Uniforms cool? H&M says so

And it's not the only chain catering to public-school demand.

An H&M store in New York City offers standard uniform items in the kids' department. Sears, Target, J.C. Penney, and other retailers have done likewise, prompted by the growing number of public school districts adopting dress codes that require specific clothing, such as khaki pants and navy polo shirts. CARMINE GALASSO / The Record   

Retail chains have done the math and decided that selling school uniforms is a smart move at this time of year.

Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M last week joined the ranks of major stores that include standard uniform items - khaki pants, navy blazers and jumpers, and white shirts - in their back-to-school offerings.

H&M is joining a trend that Sears, Wal-Mart, Target, J.C. Penney, Old Navy, Children's Place, Burlington Coat Factory, and others have jumped on in recent years, prompted by the growing number of public school districts adopting dress codes requiring specific items of clothing, such as khaki pants or polo shirts in a specific color.

And, according to H&M, the uniform look isn't just a school rule, it's also cool.

Jennifer Ward, H&M spokeswoman, said the collection ties into a fashion trend she described as "Anglomania" - with the uniforms echoing the look of British students. Even if students aren't required to wear uniforms, Ward said, the navy, khaki, and white pants, jumpers, and tops can be styled "to create a school uniform look."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of U.S. public school districts requiring uniforms has grown steadily over the last decade. In the 2009-10 school year, 19 percent of districts required uniforms, up from 12 percent in 1999. The National Retail Federation also has tracked an increase in uniform wearing. In its back-to-school survey of parents this year, 22.5 percent said their children would be wearing uniforms to school, up from 15.8 percent in 2007.

NPD Group, of Port Washington, N.Y., estimated in 2000 that uniform sales accounted for 5 percent of the children's clothing market, or $1.1 billion. If that percentage were the same today, sales would be more than $2 billion.

Uniform maker French Toast, a division of LT Apparel Group, which operates its online business and warehouse out of Dayton, N.J., has been one beneficiary of the public school uniform boom. "We were the first company to bring school uniforms to mass merchants at retail," and to offer parents a less-expensive alternative to traditional uniform companies, said Michael Arking, president of FrenchToast.com and vice president of the school uniform division. The company sells school uniforms under the French Toast and Lee brand names and makes private-label uniforms for retailers. Arking said the company had double-digit growth in uniform orders this year, although it does not release sales figures.

In the 20 years French Toast has been making school uniforms, the company has seen their popularity increase, Arking said. "As school uniforms get into the movies, and television shows, and, of course, Harry Potter, it's been going that way for a while," he said. Students and parents "are more comfortable with this idea of school uniforms than they've ever been probably in the history of school uniforms," Arking said.

Unlike parochial and private schools, which usually require parents to special-order uniforms with insignias or designs unique to a specific school, public schools, in order to make the uniforms more affordable, often simply specify the colors the students must wear and the type of shirts that are allowed, such as a polo shirt.

"When these public school uniform programs started taking off, that's when we saw a lot of the bigger retailers come in the marketplace," said Sean Flynn, an owner of Flynn & O'Hara, a Philadelphia-based company that has 29 uniform stores in the eastern United States, including a store in Emerson, N.J. The generic pieces offered at the chain retailers haven't cut into his business too much, Flynn said, because the private schools usually want all of the uniforms to match, and therefore pick one supplier.

"In a school where there's a true uniform program, they want their navy pants to match, they want the red sweaters to match, the logo to be the same, they want the kilt to be the same," Flynn said. "There are a lot of schools that will require a navy kilt or a navy skort [combination skirt and short], but a navy kilt or skort are going to be available in 100 different shades of navy or patterns" at the mass merchants.

Flynn said he also has seen an increase in public school clients who want a specific, identifiable uniform, and also a surge in public charter school customers.

Flynn and other uniform supply companies said the chain retailers could be siphoning off some of the non-insignia items, such as a spare pair of khaki pants or an extra set of plain white shirts. Flynn said one fact that helps uniform suppliers is that chain stores tend to carry the most common sizes, while suppliers like Flynn & O'Hara have to stock every size. "If you walk in and you're Andre the Giant, we need to make sure you have a pair of pants, a shirt, a tie, and a sweater that's going to fit you," he said.