U First Fashions & Sports in Temple Hills is filled with the newly hip and the newly obsolete in apparel, displayed hierarchically according to the tastes of the region’s teenagers and young adults. The item of the moment — the Helly Hansen jacket — commands prime real estate high against a back wall.
Burglars who targeted the shop in an Allentown Road strip mall in September bypassed previous years’ hot items, such as Nike shoes, Timberland boots and Sergio Tacchini tennis shirts. All they took were 20 items from Helly Hansen.
“They knew right where to go,” the store’s 36-year-old owner said this week.
Luxury brand Helly Hansen is this year’s fashion statement. The fad is now attracting crime, police say, with the $450-plus designer jackets being sought at gunpoint as well as at the cash register. An Olney teenager was fatally stabbed Nov. 17 at the Woodley Park Metro station after confronting another teen who was wearing his stolen jacket.
How a jacket or a pair of shoes becomes so hot, so desirable, so alluring that someone would kill for it remains elusive. Before Helly Hansen, it was North Face. Before that, it was sneakers. A teenager, in fact, was killed in Northeast in January for his Nikes. Two days after the Metro stabbing, an 18-year-old was robbed of his Helly Hansen at gunpoint as he walked home from Surrattsville High School in Clinton.
Maj. Jason B. Bogue, the head of Prince George’s 5th District, said police always ask why and rarely get a good answer.
“When we do talk to them, we ask, ‘So, why did you do it?’ ” said Bogue, whose beat includes Clinton. “Was it specifically for this jacket or for this pair of shoes? Some say, ‘I wanted pocket money,’ or ‘I wanted something for my mom.’ ”
“There is still shock value in motive,” Bogue said. “First we shake our head and get a little bit angry. How stupid could people be to kill somebody for a jacket or a pair of sneakers? Then comes empathy and sympathy for all the families involved.”
Back at U First Fashions, two high school freshmen — one sporting a hat with the brand’s “HH” insignia — wandered into the shop near Andrews Air Force Base.
They gazed up at the Helly Hansens on the wall, out of reach of their hands and wallets. All their friends have them, said the boy in the hat, and he vowed that he would, too.
“They look good,” he explained simply.
The father of one of the teenagers had a different thought. “He can look at them, but as far as him getting one, that’s out of the question,” said Kennard Jones Sr. Too expensive and too dangerous, Jones said.
“It kind of reminds me of when I was young, in the ’80s, when the Michael Jordan shoes first came. We couldn’t afford it, but the pressure we put on the parents was outrageous. My parents told me, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ ” he said.
He added, “I would be scared, definitely, if my son had the jacket. I think somebody would try to rob him on the way to school. When I was young, they would take your jacket, but they wouldn’t take your life.”
Helly Hansen executives declined to be interviewed. In a statement issued through a publicist, Erik Burbank, the company’s vice president of global marketing, called the Metro stabbing “a heartbreaking and senseless tragedy. There are simply no products that have a value equal to a human life.”
Helly Hansen markets to sailors, skiers, outdoor adventurers and those who want to look like them. Their jackets include down parkas, fleece hoodies and windbreakers, many in the bright colors that appear to be in this year. The clothing line was started by a 19th-century Norwegian sea captain and generally caters to the Aspen ski crowd. But now it has become the rage in the District’s hip-hop culture.
The company’s Web site calls its products perfect for the rugged outdoors and “the streets of Europe’s fashion capital.” Prices for the clothing can exceed $650.
In the D.C. area, the owner of U First says, shoppers opt for pink sailing jackets with green hoodies that can cost $450. It’s not just women and girls scooping them up, he says, but also men and boys who buy them to match the $300 pink Nike Air Foamposite shoes that recently hit stores. The name of the shop’s owner is not being used because The Washington Post does not name victims of crime without their consent.
Trendy jackets and other fashion staples are nothing new — recall, for example, Triple F.A.T. Goose, 8-Ball and Starter, and shoes such as the Reebok Pump and first-generation Nikes. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a simple reason Helly Hansen is in this year.
Area retailers insist that they were as surprised by the fad as anyone and have struggled to meet demand. And while the brand was linked with hip-hop culture during a boomlet in the 1990s, experts struggle to find a contemporary connection.
It seems largely concentrated in the D.C. area, said Dave Mays, co-founder of Hip Hop Weekly magazine. The District “has a history of being a very stylish city,” he said, credited with launching the Timberland boot craze in the 1990s, creating “the staple shoe of the hip-hop generation.”
“Hip-hop culture is always looking for something new and different,” Mays said. “We take traditional brands and reinvent them with an urban flair, and they get adopted to our own market.”
Mays said Helly Hansen advertised in another magazine he founded, the Source, in the early 1990s. Around that time, the brand turned up in rap lyrics, and its puffy ski jackets — designed specifically for the hip-hop market — were sported on stage by Funkmaster Flex and Redman over large gold chains.
In March, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier mentioned Helly Hansen as she ticked off items popular with criminals. The stabbing of 18-year-old Olijawon Griffin at the Metro station cast new light on the issue, and police said another man was robbed of his Helly Hansen jacket at gunpoint Nov. 27 in Southeast.
Two days after the Metro stabbing, Gay Carden said, her 18-year-old son was the victim of the Clinton robbery.
“They were after his Helly Hansen,” Carden said. “It’s every kid’s dream to have a Helly Hansen. But if I had known there was so much danger that comes with the coat, I never would have gotten him one.”
Shopping at U First this week, Peggy Welch of Upper Marlboro said both her daughters, ages 13 and 23, wanted Helly Hansens for Christmas. She said yes to the older one but not the teen because of concerns for the younger girl’s safety.
Welch said she doesn’t understand the allure, but she knows this much: “It’s the hottest thing out.”
Maggie Fazeli Fard and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.