The economics of kid couture

American youths create a complex code of fashion - then aim their discretionary cash at living up to it

Carolyn, Kristin, Laurie, Meg, and Rebecca are veteran shoppers. They've foraged the malls of suburban Boston together since seventh grade, armed with their parents' cash and income from steady babysitting gigs.

Early on, their parents would often screen the girls' picks before reaching the checkout line, or exercise veto power once the clothes were unveiled back home.

Now, however, the balance of responsibility has shifted. Each of the 16-year-olds from Somerville, Mass., holds a part-time job. As a group, they buy all of their clothes with their own money.

Their parents, they say, are more or less bemused observers.

"Moms work. They especially don't want to shop after work," says Meg Rabinowitz.

But Meg admits that, even if her Mom had more free time, she might be overwhelmed by the girls' schedules and tastes. They go shopping every week, and their clothing preferences are difficult to predict. "We're all different, and our tastes change," says Rebecca Rais. "One day we're sophisticated, one day we're laid back, the next we're preppy."

photos by ari denison/special to the christian science monitor

As back-to-school shopping picks up, significant shifts in the dynamic of parent-adolescent money matters are in plain view in shopping malls and family living rooms across the country.

Adolescents have become more independent over the past few years. They have more cash, and their tastes are increasingly varied. On top of that, an intensification of marketing has altered the path by which teens get their fashion information.

Many parents say these changes have pushed them further outside the fashion loop.

"Parents have basically handed off decision making in this area to their children," says Greg Livingston, executive vice president of Wondergroup, a Cincinnati-based marketing firm that focuses on teen consumers.

According to a back-to-school survey by American Express, 57 percent of teens say their parents do not have the final say over what they buy - a 4 percent increase over last year.

Mr. Livingston says the streak of self-reliance is most prominent among kids in single-parent and dual-income households, which comprise about two-thirds of all American families with teens. "In many cases, they're letting their teenagers participate in decisions in order to make the process easier for everyone," he says.

Teenagers will likely spend an average of $101 on back-to-school purchases - a $12 jump from 1997. More will use the discretionary cash to buy clothing than any other product, according to American Express.

"Kids are bringing home sizeable amounts of money," says Livingston. "It's not uncommon to see girls buy $200 fall coats."

Mary Lou Bianco, from Watertown, Mass., works with two extremes. Her son, Griffin, is easy to shop for at 13, preferring blue jeans and button-down flannel shirts from Eddie Bauer. She still takes him shopping because he has yet to decode the logic behind clothing sizes.

Ms. Bianco's daughter, however, is a self-sufficient shopper. The 17-year-old has more freedom to pick and choose. And many of her purchases conflict with her mom's better instincts.

That includes bringing home midriff-baring shirts and low hip-hugging jeans. Pragmatism compels Bianco to sign off on most of her choices. "If you don't let them buy what they want, you waste money, because it just sits in their dresser," she says.

The feeling of exasperation is widespread. In many cases, friends are more often assuming the role of consultant - once filled by parents - on both fashion and money matters. According to many teens, their parents lack an understanding of the context of their social lives.

Even teenage boys, unlikely to spend much time at a mall a decade ago, often incorporate an afternoon trip with friends to American Eagle and Structure into a weekend of baseball and video games.

Fifteen-year-olds Jason Nascinento and Mike DiSano, and 14-year-old Ferris Quish, have shopped together for two years. They say they often buy the same clothing. During a trip to a mall in Cambridge, Mass., last weekend, each was wearing a black sleeveless shirt.

Marketers have taken advantage of parents' loosening grip on their children's clothes-shopping by directing their message at the grass roots of teenage life.

Researchers will often infiltrate teen subcultures - like skateboarders or video gamers - that are associated with distinct lifestyles. They frequently shower these "communities" with free samples, sponsor their events, and advertise on their websites.

"Rather than do a lot of advertising, they literally hook up with bands teens are interested in, or surfing activities, on a person-to-person basis," says Adelle Kirk, a brand specialist for Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm in Atlanta.

Some retailers even maintain promotional websites that are fashioned to look like the spontaneous creation of a talented teen.

Their ultimate hope is that mainstream consumers will eventually want to adopt the product's alternative image as their own.

The urban hip-hop FUBU brand came to life in the garage of its designers, and spread out from their neighborhood. The creators started wearing it, distributed it to their friends, and sold it at the clubs they frequented, says Ms. Kirk. Initially directed to African Americans, FUBU is beginning to transcend its demographic base.

Marketers' emphasis on clothing's lifestyle component has made teens intensely brand-aware, experts say. And, in most teen cultures, the labels have carved out niche identities.

Even on T-shirts, labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch connote a far different (generally preppier) message from a FUBU top, which clearly represents an urban image.

Among girls, the Gap, which could once do no wrong among the teen set, is now considered a bit moldy compared to Express/Limited, experts say.

"The Gap is old-woman and businessy," adds 16-year-old Laurie Connelly of Somerville.

"If you see your friend wearing Limited [clothing] you can draw certain inferences from them. It says the person is very stylish, that that person has a lot of money," says Jennifer Gregan-Paxton, a marketing professor at the University of Delaware.

Ryan McCusker's style has matured from a baggy hip-hop look to preppier outfits as he enters his junior year of high school. He says his own tastes and those of his peers hew closely to major labels.

"People wouldn't recognize nonbrand clothes," says Ryan.

Matt Nichelson, 14, is explicit about fitting in. "You've got to dress in ways that people want," says the Watertown native. "Usually it's a brand everyone likes, like Structure or Old Navy."

Given the opportunity to bypass parents' critical eye, some retailers have begun offering more mature designs - a move that has provoked some controversy.

"If the kid is the decisionmaker, they give the kid what they want, which is the age-old wish of wanting to be older," says Prof. Gregan-Paxton.

The trend hit close to home when Hannah, Gregan-Paxton's 9-year-old daughter, found a pair of high heel boots in a Limited Too catalog for pre-teens.

"If it's in there, that is a signal to her that it's appropriate to wear," says Gregan-Paxton.

'I don't wear stuff that's bogus," says 15-year-old Joey Salerno. By bogus, Joey - a terse high school freshman with the accent of a Boston city councilman - says he means the T-shirts of controversial rock groups or trendy off-brands like Ecko and FUBU.

"I buy what I like, it has nothing to do with my friends," he says. Joey prefers quality brands that look slightly worn and feel comfortable.

So does Norton, Mass., native Kristin McCall. "I could have a potato sack on, and these girls would still like me," says the 16-year-old.

Such sentiments, experts say, are part of a small but growing teenage backlash against fashion hype.

About 17 percent of teenagers are more or less indifferent about fashion, according to Teen Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Chicago.

It's a rare stance, experts say, at a time when teens are exposed to an estimated 3,000 ads a day, many of them fashion related, according to Adbusters, an consumer activist group.

But there are ways for teens to see through the hype. A significant step is to think critically about what appears to be harmless entertainment, says Elizabeth Thoman, president of the Center for Media Literacy in Santa Monica, Calif.

"The key to analyzing our culture is learning to ask questions about the powerful messages from media," says Ms. Thoman.

Teens "should be asking, who made this product, and why are they making it for you?" says Thoman. "What we want them to be is not cynical but analytical."

Dan Kindlon, an author and child psychologist at Harvard University, emphasizes a holistic approach to prevention.

"Parents have to focus on character development," says Dr. Kindlon. "If you have parents who are always focusing on the external world, as opposed to the introspective world, kids are going to more often seek external fixes to problems."

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