Mirror, Mirror: Style-savvy teens talk about the fall looks they consider head of the class.

This back-to-school season, the fashion-savviest young people shop in their own closets first. Only then do they hunt in specialty boutiques, department stores, and thrift shops for can't-live-without pieces.

High on the list this fall: anything color-blocked, dark skinny jeans, fitted blazers, filmy floral shirts, trench coats, and strapless maxi dresses. Yes, we did say strapless for fall - seasonless fashions are mainstream.

"I'm more concerned about the look than I am the label," said Emily Jung, a 17-year-old Upper Dublin High School senior who fancies herself a burgeoning vintage maven.

"It's more about fit and how it feels; I'd rather have something that feels good."

An unstable economy coupled with the rise in gas and food prices means parents are spending a few dollars less on back-to-school items this year than last, according to a survey by the Washington-based National Retail Federation.

NRF is projecting that parents will spend $606.40 on apparel, school supplies, and electronics per child this go round, compared with $603.63 last year. About $221 of that will be spent on clothing.

We recently assembled a group of seven teenagers at the Willow Grove Mall to talk to us about their fall fashion options. These teens belong to the mall's Style Squad, a group of kids who help the mall spot trends and serve as teen ambassadors for the mall. They also model the latest styles in mall fashion shows. Each is totally clear about his or her image, whether it's vintage, preppy all-American, or bohemian chic - all of which are hot looks now.

These price-conscious, label-savvy teens made their way through Macy's, looking through lace tanks, harem pants and, of course, skinny jeans. Of all the fall must-haves, we found Tara Cherwony's choice of a strapless maxi most interesting. In my day, strapless dresses would never have made the back-to-school list, just for practical purposes. But that was before layering. I must admit, a strapless dress paired with a long-sleeved T and cowboy boots - tops on my list - would be hot in a Bohemian, edgy way.

Cherwony had her own ideas. "I'm thinking of pairing it with a cardigan," she said. "Maybe even with some funky boots. I like the way they look on me."

St. Basil Academy's Coeli Turnbach's affinity for sheer floral tops also fits into the category of summer looks turned fall staples. But she is making the tops cool-weather-friendly by adding fitted blazers.

Perfectly trendy.

Dreyon Brown says he's got about $150 to spend on fashion this fall. The 16-year-old is a junior at Delaware Valley Charter High School, where he has to wear a uniform, but he needs fashionable items when he's just hanging out. "I'm into button-down shirts," said Brown, who loves shopping and clothes. "And maybe a few cardigans. I also like Vans" sneakers.

And 14-year-old James Schweitzer is into bold colors this season, whether it's a pair of slim-fitting pants or a patterned shirt.

"I'm dying for a pair of pants in salmon or cerulean," he said. "It's all about bold and straight-legged."

He must have inspired me because shortly after the interview I went to J. Crew and made my first fall purchase: a pair of fire-engine-red skinny pants.

The big winners in back-to-school shopping are big-box value stores like Target and Kohl's and mid-tier department stores like Macy's.

These stores, said NRF's Kathy Grannis, have spent the last year tailoring their private labels to fashion needs of eclectic younger customers. Macy's, for example, is enjoying fashion success with private labels like American Rag or the Material Girl Collection, a joint collaboration between Madonna and her daughter Lourdes.

Macy's is also in the midst of introducing a capsule collection by Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld this fall.

"I love these," Cherwony said as she thumbed through a rack of lace-trimmed Material Girl harem pants. "I'm just obsessed with lace right now."


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.