WITH MORE MONEY TO SPEND, TEENS TODAY ARE IN HOT PURSUIT OF DESIGNER BRANDS.
Byline: Melanie Kletter / Anne D’Innocenzio
That’s the new tag line for today’s teens, who have more money to spend than ever before and are lapping up luxury brands formerly reserved for their parents.
While few designer brands are specifically chasing the teen market, they might not need to. Gen Y is doing the chasing on its own, pursuing upscale labels now made more accessible in malls and downtown retail communities.
Tiffany & Co. bean necklaces, which range in price from $70 to $925, are among the most popular gifts at Bat Mitzvahs and Sweet 16 parties. Kate Spade bags, which retail from $200 to $500, can be found slung over the arms of many teens, especially those in the private school set. Many tote large agendas from names like Coach and Kate Spade, and cell phones are practically a necessity, even for 12-year-olds.
But among certain social groups, the penchant for designer goods goes even deeper. Some teens on Manhattan’s Upper East Side express a ready passion for brands such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Burberry and Chanel. And coveting such labels appears to be trickling down to less affluent circles, where teens shop for designer items at thrift stores or turn to copies to get their status fix.
Traditional junior brands are tapping into the luxury boom. Companies such as Dollhouse, DKNY Jeans Junior line and Steve Madden are introducing more upscale fabrics such as real leather and suede to take advantage of the upscale demands of today’s youngsters, though at accessible prices.
Designer status has become so mainstream that it has made it to such popular shows as Fox’s “Family Guy.” In a recent episode, the main character (a teenager), was ridiculed for not carrying a Prada bag.
What’s going on?
Unprecedented American affluence.
The number of millionaire American families has soared from 1.3 million in 1989 to an estimated five million in 1999. And demographers predict that over the next 10 years, that figure will quadruple to 20 million. The ultrarich segment of the population is also growing. As late as 1982, there were only about 15 billionaires in the U.S., while today about 270 Americans have a net worth above $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
The economic boom has brought good times for teens as well.
Teen allowances have skyrocketed, according to a new study from Ohio State University. Researchers at the university say that today’s youth gets a median allowance of $50 a week, and some pull in more than $200 a week.
According to recent study by Teen Research Unlimited, teens spent $153 billion in 1999, an 8.5 percent increase over the prior year.
Trend watchdogs, retailers and researchers, who are trying to get inside adolescents’ heads, believe that this generation has a heightened sense of entitlement and is getting used to the benefits of the good life at an early age, such as traveling with their parents on international trips, and even managing their own stock portfolios.
They also have luxe radar, sniffing out designer brands from a bin of duds in a thrift shop, and have the ability to scope out a real Prada from a fake one on the street. Their fashion role models often are, oddly enough, their parents, and they also get inspiration from fashion magazines. They shop online, but they also go to Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co. and Prada. And they actually don’t feel embarrassed to say they like to shop with their mothers.
One reason this young crowd is purchasing more designer clothes is that upscale brands have become more accessible. Previously, designer and chic urban styles used to be found primarily in such locations as Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive, but upscale suburban retail communities — Summit, N.J., and Westport, Conn., for example — are now adopting that very same attitude.
Luxury firms walk a fine line between catering to an expanded teen customer base and alienating their core, more grownup consumers. And that’s probably why these designer brands aren’t exactly publicizing their younger fans. A spokeswoman for Kate Spade, among the most coveted brands for the high school set, says her firm does not specifically target teenagers, but has a wide appeal. Tiffany said it does not market to teens, although a spokeswoman for the firm declined to discuss the issue in detail.
Retailers, however, are quick to point out an increasing interest among teens for luxe goods.
“In our more fashionable stores, the mother and daughter will come in, and price is no object,” says Joan Kaner, fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “It trickles down to accessories. We have 11- and 12-year-olds buying Kate Spade.”
And, when it comes to buying prom dresses, even turning to Laura Ashley may be considered going too downscale, for some.
Kaner notes that certain Neiman’s stores reported teens were seeking out names like Gucci, Richard Tyler, Dolce & Gabbana and Alberta Ferretti.
She attributes teens’ increasing appetite for status to several factors. For one, the teenager has become the focus of fashion, with runway models becoming increasingly younger.
“They are seeing their contemporaries walking down the runways,” she says. “They’re being barraged from all sides.”
Saks Jandel, an upscale specialty boutique in Chevy Chase, Md., has a special department geared toward teens called The Right Stuff, which carries contemporary and young designer apparel.
“We have a crowd of teenagers that mostly shops for designer,” says Souzan Khodad, the company’s buyer of European collection items. “They love Iceberg and Moschino jeans, Chloe and even Chanel.
“Younger people are definitely more aware of fashion and are willing to spend more money on clothes,” she adds. “Many times, parents will come here with their kids. For them to buy a jacket up to $700 is not unusual.”
Jack Mitchell, owner and chief executive of Mitchells of Westport, the designer specialty store in Westport, Conn., says his company has also seen increased sales from younger consumers. While the store is generally geared toward an older clientele, brands such as Helmut Lang and Dolce & Gabbana are receiving more interest from teens, Mitchell says.
Many high-end companies are using the Internet to reach out to younger audiences by pairing with Web sites such as fashionplanet.com, dailycandy.com and girlshop.com. Bluefly.com, a Web site that carries off-price designer fashion, says it has seen a strong response from teens, due in part to its lower-price points, according to Nicholas Kaplan, general merchandise manager at the firm.
Michael Wood, vice president at research firm Teenage Research, says many kids crave pricy technological items in addition to apparel and accessories.
“Cell phones, pagers, compact disc players have become popular items,” he says. “Overall, there is a lot less resistance among teens to higher price points. In the last couple of years, it has become more common for teens to make more high-end purchases with clothes.”
He adds, “Teens have more money to spend and a lot of higher-priced items are attainable for this market. It is not unusual for them to pay more than $100 for a pair of shoes. At the same time, they are very savvy and while they don’t mind parting with money, they want to make sure they are getting what it is worth.”
Wood also notes that many of them are being called on to make purchases for the entire family.
“Many families have two parents that work, and teens are more independent,” he says. “They are more in control. Oftentimes, teens are serving as the house expert on what mom and dad should buy.”
Tom Julian, a trend analyst at advertising agency Fallon McElligot, says, “Luxury today connotes quality lifestyle elements. Today’s youth have more elements that allow them to make this more a part of their life. More kids travel globally, and they are more sophisticated.”
“I don’t think there is a ceiling on what teens will spend,” he says. “So many kids today have the Gucci shoe and the Gucci bag.”
David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group, points out, “These kids don’t want to dress down. They are into the grownup labels. That’s the most frightening thing. It’s not like they are going after Tommy Hilfiger and Polo, but they want Gucci and Prada.”
He adds, “It is terrific for the fashion business. Once we train an 11-year-old, she will be a longtime designer customer.”
Teens’ appetite for designer labels is apparent by just walking the streets of Manhattan. On a recent trip to the Upper East Side, WWD spotted numerous designer looks on teens, including Burberry bags, Prada and Helmut Lang skirts and Louis Vuitton bracelets.
However, this generation doesn’t sport designer looks from head to toe, but instead likes to mix-and-match designer accessories with less pricy junior labels such as Guess and XOXO. Gucci, for example, reports that it’s not the ready-to-wear that is attractive to teens, but its accessories, particularly lower-priced handbags, which sell for $495; its $220 python bikini; $180 sunglasses, and $150 cell phone covers, according to a company spokeswoman.
A spokeswoman at Max Mara reports that it is the company’s least expensive but more forward ready-to-wear items that are attractive to teens.
She notes that the most popular looks right now are short-shorts, and big floral print designs. Customers usually buy items retailing in the $150 to $300 range.
Plenty of others don’t have the extra cash to shell out on Burberry and the like, but that doesn’t mean they’re blind to status names.
Kira Glassman, an eighth-grade public high school student from TriBeCa, says students at her school are well aware of brands such as Gucci, Prada and Tiffany, but only a handful of actually wear those labels.
But cell phones are ubiquitous, and many students bring them to school even though school rules don’t allow them on the premises. Palm Pilots are also popular items and are now considered less of a luxury, more of a necessity.
Glassman, who is entering a private high school this fall, says that the pressure to wear certain brands is more intense in private schools than in public. “Almost every single girl in private school was wearing a Kate Spade bag,” Glassman notes.
Not so for Jennifer Bucceri, a senior at Clifton High School in Clifton, N.J. For her, items over $100 are basically unattainable.
Bucceri sticks to mainstream retailers, like J. Crew, American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch and Guess, and she usually goes shopping about once a week.
“Once in a while, I spend about $100 on a pair of jeans, but usually that is too much,” she said.