"What's in style now?" Antonio (Mastercard) Ford, 17, asks rhetorically while standing outside of Coolidge High School in upper Northwest Washington with a group of his classmates.
"Timberland boots, A.J. jeans, little thin leather belts, square business," Ford said. "Nice little T-shirts with sweat hoods. The T-shirt lets you show what name brand you have on your pants," he said, pointing to an A.J. logo on his backside.
At McKinley High School in Northeast, Fabiane Butler, 15, answers the question by saying, "Boys wear the same things girls do just as long as it's K-Swiss, Ellesse or Fila. When you have on the most expensive brand everybody notices you. If you can't afford it, you're left out. You're a nerd."
There was a time, not too long ago, when parents faced with the prospect of outfitting their children for another school year trooped lemming-like to the nearest bargain retail outlet and stocked up on reasonably priced store brands, hoping their purchases would at least survive for one season.
Things have changed.
District high schoolers, many of whom have squirreled away savings from their summer jobs, have become full-fledged consumers themselves. And these young shoppers want nothing cheap. Instead they shop for high-priced status items with European names at high-priced stores, which students say separate the fashion plates from the nerds.
Other names enjoying enormous popularity among the high school set are Ellesse cotton T-shirts that cost about $20, $10 socks, and nylon sweatsuits that retail from $189 to $270. Guess and A.J. two-tone and faded jeans and jackets sell from $40 to $100. K-Swiss sneakers and Reebok footwear both hover in the $50 to $60 range.
Although the styles that are "in" are obvious at any city school,elementary to senior high, the forces that brought about their popularity are a mystery to students and experts in the industry.
Monique Greenwood, managing editor of Children's Business, a New York-based monthly trade publication that covers teen-age fashions, said that finding the source of a new trend is next to impossible.
"You can't trace a trend, but once it's in style everybody knows it," Greenwood said. "Kids' clothing used to be a price-sensitive market, but that's not the question any more. If it's hot, they go out and buy it; they don't care how much it costs. Kids want the name. They want that stamp of approval and that's what they get from buying a designer name."
One of the most popular brand names this year is Fila sportswear, produced by a 100-year-old Italian textile manufacturer whose red, white and blue "F" logo and name now seems to be hanging on every adolescent body in the District.
Lounging in front of Dunbar High School in a white Fila sweatshirt, Oscar de la Renta jeans, Stan Smith tennis shoes and Jordache eyeglasses, Sonja Carter, 15, said she has a closet full of Fila items at home.
"I don't know what it means, it's just designer," Carter said of her Fila shirt. "If you don't have certain things, people don't want to be around you."
But Denise Bates, 16, a 10th grader at Coolidge, said, "It stands for Freaks In Los Angeles."
But just buying a designer brand name is not enough. Students said they prefer to make purchases at upscale stores and malls to complete their expensive high-fashion image.
"It's not just the name, it's where you got it from," said Tonya Dansby, 15, a Dunbar student who said she owns a $214 silk Fila sweatsuit. "It's no good if you got it from downtown," she continued. "But if you get it from Georgetown or White Flint Mall, everybody wants it."
Well-known brands such as Calvin Klein, Gucci and Aigner that have dominated the adult fashion world for years are no longer beyond the economic grasp of students who are willing to pay as much as $100 for a pair of sneakers.
"I got all kinds of tennis shoes" said Eddie Hill, 19, a senior at Coolidge. "I like to switch up on 'em. It's a big thing. It's like a dance that goes out of style. You got to keep up to date and every time you turn around, it's something new."
Zita Adams, 16, a Coolidge junior, said, "My boyfriend knew what style I liked and he bought me some Guess jeans ." "If he had bought me some Lees, I would have still been happy. But I wouldn't wear them."
The new styles worn by high schoolers defy conventional boundaries of season, and often reason.
Raymond Taylor, 18, an 11th grader at Coolidge, sports a pair of calf-high rugged-looking climbing boots called Super Tims and a $111 red, white and blue Adidas sweatsuit in near 80-degree temperatures.
"It doesn't matter how hot it is, that's fall fashion," he said. "You just crush it like that, it looks raw and the girls like it. Plus they know you can afford it."
High school students said they have taken a cue from the soft drink world for a somewhat bizarre twist in hair coloring, using Kool-Aid drink mix as a new type of dye. "It changes your hair colors, depending on the flavor," said Dansby of Dunbar. "But it's okay," she said reassuringly, "it's not permanent and washes right out."