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Design Schooled

Today, teens know more about luxury brands than adults do.

September 09, 2007|Monica Corcoran | Times Staff Writer

JILLIAN HURWITZ doesn't really need to shop for a back to school wardrobe. After all, the lithe, stylish 15-year-old attends a private school where she wears a uniform every day. But that didn't stop her from hitting the racks at the Madison boutique in Brentwood on a recent hot-as-hades afternoon.

Forget cruising the mall for $39.99 Gap fall sweaters. At the moment, Jillian is dallying with an armful of designer jackets and jumpers by Marc Jacobs.

"Chanel is definitely my favorite designer," she says, emerging from the dressing room, unvictorious. She adds that her most prized purse is a black Yves Saint Laurent Muse bag, which sells for about $1,200. Her best friend, 14-year-old Jennifer Hourani, prefers her Chloé Paddington bag. But today, Jennifer is carrying a pristine white leather Dolce & Gabbana tote (it was shelved after Labor Day).

If this all leaves you aghast, you haven't spent enough quality time at the mall lately. Teens have become a force in the luxury market. The days of begging parents for a Benetton rugby or Coach saddle bag are long gone. They don't just covet luxury goods, they buy them. A lot of them, in fact.

Designer labels make up about 15.3% of purchases by 13- to 17-year-olds, according to a recent study by New York-based marketing research firm NPD Group. Five years ago, that figure hovered at 9.6%. And increasingly, luxury brands are catering to younger customers.

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Branded for life

There may be no generation as thoroughly saturated in brand advertising as this one. Beyond the glossy ads in magazines and on television, Marc Jacobs runs Internet campaigns, celebrities are paid to brandish luxury goods (and what they wear is dutifully chronicled in gossip columns and websites) and luxury campaigns feature preteen spokesgirls. Not to mention that label names are actual plot points in TV shows, music and movies.

No wonder teens talk waaaaay more about labels than their parents. A recent survey of more than 2,000 13- to 17-year-olds by marketing consultants Keller Fay Group found that kids have 145 conversations about brands per week. Adults invoke brand names about half as often.

Jillian and Jennifer are more fluent than most. They shop every weekend and quickly spot the new inventory at Ron Herman. Last summer, the girls bought purses in France and Spain -- one that they will even share. And Jillian has her heart set on a quilted red Chanel handbag for her 16th birthday in February.

Jillian and Jennifer attend the Archer School for Girls, where the dress code forbids creative ensembles and excessive jewelry. When it comes to book bags and handbags, however, the sky is apparently the limit.

"Girls at school have Birkin bags," says Jillian, referring to the iconic carryall by Hermès that commands upwards of $10,000 and a two-year wait list. "I don't know if I have seen anyone with a crocodile one, though."

Birkins as book bags?

"The luxury brands are endearing themselves to younger audiences and making an emotional connection," says J. Elias Portnoy, chief strategist at brand marketing agency the Portnoy Group. "If you develop a relationship early, you're likely to have a customer for life."

Jillian was willing to give up all of her other gifts to get the YSL Muse bag last Christmas, says her mom, Laurie Feltheimer, who oversees a fashion website called "Hot in Hollywood" on hsn.com. Dad Jon Feltheimer runs Lionsgate. "Girls today know about the 'It' bag before it even comes out," Laurie Feltheimer says. "It makes me a little sad."

Skye Peters is another 15-year-old Archer School student who shops at Neiman Marcus and Barneys for her school tights. Her dream designers are Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent -- she even pronounces Laurent flawlessly with a silent T -- and she also shoulders a YSL Muse purse as her book bag.

Skye, whose parents are the Hollywood producers Jon Peters and Christine Forsyth-Peters, says she sees classmates carrying moderately priced Le Sportsac carryalls too. "Mainly, it's the younger girls who have Birkins," she says. "I guess it's a little weird, since they are so expensive."

Then again, the news in Us Weekly and other tabloids that Lindsay Lohan's orange Birkin bag was stolen from Heathrow Airport last September enlightened her fans to the brand. An article on About.com on teen fashion lists the Hermès Birkin as a "must-have item of the moment that every handbag enthusiast should own, or at least know about."

Blame Hollywood too. Two years ago, on the now canceled "Gilmore Girls," Rory received a Birkin from her boyfriend. She promptly responded by saying, "I love you," and he replied, "The lady who sold this purse to me said that was going to happen." Now, that's a romantic spin on young love.

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Selling down, age-wise

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