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DENIM & PLAID

Christopher Columbus would be right in style this year. His hometown, Genoa, on Italy's Mediterranean coast, was originally spelled genes, and legend has it that he equipped the Santa Maria with denim sails.

No wonder the fall denim 1995 look is called "updated traditional." So relax. You can stop worrying so much about those back-to-school clothes. Most parents will find them as easy to accept as their children do.Whatever was good enough for Columbus is good enough for your kids.

The '95 look is classic, clean and neat. And while the flashy designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger are leading the way, their styles are duplicated by stores with much lower prices.

The key looks this year are Ivy League, Highland schoolgirl, down home denim and lots of plaid, usually worn with baby tees.

But don't forget it has a '90s feel.

At J.C. Penney, for instance, the look is campus chic. Lucille Klein, Women's fashion director, says, "There is a return to updated classic looks. However, these fashions are hip - not traditional or boring by any means. It's preppy."

According to Jerry Clark, merchandising manager at Penney's at Valley Fair Mall, "It's denim, denim and more denim. The one exception is cotton flannel, which is making surprising headway in underwear and hooded pullovers."

Don't look for any more oversized fashions from seasons past. Instead, shapes will slip in closer to the body, producing a leaner look. Fabrics are crisp and cool, and every piece is carefully coordinated. There will be a continuation of layering, but with a meticulous flavor. Boxy vests slip over trim henleys. Denim shirts button over tees.

Shirttails tuck in, please.

Joe Sapienza, men's fashion director for J.C. Penney, says, "Silhouettes have definitely cleaned up. They remain comfortable but not exaggerated."

To keep the look from getting too serious for schoolgirls, designers are relying on details to add a soft touch. Blouses have lettuce edging, skirts are short and flippy, and thigh-high tights combine with chunky oxford shoes.

For both boys and girls, plaids are very big and will show up on everything from jumpers and skirts for girls to vests, shorts and sweaters for boys.

At Sears, the fall line sounds the same familiar note - denim for jeans, shorts, shirts, jumpers, skirts, overalls and vests. Girls will be seen in the "updated traditional" look of skorts - shorts that resemble a skirt. Kilt skirts and pleated skirts are shorter this fall with different autumnal palettes, including plums, off-greens and shades of blue.

In addition, argyles are featuring softer and more weathered shades of rusty red, autumn yellow and varying shades of blue. "Forever Plaid" is the theme for accessories for girls, including plaid sneakers and plaid backpacks. Patent leather Mary Janes, field boots and hiking boots are the clear winners in footwear.

Boys will be wearing denim jeans with plaid flannel shirts, including traditional plaids, hombre plaids and buffalo check. The shirts will often serve as jackets when worn over T-shirts.

Sears is offering Canyon River Blues, a line of comfortable denim-oriented casual wear for men, juniors and children. According to Robert Mettler, president of the Apparel Group at Sears, "The Canyon River Blues brand was developed based on intensive market research on the tastes and shopping habits of Sears customers."

Mervyn's is getting sentimental, thinking back to the school days when wooden desks, chalky blackboards and funky fashions were the norm. Even if the desks and blackboards have had a face lift, the classic school days clothing has returned with an updated look.

In the '70s, polo shirts were paired with flatfront pants for a clean-cut, classic look for boys, while a jumper with knee-high socks completed the proper school girl look. Now the boys' polo shirts have evolved from the old, hard collars to a softer collar, while solid, bold colors have become muted with horizontal stripes and patterns.

Mary Abildskov at Valley Fair's Mervyn's reports that baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts are still selling there, but the more traditional preppy look, including polo shirts and dressier pants are more popular.

The school girl outfit consists of jumpers that are available in assorted materials, such as denim, cotton, and plaid. A "new classic" style is the sweater set, which includes a sweater and shell. These sets are important for this year's juniors and misses departments, providing a sweater shell over a mock turtle neck sweater in sleeveless, short-or-long-sleeve styles.

Skooter skirts, shorts disguised as a skirt, is another classic hit for girls' sizes 7-16. These specialty skirts will arrive at school in contemporary materials, including corduroy and denim, and showcased in a variety of prints and plaids as well as solids.

Abildskov says red and black and even navy blue are the favorites for leggings to set off the scooters.

T.J. Maxx is an off-price retailing firm that grew in the recession of the mid-'70s when consumers had limited discretionary income. Consumers wanted to save without sacrificing quality and fashion.

T.J. Maxx has continued to thrive. According to Jane Joyce, T.J. Maxx fashion consultant, T.J. will offer sweater twinsets, skorts, ribbed knit tops, denim jeans and overalls, mixed-media blouses and rugged footwear for girls. For boys, it will have baggy denim jeans in a classic 5-pocket silhouette, henley tops in thermal or waffle-weave knits, denim or plaid shirts with banded collars, striped rugbys and athletic logo sweatshirts, flannel shirts and embroidered fleece tops.

If you're interested in the upscale Marithe & Francois Girbaud, the new back-to-school look for young men is the urban loose jean. It fits at the waist but is loose through the seat and thigh, and has a straight leg. The schoolgirl wears the new superslim jean, a super fitted straight leg style, worn with baby tee.

Girbaud also sports the pleated kick short denim skirt in colors like wine, bottle green and silvery blue, usually worn with plaid. Corduroy by Girbaud is incredibly soft with the comfort of a favorite old pair of worn jeans.

As for college students, they are still leaning toward a decidedly casual look. In the fall, they will be wearing khakis, cutoffs or shorts and a loose shirt or two thrown on top. John Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, says "Whatever is most comfortable but still looks put-together is what works for the student body."

Khakis, derived from the uniforms the Brits wore in India, move easily from day to night, casual to dressy, and look young and modern. The big news in khakis this season is Duck Head's "Vintage Wash" pant. These are soft, comfortable pants that are washed to simulate the wear-and-tear of 2 years, 5 years, and 10 years. They're usually worn with striped polo shirts or T-shirts.

Look for more layering on the college student, too. The flannel button-down is the '90s answer to the stiff oxford shirts of years past. Layered with a henley and a Duck Head print T-shirt, the bright flannels look great atop a pair of Vintage Wash khakis. This outfit is great for a study session, a date, or a class or fraternity party.

Corduroy pants will compete with chinos and khakis for popularity this season. At J. Crew, there are low-rider styles for girls, hung from the hips and mod, although not worn with the wide belts of the '60s and '70s. For boys, J. Crew says the corduroy work shirt is beginning to replace the oversize plaid shirt.

Child psychologists suggest that parents make a price limit clear to their children before the back-to-school shopping trip starts. Go shopping when parents and children are in a good mood - and allow the students to make most of the decisions about styles.

This is no joke - this year, you're safe.