Mirror, Mirror: Teens style themselves

Fashionable kids are high on DIY, using ingenuity and art supplies to make - not buy - their clothes.

This back-to-school season, the coolest of the tweens and teens will hit their closets for jeans to rip, shirts to appliqué, dresses to hem, and socks to paint.

But what about flashy new duds from once-popular mall haunts Abercrombie & Fitch? Hollister Co.? Justice?

That's soooo Gen Y.

Do-it-yourself fashion is the must-have designer label for kids this fall. Not only is the process more accessible to its devotees, it's also creative and unique, and it celebrates frugality in a dicey economy where fashionable girls and boys still want something new.

The artsy crowd has crossed over to the mainstream.

"Why should I buy a pair of jeans for like $30 or $40 when I can rip them and bleach them myself?" asked Khalea Belle, 14, a freshman at Winslow Township High School in Camden County.

"Exactly," said Khalea's bud Christian Thomas, 14, of neighboring Sterling High School in Somerdale, who said he had altered about a quarter of his wardrobe. "I'm not trying to spend all my money on clothes. I'd rather spend my money on dirt bikes and sneakers."

Khalea uses A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts supplies to make some of her (and her friends') clothes-of-the-moment. Her most popular looks? Denim jackets that she paints and bleaches, and beaded galaxy shirts, a DIY take on designer Christopher Kane's dresses that are printed with images of, well, a galaxy. It's all the DIY rage on YouTube.

You'd think this would signal a drop in spending on back-to-school shopping this year.

In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, parents of children in kindergarten through 12th grade will spend about $668.62 on school supplies, up from $603.63 last year. Total spending on school-age kids is expected to reach $30.3 billion.

The figures include not just clothing but also electronics, what teens covet maybe even more than fashion. When it comes to clothes, kids recognize that recycling, especially of clothing they are bored with, is good.

When I went back-to-school shopping, all I wanted was the latest Nikes and at least one Gap shirt. Now cellphones and tablets are competing for that cash - and there's no getting around spending for the latest and sleekest gadget.

"Teens have a finite amount of money," said Tina Wells, owner of Center City-based Buzz Marketing Group, which tracks youth spending. "So they would rather allocate big purchases for things like the latest MacBook Pro than a pair of $35 socks."

This is why Rahmon Mejia, 13, decided to make his own socks. The Winslow Township Middle School teen used fabric markers to draw colorful squares on his sports socks, making them look like the bold, often Italian, dress socks popular with fashionable men last spring.

Rahmon, however, paired his socks with a pair of retro Air Jordans for a bit of youth perspective, completing his look with oversize blue Skullcandy headphones - they have an awesome sound, you know.

"I was looking online and I saw these socks and they cost a lot," Rahmon said. "I like to dress up, but I can't afford expensive brands."

The inspiration is endless: There's Etsy, the online handmade marketplace, and Pinterest and Instagram. Teens troll blogs on Tumblr to see what folks are talking about.

And then there are the '60s-era Mad Men and '20s-era Boardwalk Empire, which are stirring old-school sensibilities in a generation that has never put a premium on dressing up, especially if pantyhose and fedoras are optional.

"My friends and I shop in vintage shops," Khalea said. "And even then we will fix the clothes to how we want them."

For college-age students, DIY has a place in dorm furnishings, too.

Rowan University sophomore Emily Anne De Padua doesn't just make her own dangling wooden earrings and bracelets, she has designed bulletin boards for her room, and personalizes giant coffee mugs.

"I spend $2 on a mug and then write on it with a Sharpie," Emily said, holding a burgundy mug on which she had written "I Love Coffee."

"Home goods are so expensive, and this way I can personalize what I want."

So how do retailers getting ready to launch the highly anticipated fourth quarter lure younger shoppers who want to be instrumental in creating their clothes?

They jump on the bandwagon, said Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of the New York-based trendspotting publication Tobe Report.

"DIY is a part of fashion now, but that doesn't mean sales have to go down," Moellering said. Sneaker companies like Converse let customers design their own Chuck Taylors, picking everything from the pattern of the laces to the color of the heel stripe, and Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters sells DIY kits for jewelry, T-shirts, and home decor.

Retailers can incorporate DIY into their window displays, even their social media fashion buzz.

"Today's young people want to be unique, and creativity is an important part of their self-expression," Moellering said, emphasizing that today's teens are just as interested in making their clothes as they are in wearing them.

"I do it because I love it," said Olivia Brown, 19, a soon-to-be freshman at Philadelphia University. She was wearing a white sweatshirt to which she had added a black, white, and green zipper. "I feel like it's just what we do now."

Why do I feel like I'd better get started appliquéing?


Mirror, Mirror:

Special thanks to Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, 1515 Market St., 215-399-5679, www.buzzmg.com, and her buzzSpotters.


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