Gucci and Prada for the under-13 crowd

Times Staff Writer

Dressed in pink Uggs, Seven jeans and a matching pink sweater and cap, Elizabeth Cohen looks the epitome of hip as she winds her way through the holiday crowds at the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles.

She is a discerning consumer -- her Ugg boots are not knockoffs, and she names Prada and Dolce & Gabbana as her favorite brands.

She’s also 10 years old.

“I ask her, ‘What do you need these for?’ ” said her mother, Jane Cohen of Bel-Air, who shops mostly at vintage stores and garage sales.


But the 10-year-old is hardly unusual. Elizabeth and other “tweens” -- kids who are 8 to 12 -- are expected to contribute to growing demand for luxury goods this winter.

Today, the season shopfest begins in earnest with day-after-Thanksgiving sales, crowds and traffic jams. For tweens and their older teenage counterparts, the search is on for expensive accessories, belts, purses and perhaps a pair of shoes such as those seen in fashion shows and glossy magazines.

“There’s a huge uptick in teens shopping for traditional luxury brands,” said Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Harrison Group, a strategic marketing firm that recently conducted a survey of teenagers’ preferences. “Having a Gucci scarf is part of being a kid today.”

To be sure, even on the affluent Westside of Los Angeles, these youths rarely have closets full of luxury goods.

Many, including Elizabeth, also shop at stores such as Target or Gap, looking for bargains. Frequently, they mix and match with luxury accessories.

“It’s not only the rich communities -- it’s anywhere that kids have an income,” Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard’s Retail Consulting Group in New York, said about teens and tweens buying luxury products. “A lot more kids earn money than used to, and they feel they have the right to spend their money as they see fit.”

Taylor said many of the teenagers buy these brands with allowance money or wages earned from part-time jobs. This can lead to a fair amount of spending on brands once known only to the rich and famous.

“They’re 100% more brand-conscious today than they used to be,” said Fraser Ross, owner of the upscale Robertson Boulevard store Kitson. “A 12-year-old will know what Louis Vuitton is.”

Kitson is known as a high-end Westside celebrity haunt, near the Ivy restaurant. A year ago, Ross added Kitson Kids nearby, but he said tweens still prefer items at his main store, such as $190 Seven for All Mankind jeans and $650 Isabella Fiore handbags.

Many of these customers, he said, see celebrities wearing certain brands and buy the same ones. Some browse the store aisles while their mothers have lunch at the Ivy. “I call them ABC girls -- Armani, Blahnik, Chanel,” Ross said. “They wear everything branded.”

Nor is the interest just among girls. Ever-expanding Kitson opened a men’s store in September. He included clothes in small sizes to appeal to younger boys -- often propelled to the store by their girlfriends, Ross said.

The interest in these brands isn’t just for the wealthy either, Kim Ciliberto said. She owns the Woodland Hills-based Tutti Bella, an e-retailer selling upscale baby and children’s clothing, such as embroidered pants by Nolita Pocket, an Italian brand, for $176.95.

Ciliberto’s sales have more than doubled in the last year, and her customer base is spread across the nation. Some of her clients buy the expensive items for a special occasion, she said, but others splurge on fancy baby and children’s gear for everyday wear.

“Both parents and their kids are more label-conscious,” Ciliberto said. “Parents start when kids are babies, and by the time kids are older, they recognize the brands.”

Part of this interest comes from baby boomers who have grown up in affluence, said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the NPD Group. In part, parents “want to show their status through their kids,” he said.

Cohen expects that this holiday season the interest in brands will lead to the “one for you, one for me” phenomenon, in which a mother buying a Coach bag for her 8-year-old daughter will also buy one for herself -- a boon for luxury retailers.

Designer apparel represents about 9% of teenage clothing purchases, Cohen said, far greater than the percentage just a few years ago.

But if you ask the customers, it’s not always Mom and Dad who spur an interest in brands and support luxury purchases. It’s often quite the opposite.

Alex Demopoulos, 12, of Santa Barbara recently stopped by the Coach store at the Grove during a visit to Los Angeles. She had her eye on a brown purse with a white stripe selling for more than $130. She and friend Caitlin Connor, also 12, said their favorite brands were Burberry, Juicy Couture and Gucci.

Their mothers said they shopped at stores such as Target and J. Crew.

“It all started when she was 10, on a trip to Rome,” said Cherie Demopoulos, Alex’s mother. “Her cousin kept talking about brands. I guess you need an older teen to show you the ropes.”

Kids also learn of the brands from reality TV, celebrity reports and magazines such as Teen Vogue, said Samantha Skey, a senior vice president at Alloy Media and Marketing, a New York-based youth research and marketing firm.

During their tween years, kids switch from being influenced by their parents and the brands they buy to being influenced by their peers and the brands they aspire to own.

For many tweens, identifying with a brand is part of developing an identity independent from their parents. This generation’s tweens and teens have grown up confident that they will have lucrative careers, so they feel entitled to own luxury brands.

But much of the interest in these brands is purely aspirational, Skey said.

“The number of teens owning BMWs has not significantly increased,” she said. “But the number of teens aware of BMWs has increased a great deal.”

For many, this means getting access to luxury products any way they can, such as buying knockoffs or looking for deals online. Elizabeth Cohen said many of her friends share designer handbags with their mothers.

For Lauren VanderLinden, 12, earning money to spend on luxury items makes her appreciate her purchases more. The Long Beach resident was recently at the Coach store at the Grove looking for a beige wallet to match her Coach bag. She had saved up money from pet-sitting and from a recent birthday and was picky enough to leave the store after a thorough search without making a purchase.

Confronted with the idea that she could buy a dozen bags from Target for the price of one from Coach, Lauren said she was set on a name-brand bag. Even though her school does not allow girls to carry purses, she said that after school or on the weekends, such bags are the thing to have. “Most of my friends really want one,” she said. “They just like looking at it, I guess.”