- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS Before Claire Stern goes back to school as a high school senior this fall, she needs a new tote. Not just any bag will do, though. “I want a tote bag by Jaye Hersh that the celebrities are wearing; they’re called market bags,” says Claire, 17, who lives in Bronxville, N.Y. “It’s more stylish than a backpack.”

The bags retail for more than $100 if they’re monogrammed, and Claire has noticed actresses Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Alba wearing them.

Shopping for back-to-school apparel is a late-summer ritual. However, as tweens and teens become increasingly savvy about fashion, they’re asking for luxury products, such as $200 designer handbags and $100-plus jeans.

The International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry trade group, expects back-to-school sales to grow 5 percent in 2007 to $27 billion.

Midtier and discount retailers have been facing pressure this year as consumers cut down on extra expenses to battle rising gas prices and a sagging housing market. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, cut prices earlier this month on more than 16,000 items in a bid to turn around sales for the critical back-to-school season.

Meanwhile, the luxury market is booming. Sales worldwide topped $150 billion last year.

Teens are playing an increasing part in that, according to experts, as Web sites, tabloids and TV shows detailing celebrities and fashion make children more aware and demanding of luxury goods than ever before.

“They’re prime candidates for luxury,” says Gerald Celente, publisher of Trends Journal, a newsletter that tracks a wide range of trends. “Their world is the entertainment world, and that’s what they’re focused into.”

Jacqueline Nasser, Elle Girl’s fashion market editor, says teens take a cue from shows such as “Laguna Beach,” “The O.C.,” “The Hills” and “My Super Sweet 16” that portray a certain lifestyle.

“They have been surrounded by celebrities and TV programs where fashion is the central point,” she says. “They even have younger celebrities in the ads for designer labels — Scarlett Johansson for Louis Vuitton, Lindsay Lohan for Jill Stuart, etc.”

Lydia Stover, 16, says she regularly studies celebrity magazines such as People for fashion inspiration and cites Nicole Richie as someone whose style she admires.

Lydia, who will be going into 11th grade at Kingston High School in Kingston, N.Y., saved up $200 for a Coach bag and covets a gaucho-style bag for fall.

“Sometimes I’ll look at what celebrities are wearing and think ‘Oh, that’s a cute outfit’ and re-create it somehow,” she says.

Amy Klaris, a branding specialist at Kurt Salmon Associates, a consulting firm, says having a luxury item has become more important to teens over the past year or two years.

“There are so many icons out there right now for them,” Miss Klaris says. “There’s more people they’re looking up to and wanting to emulate, and they can do that through accessories.”

Where parents put their foot down depends on their income, Miss Klaris says, and though a wardrobe of Prada might be too much for parents to handle, they might be more willing to spend on accessories.

“They want their kids to fit in,” she says. “They’re still buying T-shirts at Target, but still having that [luxury] handbag.”

Bloomingdale’s fashion director Stephanie Solomon says teen shoppers at the department stores nationwide are clamoring after $300 Chanel sunglasses, designer handbags by Marc Jacobs, Chanel and Chloe — which can cost between $900 and $1,250 — and $200 to $300 Tory Burch shoes.

“It’s really about the accessories,” she says. “The fact that you can wear sunglasses every day and carry the same handbag every day justifies the expense.”

Miss Solomon says the recent surge in lower-priced lines by designers — Marc by Marc Jacobs, for example, or Proenza Schouler for Target — help teens afford designer fashion but also have made them aware of the higher-priced lines.

“They’re a segue into the designer sectors,” she says.

Elle Girl’s Miss Nasser also says accessories are the entry point for teens buying luxury items.

“Handbags are huge,” she says. “They are definitely a status symbol. So whether it’s Marc Jacobs, Luis Vuitton, Yves St. Laurent or Chanel, girls will want the hot bags that they see all the celebrities carrying.”

Mr. Celente, publisher of Trends Journal, says that although teens might not have full-time jobs, they don’t have many expenses, either, so they spend all their money on themselves.

The youth research company Teenage Research Unlimited, says teenagers between 12 and 19 years old spent $179 billion in 2006, or $102 per teen per week.

Teens “don’t have mortgages to pay, and they don’t have rent,” Mr. Celente says. “They have disposable income.”