Today’s teens and young adults, acutely aware of the high-end designer labels around them, are increasingly expressing themselves through conspicuous consumption. And luxury-goods purveyors from Coach to Tiffany to Louis Vuitton are falling all over themselves to cater to them.
Neiman Marcus Group is teaming up with designers such as Theory, Tory Burch and Nanette Lepore to create 31 exclusive, contemporary dresses for its department stores and plans to promote them during a Hip Event weekend on 23 March. Bergdorf Goodman has opened a special floor called 5F to attract the younger shopper. And Jones Apparel Group’s Barneys New York is expanding its CO-OP stores, which also target younger shoppers.
Leather-goods maker Dooney & Bourke offers an “It” collection of purses—which range from $65 for a “bitsy” bag to $225 for a gym bag—aimed at teens. Designed by co-founder Peter Dooney along with a group of young design students, the line has sold more than several hundred thousand units since its launch in 2003. The company calls its promotional events “teen tsunamis”, because of the waves of teens that hit the stores to buy the new looks.
In all, designer labels account for roughly 15.3% of US clothing purchases by the current group of 13-to-17-year-olds, according to research firm NPD Group. Just five years ago, designer labels accounted for 9.6% of clothing purchases by the children who were then in the 13-to-17-year-old range. Among adults over 18 years old, the figure is 7% and has remained at that level for the past seven years.
Driving the shift is a generation of young people often called the teenage millennials—the adolescents and young adults born in the late 1980s to mid-1990s. Of course, there have always been teens who were focused on the right designer names, and marketers striving to sway them. (Remember Brooke Shields in her Calvins?) But apparel makers and retailers say the affluent millennials are particularly notable for their brand consciousness. Surrounded by brand references from websites, rap music, movies, magazines and MTV, these young consumers have grown up knowing the difference between Prada and Ralph Lauren from an early age.
“The generational changes are remarkable,” says Lew Frankfort, chief executive of Coach, which estimates 5% of its North American sales are purchases by consumers 18 or younger. “Today’s young people are much more discerning because they are bombarded with so many choices and information is instantaneously available through the Internet,” he says.
Jenifer Scheehle, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who lives in Phoenix, already has amassed a sizable designer wardrobe, including a Louis Vuitton purse, Tiffany necklace and Marc Jacobs sweater. She and her teenage friends, whom her mother describes as “fashion aware”, regularly comb In Style, Seventeen and Girls’ Life magazines for ideas. “I think kids are more style-conscious than I was at their age because of heightened advertising, more disposable income and the availability of fashionable clothing,” says 51-year-old Karin Scheehle.
Parents can struggle with how to handle teens’ big-ticket requests. “If they keep their grades up, it is hard to say no,” says Bill Doyle, 42, a Los Angeles father of a 14-year-old daughter. She is very “on top of it”, with designer taste that is “way over my head”.
The extremely young age at which children, particularly girls, are attracted to designer labels initially caught marketers by surprise. Jim Taylor, vice-chairman Harrison Group, a Waterbury, Connecticut, research firm, who has long polled consumers on luxury brand preferences, never bothered with teens, whom he figured couldn’t afford brands.
But about three years ago, one of his clients, French luxury powerhouse LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said it was seeing a noticeable increase in the number of adolescents in its boutiques. Taylor began trying to measure teen enthusiasm for certain names, such as Armani, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Coach. All have seen a “dramatic uptick” in popularity with the 1,000 teens he polls aged 13 to 18, he says. Twenty-seven percent surveyed last year said they “like” or “love” Armani, up from 15% in 2003, for instance.
Marketing increasingly seeks to tap into this youth trend. Designer Marc Jacobs this month began using 12-year-old actress Dakota FanningCharlotte’s Web to promote his spring 2007 collection in W and Vogue magazines. Dooney & Bourke hired Emma Roberts, the 16-year-old niece of Julia Roberts and star of Nickelodeon’s hit show Unfabulous, as its spokesmodel.
Coach and Tiffany have introduced so-called aspirational products—silver bracelets and smaller wallets and gadget cases, for instance, that many teens view as starter luxury products.
Some marketers note that teens’ interest in designer goods could be a passing phase. “If you get these luxury products at a young age, it’s very likely you might want something different when you hit your 30s and 40s,” says Samantha Skey, executive vice-president for strategic marketing at Alloy Media + Marketing, a firm that focuses on teens and young adults. “That might mean that the teens evolve beyond the ideals of consumption and brand acquisition.”
For now, consumption does seem to be the ideal. Alison Roach, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who lives in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada, can’t afford to buy any of the designer clothes she sees on websites and in magazines. Still, she is planning for a future draped in luxury goods. She dreams up nicknames for designer gowns—calling a flowing floor length Roberto Cavalli number “Emma”, and a fitted blue Michael Kors gown “Lily”bombazinedoll.blogspot.com. It is a way, says Alison, to express “what I would wear if I could, or hopefully will be wearing someday”.
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