: Madonna, New Kids on the Block, George Michael. But it had to start somewhere. Who was the kid with vision enough to look down at that first rip and say: "Hmm. This looks pretty cool, actually."

Who knows? The currents of teen culture are deep and fast, and nobody has an easy time tracking them. But one trend can provide a window into that culture, and into the complicated matrix of commerce and art, mass taste and peer pressure that governs it.

Ripped-jeans-as-teen-fashion has twin roots in Europe and America. It seems to have started as a street fashion, perhaps in Paris, where it was spotted by the French designers Marithe and Francois Girbaud. "They had their fingers on the pulse," says Girbaud creative director Joni Fiore. They also had little franc signs dancing the cancan in their eyes, and introduced "destroyed jeans" to the European market in 1985--plain jeans, more or less, with strategically placed horizontal rips. In America, meanwhile, '80s teenagers were discovering the '60s, a decade so dead and gone as to actually seem glamorous. The idea seemed to be that tattered jeans were somehow redolent with realness, or even a kind of sociopolitical cachet. With one difference, of course. "Nowadays the rips are more of a fashion statement and not necessarily a rebelliousness," says Debbie Gasparini, marketing specialist for Levi Strauss & Co. So in the fashion centers of New York and Los Angeles, sometime around 1987, hipster kids began taking razors to their expensive blue jeans. It was around this time the trend really took off among U.S. manufacturers and merchandisers. "We started ripping garments that we already had made," explains Albert Shehebar, a Jou Jou vice president. "We quickly ran out of the inventory." Macy's says it picked up Jou Jou's jeans around this time.

Nobody knows at what point the American and European trends joined. But if one had to pick a moment it would be early 1988, with the release of George Michael's "Faith" video, in which the British rocker wears jeans with rips in the knee. "MTV has had a great influence," says Patty Mitropoulos, formerly fashion director of Seventeen magazine. "With a record cover there's a single picture. With MTV, an entire image gets across."

Even at this relatively late date, the ripped look wasn't perceived as a sure thing. Merchandisers were still a bit leery. "It was a risk," recalls Macy's fashion director, Terry Melville. "But we knew it was a street fashion and that kids were wearing them." But when the teen magazine Sassy did a story on ripped jeans with patches in August '89, editor Jane Pratt says the trend reached "fully saturated mainstream."

The most important determinant of a trend, however, is neither merchandisers nor the media. It's the vast, ineffable plasma of intra-teen peer pressure. At some point between the time the media first transmits the image and the time the merchandisers begin to sell it, peer pressure is critical. Ashley Camron, Teen magazine editor Roxanne Camron's 13-year-old daughter, is an eighth grader at Colina Inter mediate School in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Ashley picked up on ripped jeans about three years ago, cutting holes in some denim shorts after seeing the look on models and actors. But she didn't have the nerve to wear them to school until her friends started wearing them, too: "If you see it on your friends, then you can wear it in public." Now, she says, everyone's wearing them.

Established in one place, trends then travel along a teen-to-teen grapevine. Rich Luker, an adolescent psychologist and a communications professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, recently ran a focus group for 16- to 18-year-old girls. In response to the question, "How do teens pick up on new fads?" most agreed with the answers "From TV" and "From cool kids." But all agreed on the response, "When traveling," supporting the idea that new looks spread the fastest when teens travel outside their own group. One Philadelphia girl spotted a pair of knee-length shorts at a soccer tournament in Maryland, and bought a pair when she got home; all her friends followed. "If a cool kid goes somewhere outside his own domain, he can change fashion and create a fad," Luker says.

Adherence to a trend is a way of defining yourself in relation to your peers, in other words. If it also happens to annoy Mom or Dad--well, that's a good day's work. Nicoletta Pappas of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, watches in despair as all four of her children wear clothes with holes. "They should wear ripped jeans to clean the yard," she says. "School is no place for them. I don't see the purpose. It's just a trend, and teenagers follow." Exactly.