Sarah Bleich of Torrance was shopping with her mother for shoes last week.
Not just any shoes.
As Sarah's mother, Sylvia, explained, Wednesday was Sarah's first day of kindergarten, and so mother and daughter went to Del Amo Fashion Center Tuesday to buy first-day-of-school shoes.
Sarah is only 5, and so her mother hoped to find, not simply nice shoes but magical ones. In other cultures, parents drape garlic around their children's necks to protect them. In America parents put their children on the first school bus armored with shining new clothes and footwear.
Last week, thousands of young Angelenos shopped before they studied. While the stores offered bargains on such back-to-school basics as three-ring notebook paper, the young consumers seemed preoccupied with finding the perfect outfit for this year's scholastic debut.
Red Is the Color
Bleich thought red shoes would look best with Sarah's red plaid first-day-of-school dress and so Sarah tried on scarlet Weeboks, red sneakers that might have been designed for Munchkins. Not quite right, Bleich decided, choosing a pair of dainty red sandals instead.
Even boys shopped.
Marlon Farinas, 12, was to start the sixth grade at Torrance's Halldale Avenue Elementary School on Wednesday. He spent part of Tuesday afternoon in a dressing room at a children's boutique in the Del Amo mall in Torrance.
"I hate shopping," Marlon confided. But he seemed perfectly content as he modeled surfer-inspired ensembles for his three older sisters, Christy, 16, Riza, 14, and Regina, 13. Their mother was nearby, ready to be summoned when her credit card was needed. Meanwhile, the Farinas girls voted on their brother's choices.
Marlon expressed complete confidence in his sisters' judgment.
"They have boyfriends who are skaters, and they should know," he pointed out. The boyfriends in question are masters of the skateboard, he said.
With his troika of advisers, Marlon finally chose a black tank top, a long pair of black-and-tan striped shorts, worn rolled up, and the crowning touch, a tan baseball-style jacket. The jacket, which bore the label of a hot designer of youth wear, cost $51. Marlon and his sisters all pitched in to convince their mother that the garment was worth every penny: After all, we're talking first day of school here.
The owner of an upscale children's store in the South Bay, who asked to be anonymous, observed that children's clothing is chosen quite differently from the way it was a decade or two ago. It used to be that mothers who could afford it bought a complete back-to-school wardrobe for their children, from jeans to sneaks. Lucky children had veto power. Today's children often pick their own clothes one pricey item at a time, he said. The young consumers select on the basis of which labels are currently popular among their peers.
"The herd instinct begins to play a part," he said. "Mary Jane has this brand, or Bill has this one, and pretty soon everybody has to have a particular name on their pants or it's total unhappiness."
Conscious of Fashion
The retailer said he thinks the current craze for specific labels is "absurdly expensive." A back-to-school outfit for a fashion-conscious 11-year-old boy or girl costs about $75 at his shop, he estimated.
Youngsters are being blitzed by the media to prefer certain fashions, but their parents also contribute, the retailer said.
"The mothers started them on the path when they bought them Aprica strollers," he said, alluding to a chic brand of toddler transportation. He did not mention fathers who sell their souls for a Mercedes.
Of course, some parents tolerate their children's enthusiasm for certain labels because they believe that fashionable clothing eases their children's way in the world. If a miniskirt by Guess or shorts by Jimmy'Z could help defuse the difficulties of childhood, some parents would pay twice the price.
At the Sherman Oaks Galleria, Tali Shuster of Encino looked on as her daughters fine-tuned their back-to-school wardrobes. "They've been shopping for weeks," Shuster said.
Guess Is In
Daniella, 11, was starting the sixth grade Wednesday at Portola Junior High School Highly Gifted Magnet Center in Tarzana. She wanted to wear a denim Guess skirt and pink or white Guess top with her white Keds.
Sharona, 9, was also starting the sixth grade, at Monlux Fundamental Magnet Center in North Hollywood. She planned to wear red LA Gear high-top sneakers with a black shirt and pants. She was going to carry her new pre-faded denim backpack. Sheri, 12, an eighth-grader at Portola, had more or less decided on a red cutoff shirt and white shorts, both by Dinosaur, with her white LA Gear high tops.
Jamal Hare, 13, and friend Robin Warne, 13, were doing their last-minute shopping with Jamal's mother, Gaylia, of Sherman Oaks. Mrs. Hare shook her head as Jamal and Robin detailed what they would wear on the first day of the eighth grade at Robert A. Millikan Junior High School (faded denim jeans, pale designer-label shirts and white sneakers).
"They know all the names," Hare said, as the teen-agers dropped such brand names as Genero and Bugle Boy. "It's driving me crazy."
Whatever had happened to the older boys to make them think twice about their outfits, had not yet happened to Jamal's younger brother, Rashad.
Rashad is 8, and he was going to go back to school in whatever his Mom thought best.