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These days, some teens covet expensive brand names in purses, accessories

September 25, 2007

LOS ANGELES – Jillian Hurwitz doesn’t really need to shop for a back-to-school wardrobe. After all, the 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. 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 Chloe 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 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 percent of purchases by 13- to 17-year-olds, according to a recent study by New York-based marketing research company NPD Group. Five years ago, that figure hovered at 9.6 percent. Increasingly, luxury brands are catering to younger customers.

There may be no generation as thoroughly saturated in brand advertising as the one growing up right now. 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 Web sites) and luxury campaigns feature preteen spokesgirls. Not to mention 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 Hermes that commands upward 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 her other gifts to get the YSL Muse bag last Christmas, says her mom, Laurie Feltheimer, who oversees a fashion Web site called “Hot in Hollywood” on 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.”

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.

French luxury retailer Hermes doesn’t market to teens, but other designers have no qualms about courting the Clearasil set. In this month’s Teen Vogue, glossy ads for oversize fall handbags by Gucci, Chloe, and Louis Vuitton can be found in the first 10 pages of the mini-magazine with a cult following among teenagers.

And that’s just the ads. The women’s media Web site recently tallied the prices of the merchandise featured in the editorial content of the September issue of Teen Vogue to a total of $74,458. Per their research, Cosmopolitan – not CosmoGirl, mind you – rang in at just $27,636.64.

Even Karl Lagerfeld’s recent announcement that he will design a line of eponymous handbags and luggage that won’t exceed $1,000 sounds like a way to target his adoring adolescent Chanelphiles.

“I get it,” says Jillian, over a cup of pea soup at California Pizza Kitchen. “These designers know that we like their brands and want to suck up to us.”



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