Back-to-school shopping is always fraught with peril for fashion-conscious teens. As they prowl the stores, they know that a summer blunder can mean a long fall stuck with stuff they don't want to wear.
"That's pretty much their main worry -- how they look," said Lauren Milani, a 17-year-old senior from Victorville. "So, of course, going back to school, you want to have new clothes and look good."
There's an added challenge this year, as higher gasoline prices and a sputtering economy have many teens and their parents keeping a closer watch on their wallets. A Deloitte survey set for release this week found that 71% of parents nationwide expected to spend less on back-to-school shopping this year than they did in 2007.
Luckily, the economic woes have ushered in the hottest trend of the season: Thrifty Chic.
"It's kind of like the red badge of courage for teenagers to have something they got cheap," said Richard Giss, a partner in Deloitte's consumer business practice in Los Angeles. "I think it's a direct result of the economy."
Wal-Mart is suddenly cool, and teens are proudly shopping off-price chains such as Marshalls and Ross Dress for Less. Hipsters scour L.A. thrift shops, searching for vintage clothes. Goodwill and Salvation Army stores are "very in," said Kathryn Finney, chief shopping officer at the Budget Fashionista.
At Crossroads Trading Co. people can sell up-to-date styles and collect 35% of the appraised retail value in cash or 50% in trade.
"We buy all day, every day," said Emma Covington, manager of the Costa Mesa store.
Some kids are doing the unthinkable -- sewing.
"The DIY movement is becoming a big trend," Finney said. "There are videos on YouTube telling how to cut up your shirt and make a skirt out of an old pair of jeans."
Sandra Elyassian of Beverly Hills is working with a $200 budget this year. The UC San Diego sophomore has already spent part of it at Old Navy and plans to dole out more at Forever 21. She also likes the thrift shops.
"I make my way to Melrose on the weekend," Elyassian said. "If I need some cheap shopping I know exactly where to look."
Elyassian is something of a pro at this; she is among a group of teens who make a little extra shopping money by providing intel on teen trends to market research firm TRU.
Maddie Mayerson has a similar gig with Team Look-Look, a group of 14-to-35-year-olds who are paid to take surveys and act as field reporters, bloggers and photojournalists for Look-Look Inc.
"Shopping is my life," said Maddie, who lives in Tarzana and turns 16 on Tuesday. "I love fashion magazines, I love trend-watching, I just really love style."
This year, the Brentwood School junior wants leggings to add to her collection, the perfect fall handbag (something slightly smaller than an overnight bag), more vintage T-shirts and flat boots. Her favorite ensemble: a T-shirt, leggings and moccasins.
The T-shirt, which serves as a short dress, typically costs $5 to $20, Mayerson said.
Couture by the bale
If that sounds a little excessive, you could join the crowds that show up on Sundays for the outdoor sale at Jet Rag on LaBrea Avenue in Hollywood, where compressed bales of used clothing are dumped into a parking lot and anything in them can be had for a buck.
About 70 people swarmed around the wads of clothes last Sunday, yanking out sweaters, jeans, shorts and fleece-lined vests -- then beaming with delight when they found the perfect dress or jacket and then grabbing another armload.
"Yes!" said 11-year-old Payton Barris of Upland as she picked up a white sundress covered with pink and black roses. "I'm going to wear a white tank top under it."
"This is fabulous," Debbie Lisbey said, examining a "Jackie O-ish" black wool dress that her 15-year-old daughter, Abigail Ashley, discovered.
By the end of the day, they had made a sizable dent in their shopping -- a $24 haul that included Levi jeans, five T-shirts, more dresses and a cashmere sweater with rhinestone buttons. Next, they were heading to Steve and Barry's (where nothing costs more than $8.98) for more jeans and hoodies.
"Then shoe shopping," Lisbey said, "and she'll be done."
Inside Jet Rag, Kelsea Bauman-Murphy wondered if she might already have overdone it.
"I feel like I have too much clothing," said the Santa Monica High School senior, 17. "I come here every Sunday and I get like 10 things."
But at the shoe rack, she paused. "I don't know if you can ever have too many shoes," she said.
Teens who attend private school are plotting their strategies too. The goal: personalize their school uniforms.
Maddy Chais, who'll turn 16 on Monday, is one of them. The Hancock Park resident, a student at Marlborough School who is also a Team Look-Look member, recently roamed Wasteland, a vintage clothing store on Melrose Avenue that's more fun than anything T.S. Eliot might have imagined.