Somebody's after Tommy Hilfiger. Somebody's got it in for Liz Claiborne, too.

Both clothing designers are targets of gossip that seems aimed at hurting their businesses. Both are accused of making racist remarks about minority groups wearing their clothes.It's all over the Internet. Haven't you heard? . . .

Lie No. 1 -- Hilfiger went on Oprah Winfrey's television show and said if he'd known blacks, Asians and Hispanics were going to buy his clothes, he wouldn't have made them so nice. He intends them for upper-class white people. Oprah had to order him off the show.

And . . .

Lie No. 2 -- Claiborne was on "Oprah" and a member of the audience asked why her skirts were cut so small. And she said it was because she didn't like the way black women looked in her clothing. Oprah was wearing a Claiborne outfit at the time, and she went right to commercial, and she came back and finished the show in a bathrobe.

These stories have everything going for them except the truth.

Hilfiger says he's never been on "Oprah" and never said any such thing, anytime, anywhere. Executives at Claiborne's offices say that she was never on the show, that the company opposes practices that generate prejudice or racial division and "these unfounded stories are completely false."

This past Jan. 11, Winfrey opened her show by denouncing the gossip, saying, "It just never happened. Tommy Hilfiger has never appeared on this show. Read my lips, TOMMY HILFIGER HAS NEVER APPEARED ON THIS SHOW. And all of the people who claim that they saw it, they heard it -- it never happened. I've never even met Tommy Hilfiger."

But that doesn't end it. The talk goes on, unstoppable, difficult to trace to the source. Hilfiger and Claiborne both appear to be victims of the dark side of the Internet -- a rumor mill where charges are anonymous and nasty.

It's sort of the modern day version of the old urban legend.

Who started it? Competitors? Disgruntled buyers? Nobody can say.

But who's passing it on now? Ordinary people.

Folklorists say every ethnic group has its own myths, and sometimes the accounts are so gripping they break through racial barriers.

A generation ago the talk -- almost entirely within white groups -- was that the moon and the stars on Proctor & Gamble's logo proved the company was controlled by Satanists. Then came a spell when almost everyone, black or white, was hearing the story of the Kentucky Fried Rat.

As chronicled by Patricia A. Turner, who teaches African American studies at the University of California, Davis, in her book "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," it goes like this: "A friend or relative of the narrator stops by a branch of the fast-food franchise at night and orders a bucket of chicken to go. Taking a bite in the dark, the individual is disturbed to taste hair. When the lights are turned on in the car, a deep-fried rat is revealed."

Folklorists are intrigued and somewhat stumped by these tales. Jan Harold Brunvand, author of numerous books on modern myths, including "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" and "The Choking Doberman," notes that folk tales once were thought of as obsolete and unsophisticated traditions passed on by cackling crones in the backwoods. But he says urban legends have become a subclass in which humans of modern times replace the ancient demigods.

"One of the great mysteries of folklore research is where oral traditions originate and who invents them," writes Brunvand. "One might expect that at least in modern folklore we could come up with answers to such questions, but this is seldom, if ever, the case."

Once the originator might have been the town meanie passing gossip over a back fence. Today, it's a button pressed on a keyboard, shooting countless copies at an instant across cyberspace. The Internet is the best tool for myth and smears since the development of vocal chords.

In trying to trace urban legends, the narrator so often attributes it to a "friend of a friend" that Brunvand has coined a word for this source: "Foaf." That's who saw it, or heard it, or to whom it allegedly happened. No matter how far back folklorists track the tale, it remains "friend of a friend" and "friend of a friend of a friend" -- forever.

It's "Foafoaf."

In slurs such as those about Hilfiger and Claiborne, could it be somehow a jealous competitor trying to wreck their profits?

Turner, whose research has focused on legends about corporations in black communities, says she doesn't think so. "It would be stupid. If a competitor tried to start something, they'd be damning themselves. It's too dangerous. Eventually you'll be painted by the same brush."

For example, she says, the old myth about Reebok supporting anti-apartheid is sometimes told with the villain being Converse or Pumas or Nike. She's collected versions of the Claiborne slur when it's attributed to Gloria Vanderbilt. Sometimes a legend is told about a mouse tail found in a can of Coke, and sometimes it's in a Pepsi.

"That's one of the clues to me," she says. "What people are responding to is not necessarily a particular company but something about the product."

As she explains it, Claiborne was one of the first haute designers to reach out to working women. Claiborne wanted to make blazers that working women could afford. So instead of pricing them at $2,000, they were sold for $200.

"Now, that's a lot cheaper. But for lots of women, it's still pricey for a blazer."

It's the same problem for Snapple (falsely said to be owned by the Ku Klux Klan). Turner notes that Snapple appeared with designer ice teas selling for $1.25 when soft drinks were usually sold for 60 cents.

"Those tend to be the consumer products around which urban legends develop," says Turner. "It's consumer ambivalence toward some kinds of products they simultaneously want and yet can't justify the expense of.

"Urban legends provide an out: I don't have to yield to peer pressure to buy this Tommy Hilfiger shirt, because this person is supporting things I don't believe in."

And so, says Turner, people will firmly believe what is not true. She says she knows that Claiborne never said on Oprah's show anything derogatory about black women. Nevertheless, "There are people who tell me they can find the tape."

Hilfiger's company has tried to fight the legend, releasing statements that practically plead: "Tommy Hilfiger did not make the alleged inappropriate racial comments . . . Tommy Hilfiger wants his clothing to be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds . . . Tommy Hilfiger features models of all ethnic backgrounds in his fashion shows and advertisements."

Still, spokeswoman Peggy Chong says, "It's so frustrating and terrible. It's a domino effect. Fifty years ago, maybe you could find the source in the barber shop. Now we can't track it down. People assume its true because it's on the Internet."