By RUTH LA FERLA
YOU would not accuse Tessa Sprauer of false modesty, or missing out on an opportunity to shine. “My mom,’’ she confided with a canny grin, “says I’m always reaching for a photo op.’’
Ms. Sprauer, 13, who will enter the ninth grade this fall, is highly particular about the looks that suit her, and those she deems spotlight worthy. “I’m thinking about something maybe not like so casual,’’ she said as she eyed a selection of dresses last week at Forever 21 in the Palisades Center mall in West Nyack, N.Y. “I never wear anything literally like basic,’’ she said. “Even your jeans have to be great-fitting and stylish, not just the average jeans.’’
Ms. Sprauer represents a growing number of teenagers who plan to ditch their rumpled, randomly mingled T-shirts, cargo pants and jeans this fall for a more thoughtfully orchestrated, if seemingly unstudied, back-to-school wardrobe. Many will be zeroing in on fashions with a frankly mature edge. Tunic tops, Empire dresses, argyle sweaters, mixed prints and skinny jeans — chances are that if they spied those looks on the runways or in the pages of Us Weekly or InStyle, they will be wearing look-alike versions this fall.
Savvier than their predecessors about trends, brand names and quality — and hipper about the image they hope to project — many teenagers are unabashedly style-struck. Accordingly, merchants and trend watchers predict that many teenagers will be investing sums, which previously have gone to electronic gadgets, on wardrobes that are meant to be the envy of their peers.
An intensifying infatuation with Hollywood and runway-inspired designs is pointing them to sophisticated youth-oriented brands like Marc by Marc Jacobs, Paul & Joe for Target, See by Chloé and J. Crew. According to retail analysts, that romance is expected to result in an increase of 5 to 15 percent in sales of back-to-school apparel. Indeed, clothing sales, which have been flat in recent years, are ahead perceptibly. Neither the rising price of gasoline nor an extended heat wave seem to have kept teenagers and their parents from the malls.
“I like getting more dressed up this year,’’ said Ally Zingarelli, 13. She is an eighth grader in Old Tappan, N.J., who also likes to dress competitively. “Everyone has to have accessories,’’ she said. “Big necklaces, clunky jewelry and longer shirts with leggings.
“Before, you’d wear a polo shirts and jeans,’’ she added. “Now it’s a polo shirt and jeans — and the right shoes.’’
Aileen McCluskey, 16, a junior at Culver Academy in Culver, Ind., wears a prep school uniform, but she tweaks it with headbands, big earrings and bangles, long necklaces and a profusion of clips and bows. “In junior high it was a lot of pajama pants and sweatshirts,’’ Ms. McCluskey said. “Lately we’re going upscale a bit more.’’
Marshal Cohen, the chief analyst at NPD Group, the market research firm, has taken note of the trend.
Today boys and girls “have got style in their minds,” Mr. Cohen said. “All of a sudden, dressing up is an important component of their lives.’’ Large numbers, he added, are forsaking “raggy, utilitarian clothing for statement pieces.
“This year, they are using clothing rather than gadgets to say, ‘We have style.’ ’’
Researchers say many teenagers are emulating celebrity idols like Mischa Barton, Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff and Chris Martin (the lead singer of Coldplay), some scarcely out of their teens themselves, to cultivate an impression of maturity. “Kids are going more covered up and more sophisticated, and the girls are more traditionally feminine,’’ said Rob Callender, the trends director at Teen Research Unlimited. “It’s a question of trying to look more adult. Teenagers today are 12 going on 25.’’
Paradoxically, their desire to look older is stoked in part by designer fashions — baby-doll dresses, shrunken blazers, schoolgirl jumpers and the like — that have an emphatically youthful demeanor. Often on the runways, “there is no real delineation of what is ‘child’ and what is ‘adult’ anymore,’’ said Gloria Baume, the fashion market director of Teen Vogue.
There are practical reasons, too, why fashion has become seductive to both teenagers and their parents. “Many of them rationalize that it’s less expensive to buy clothes than it is to buy a new computer, calculator or phone,’’ said Robert Passikoff the president of Brand Keys, a market research company. “And they haven’t bought clothes for a while, so there is a real market need.’’ Brand Keys is forecasting a 15 percent increase in back-to-school apparel sales this year.
Among the beneficiaries of a heightened interest in style are stores like Dillard’s, Target, J. C. Penney, Bebe and American Eagle Outfitters, which cater to teenagers. Some posted July gains in a range of 2 percent to 10 percent over the same period last year.
American Eagle Outfitters’ back-to-school fashion mix, in particular its successful interpretation of longer, more fitted shapes for boys and girls, helped boost sales by 7 percent last month, said Susan McGalla, the company’s president. At Abercrombie & Fitch a new emphasis on quality — higher thread counts, softer fabrics, more subtle washes — has resulted in a price increase of 25 percent in the last two years. “But the customer gets it and is willing to pay up for it,’’ said Tom Lennox, a company spokesman.
At stores like Abercrombie as well as Forever 21, Bebe and Intermix, young women are investing in an archetypically girl-y look, buying lavishly detailed tank tops, dresses and skirts with a grown-up flair, playing down their formality with ballet flats or heavy engineer boots and leggings. Boys are gravitating toward dress shirts and slimmer pants and the occasional blazer for nights out.
Their younger siblings prefer the slimmed-down, hip-slung premium jeans they see on their favorite rock stars. “We’re seeing a high-school-age person looking for very specific fashion items, interested to replicate the looks they see on some celebrities,’’ said Gregg Andrews, the fashion director at Nordstrom.
Boys, Mr. Andrews added pointedly, are: “more concerned about their appearance than ever before. They want to look nonchalant but in fact are quite studied. It might look like ‘Oh, I just picked this up off my bedroom floor,’ but the look is actually very calculated.’’
At Urban Kidz in Scottsdale, Ariz., designer jeans, fitted shirts, puka necklaces and coin chokers are among the most sought-after items for boys as young as 12 or 13. Lila Metcalf, the owner, says the average family is spending about $500 at the store on back-to-school items for each child this year. “And an increasing number of young men are putting that money toward clothing,’’ she said.
Teenagers at every economic level are displaying a new fastidiousness. Erika Sprauer, the mother of Tessa, teaches at a middle school in the East Ramapo, N.Y., and has seen a preoccupation with dress heat up among her charges. Few of her students are well-off, “but they spend a lot of money on their clothes,” Erika Sprauer said. “They match the colors of their shoes to their outfits, and they walk so they don’t crease their sneakers. Their clothes always look brand-new.’’
Well-off or not, teenagers know precisely what looks and effects they are after, having gleaned their fashion intelligence from an ever widening variety of sources. “We used to go to a newsstand and buy a stack of magazines,’’ Mr. Andrews of Nordstrom said. “Now the Internet allows kids to focus on fashion. They can spend a half hour at a time studying the way Pink dresses.’’
Stefani Greenfield, an owner of the Scoop chain, which caters to affluent communities in Chicago, Manhattan, Miami and Greenwich, Conn., said: “They go on Style.com. They know what’s hot, what’s in, what’s out. They know what Prada is.
“Juicy Couture to them is not high-end. And what they are going to wear back to school is a very big deal.’’
That news leaves some parents less than thrilled. “It’s not O.K. if kids see something in a magazine and emulate it outright,’’ said Karen DiDonato, Ms. Zingarelli’s mother. Still, she conceded, a teenager fussing over what to wear is “better than if your child simply rolls out of bed and pulls on her sweatshirt and jeans.’’