Tweens report on what’s cool for back-to-school

for The Brooklyn Paper

My 13-year-old daughter has informed me that my opinion concerning teen couture is irrelevant.

I’m not enrolled in middle school and, according to Anya, I don’t have a clue how teenagers should dress. She attends the Museum School, a junior high in Manhattan. As in most middle schools, what one wears is an indicator of the clique that child belongs to and whether he or she is "cool."

Wearing clothing deemed "not cool" can turn a once popular kid into a social pariah.

Last year, hoping to save some cash and still dress her fashionably, we went to Old Navy where she stocked up on T-shirts, jeans, sweaters and a backpack. The next day she marched off, dressed in her new gear only to be dubbed "Miss Old Navy," a name she endured for months.

I spoke with Anya and her friends Annie and Katie Appleman, 13-year-old twins who live in Park Slope, about their wardrobe choices for fall. Annie attends the Churchill School in Manhattan; Katie will enter the eighth grade in Park Slope’s Middle School 51.

Anya, Katie and Annie fall into the "tween" (8- to 13-year-old) classification that, after the red-hot infant market, is the fastest-growing area of the children’s wear industry. Manufacturers and retailers have begun catering to this opinionated group who, with the help of their parents’ charge cards, hold plenty of buying clout.

The girls had definite ideas about updating their look come September.

"Since I’m going into the eighth grade," Anya said, "I want a bold, new look." Tentatively scheduled for her first day’s appearance, is a psychedelically colored, striped, knit vest with a handprint on the chest, worn over a white T-shirt and jeans. Her shoes are still open to debate.

The girls favor 4playbk, a shop on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope that caters to women in their teens to early 30s.

"They [tween girls] come in with their friends, look around, then come back with their mothers," said owner Laura Kleinman. She deems the term back-to-school "suburban," akin to the shopping done in malls, not the esoteric, small boutiques to which Brooklyn kids have access.

Kleinman’s tween customers buy lightly before school begins, making the bulk of their purchases after the beginning of the semester.

"It’s important for them to see what others are wearing," she explained.

What will the girls be wearing? T-shirts. And they’re specific about the styles. Anya’s first choice is the faded T-shirt printed with Swee’ Pea, the infant from the "Popeye" cartoons because, "The baby is so cute!"

Kleinman cited cartoon images like My Little Pony, Oscar the Grouch and Emily - a cartoon character who serves as a child’s negative alter ego (her motto is "seeing is deceiving") with her own Web site, - as big sellers.

"Everyone tries to find a shirt that will make their friends say, ’Oh my gosh, I want that shirt!’" said Katie.

Kleinman agrees. "T-shirts are the number one item in my store," she says.

The perfect jeans to wear with T-shirts were discussed at length.

Anya likes boot-cut, low-rise styles from Old Navy that she’ll mix with items from other stores. (No more Miss Old Navy.) Petite Katie prefers the slim-cut jeans from Limited Too that fit her snuggly.

Annie also likes Limited Too’s styles because, "They just fit right." No mention was made of the looser, big-pocketed cargo pants that are selling briskly at 4playbk.

While mothers usually frown on 13-year-olds wearing makeup, the girls agreed that no-color lip-gloss with a glittery sheen is OK for school. (This mother concurs.) And for special occasions, sparkly eye shadow in very pale tones makes them feel pretty.

Younger children I spoke to had little to say.

Five-year-old Claudia Mallea, who lives in Windsor Terrace and attends the Children’s School, in Carroll Gardens, said she didn’t "have the slightest idea" what to wear to school, but likes the white tutu from ballet class, and her 9-year-old sister Cara’s green, terrycloth pajamas.

Cara, while technically a tween, sticks to stretch pants and T-shirts.

"It’s all about comfort," said Tamara Ehlin, their mother. "They’re not into fashion yet."

To see if the Mallea girls represent the younger set, I called Bridget Williams, the proprietor of Hot Toddie, a children’s boutique in Fort Greene.

"They shop with their parents," Williams said of her infant to 7-year-old customers, "but they have opinions," she added. Williams’ customers love Little Pack Rats "cute, funny" backpacks appliqued with zebras, lion heads and butterflies.

Like Kleinman, T-shirts in Williams’ store are "blowing out the door." Her customers favor tops printed with the word "Brooklyn," or vintage-style looks that say, "Breuckelen" (the Dutch spelling of Brooklyn, that means "broken land").

I looked at my daughter before she left for camp a few weeks ago. She was wearing lip-gloss and eye shadow that she hoped I wouldn’t notice. Her T-shirt, printed with a faded Bambi, exposed a couple of inches of skin above her low-cut jeans. I wondered if her outfit was more revealing than the Land Lubber’s and the belly-baring shirts I wore at her age. I realized that in the years since I was 13, tween dressing has come full circle.

Her look was no worse than mine had been; it was identical.

4playbk (360 Seventh Ave. between 10th and 11th streets in Park Slope) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. For information, call (718) 369-4086.

Hot Toddie (741 Fulton St. between South Portland Street and South Elliott Place in Fort Greene) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner’s Club and Discover. For information, call (718) 858-7292.

Reader Feedback

Claudia from windser terrace says:
I was a cute five year old. This is Claudia Mallea, except now I'm ten.
April 28, 2008, 7:14 pm

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