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At School, Labels a Runway Hit

Youths Increasingly Indulge in Designer Clothes

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page A01

Brandon Singleton was 8 when he first saw the movie "Clueless," and it changed his life.

He was entranced by the paradise of teenage consumption that the 1995 film portrayed, a Hollywood world of valet parking and designer duds. So when he entered Suitland High School in Prince George's County four years ago, he was determined to make it his reality.

Suitland High student Brandon Singleton, 17, keeps his closet of treasured designer labels neatly arranged. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Now 17, he wears Armani sunglasses inside his mother's modest townhome on a recent afternoon as he rattles off a list of his favorite designer brands: Dolce & Gabbana, Coach and "a little Burberry here and there." His first luxury purchase was a pair of shiny black Gucci pants that he bought freshman year for $450 -- all the money he had received for his 14th birthday.

"I'm trying to do it big," he explained.

Teenagers have long been lured by designer labels, but for some, flings with high-priced fashion have become more like obsessions in the past few years. Walk down the hallways of high schools across the country, and you'll find girls toting Louis Vuitton purses to class and car keys dangling from Burberry chains.

Unlike the flannel-clad generation before them, today's teenagers are indulging more than ever in luxury goods once marketed to adults -- and paying grownup prices for them.

"People are always telling me that I walk through the hallways like it's a fashion show," Brandon said. "I tell them: 'Boo, it's my fashion show. It's my runway.' "

Designer labels account for about 7 percent of U.S. clothing purchases. But among teen purchases, the figure doubles to 14 percent, said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst with the marketing research company NPD Fashionworld. Marketing experts said those numbers reflect the increasingly sophisticated tastes of American teenagers, who spent $191 billion last year: They don't drink just coffee. They drink grande skim vanilla lattes with extra foam.

The marketers have been quick to catch on. Some of the latest ads for designer Marc Jacobs feature youthful, freckled faces. Versace enlisted pop singer Christina Aguilera to showcase its couture. Dooney & Burke, which makes handbags, has signed teen singer-actress Lindsay Lohan as the face of the brand and is giving away her CDs at its flagship stores.

Gloria Baume, fashion market director for Teen Vogue, said girls often tell her, "I am going to put all my baby-sitting money away until I can afford the Louis Vuitton pouch."

Several high-end designers even have introduced lines for children and babies in recent years. By targeting youth, marketers hope to develop brand loyalty that will last through adulthood.

Financing such a lifestyle takes it toll. A 2002 survey by the National Consumers League reported that most teenagers plan to get their first credit card during college, though more than half might not understand exactly how the card works. The average college sophomore has more than $2,000 of credit-card debt, according to Cardweb.com.

The Passion for Fashion

The college years seem far away for Lily Kunin, 16, and several of her friends at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County who, on a recent evening, discussed their obsessions over a plate of warm brownies: Uggs and jeans by Seven for All Mankind, as well as Longchamps's Le Pliage shoulder bags, which have replaced backpacks among the fashion savvy.

Lily, an admitted clotheshorse, said she has six pairs of Sevens jeans, which are about $150 each. She also has a pair of this year's coveted "classic short" lilac Ugg boots, which she bought late this summer. They are backordered on the company's Web site for $110 and next to impossible to find in stores.

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