Baby hipsters and BFFs Kaylee Vega and Madi Spadaro, both 13 and from Redondo Beach, are navigating the South Bay Galleria in Torrance with shark-like aggression. They've been saving pocket money all summer, and now, just weeks before school starts at the end of August, they're hitting the mall, determined to put together the most fabulous possible wardrobe for fall 2012. After all, no one wants to start the new semester looking "awkward" (Vega and Spadaro's word du jour).
All across Southern California teens have been making the same pilgrimmage this month. Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District went back to class on Tuesday; other districts are rolling out their start dates over the next three weeks or so. For parents, it may be all about finding functional gear at a reasonable price. For teens, it's about fashion and fun. We're tagging along with Vega and Spadaro on a recent Saturday to get some insight into what's cool enough for school this year.
They skid to a halt by a stand selling cell phone cases. Some look like cartoon puppies, others mimic 1980s cassette tapes, more are covered with Murakami-esque polka dots. "One of my friends had a completely mirrored phone case," says Vega, contemplating the ultra-bedazzled iPhone cases. Directly opposite is an Icing by Claire's Accessories store, selling bags, jewelry and other accessories. They wander inside. "Icing is more teenage than Claire's is," explains Vega, while Spadaro holds a pair of big, dangly, faux-crystal earrings to her ear. At $12.99, they're not especially cheap for a 13-year-old. "It's OK, I have a million gift cards for this place," Spadaro says.
Next door is Hot Topic, a chain of pop-culture inspired boutiques (more than 600 across the nation) geared specifically towards fashion rebels and underground music fans, although more laid-back kids often like to stop in for accessories. Vega and Spadaro head straight for the rubber bracelet display, oohing and aahing over one that has "BESTIES" printed on it in capital letters. Turmoil ensues when they spot a unicorn backpack, whose attached hood has a unicorn's horn projecting from it. More squeals when they spot the black and white backpack that mimics a skunk. Squeals explode into piercing screams when Kaylee's half sister Peyton Bishop surprises them in the store. Bishop's mom and dad are in the food hall, and she convinced them to let her shop with Vega and Spadaro for a half hour or so.
Bishop, a 5-foot-9 15-year-old who dreams of becoming a model, freezes — she's just spotted something major. "Oh my god Pikachu!" A huge Pokémon fan, she sprints over to the Pikachu backpacks. "This is like Peyton's favorite store," explains Spadaro. She and Vega think Hot Topic is OK, but they're bigger fans of the more chilled out fashions at PacSun and Tilly's. Tilly's is Spadaro's favorite store, selling looks by Vans, Volcom and other major surfwear and skatewear brands. "They have all the latest stuff, and the most amazing backpacks," says Spadaro. Vega's spiritual home, on the other hand, is PacSun, the Anaheim-based clothing brand with more than 800 stores in the U.S., selling looks by skate, surf and streetwear labels as well as its own fashion-forward designs. "I'm in love with PacSun," Vega says. "Its all beachy stuff…the one in Redondo Beach is the coolest." As far as their fashions go, all three girls are SoCal through and through, although PacSun has a slightly sunnier vibe than Tilly's, which is 100% skater cool, with Hot Topic blending all three with a little Black Sabbath metal chic thrown in for good measure.
Regardless of whether you're a PacSun beach hipster, a Tilly's skater girl or a Hot Topic heavy metal chick, there are some things that transcend all teen fashion borders for back to school this year — like Adventure Time. An animated series set in the "Land of Ooo," Adventure Time features characters such as the "Everything Burrito," an extremely large tortilla filled with almost everything that is food. A T-shirt bearing the likeness of the Everything Burrito causes near hysteria in all three teens. Likewise, mustaches are still very hot for back to school — Spadaro likes the mustache mood rings at Hot Topic in particular. Also hot are furry animal hats with ears, like the ones from Spirit Hoods. "You can wear them in school, just not in class," Spadaro explains. Detachable furry animal tails are in. "Everyone wears tails," says Bishop, clipping one (priced $14) to the back of her jeans. Anything Domo, a brown monster who is the official mascot of Japan's NHK TV station, works for back to school. "Domo is like the biggest thing you need to get," says Spadaro. "Domo everything. Domo in general." Likewise with suspenders. "I need suspenders or I will die," announces Vega, and the others agree. All three girls buy a pair, Vega in checker-print, Spadaro in teal and Bishop with little Batman logos.
But what about back to school fashion fails? Tutus are out, ribboned corsets are a "hell no" ("I wore those in fifth grade," says Peyton), and there's continuing controversy about skulls. Spadaro thinks skulls are super awkward, and Vega agrees ("they scare me.") But Bishop is a fan. "I'm an oddball," she explains. "I don't want to blend in with the everyday crowd." The rift between the girls is heightened when Vega and Spadaro spot a series of One Direction tees at the back of the store. One Direction, in case you haven't heard, is pretty much the biggest boy band in the world right now, kind of like five British-Irish Justin Biebers singing about teen romance. Bishop could care less. "I don't like One Direction, I like heavy metal," she shrugs. "And Justin Bieber can go die in a hole."
Hot Topic fully mined, the girls head across the way to Tilly's, where they are met by walls upon walls of Jansport backpacks. Spadaro loves the tie-dye and neon print bags; Vega's into the ethnic prints, while Peyton makes a beeline for the "Stach Straws," drinking straws with mustaches attached at the top. She gets a kick out of the longboard skateboards on display too. "Longboards are the perfect paradise of surfing on the ground," she coos. Vega and Spadaro browse the selection of Soda shoes — "they're like Toms but way less expensive" — before hopping back across the way to Spencer's, which sells Pikachu and Domo gear alongside caps and tees emblazoned with distinctly R-Rated frathouse type sentiments. "I feel really awkward in here," says Vega. "Can we leave please, before I am scarred?"
Vega wants to visit PacSun, but is horrified to lean that the SouthBay Galleria no longer has one. A few days later we send her photos of some of PacSun's latest back to school fashions, a pair of flower print skinny jeans, an ethnic print black and cream sweater, and some distressed skinny jeans in black. Vega's response, sent via text message, is immediate and confident. "i loved the flower pants they're my fave i wouldnt wear the sweater only bcz it lacks awesome colors but its definity cute i luve the ethnic print its totally in so is floral print," she wrote. With just days left before school starts, another visit to the mall, she says, may be in order.