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Talk to Your Teens...

Somewhere in between mom’s carefully pressed and laid-out daily assembly and business casual, the juniors market hangs along the you-are-what-you-wear spectrum. They’re not kids anymore but, as much as they want to be, they’re not quite grown-ups either. So what to offer this eclectic group of distinctively non-youth/non-adult constituents? Industry players, retailers and teen patrons themselves sound off below on what’s in, what’s out, and what’s behind today’s teen marketplace.

Market makers

More than just middle-road sizing, the juniors market can be defined through the unique and culturally-relevant items it commands and consumes.

“Teens demand up-to-the-minute information and campaigns that cater to their lifestyles,” states Boxercraft’s Luiza Raposo. “Teens are constantly plugged into their friends and, often, the media. They like to be the first to experiment and adopt new products. It is important that a campaign focus on new items and appeal to their lifestyles.”

Adolescents with unambiguous desires, yet minds open to new ideas, is what sets this category of apparel apart in Raposo’s eyes, who mentions a recent demand for slim-cut tunic-length tops for layering, and low-rise longer-length lower-limb items for a modern silhouette.

U-Trau designer Kirsten Herzig also speaks on specific silhouettes in defining today’s options for juniors: “It’s still that long torso on the tops,” she reports. “The bellies have gone away. No cap sleeves, they like a little bit of a longer short sleeve.”

With styles that once reached great lengths now shrinking back again, juniors’ shorts are about the only garment that hasn’t gone long.

“At one point, it was all about the knee-length short,” states Herzig. “We’re now finding the hemlines creeping back up again, and the shorter shorts becoming more popular.”

Even with last season’s dollars shipped over to shorter shorts, lengthy shorts and even longer capris still represent a firm placeholder for this market, according to Herzig.

Also picking up steam among teens, non-performance oriented fitness items and iPod-enabled garments.

“They’re carrying their iPods, so why not make a pocket to fit it?” she asks. “We’re not the first to do it, but it seems like a no-brainer for us.”

Whatever the trend, teens pick up these and other popular styles somewhere between their genesis and commoditization, falling into a fashion hierarchy of sorts.

“The promotional teen marketplace has always looked to retail for ways to freshen up their product offerings,” Raposo reports. “Fashion trickles down from high fashion to retail, then to the promotional-products industry. This is the case mainly because styles and trends must reach a mass-audience acceptance first before becoming a promotional product.”

As an important part of this schema, retail and those immersed within it have a lot of insight to offer this discussion.

Retail recap

In a mellow Tuesday-afternoon mall devoid of all teenagers but the ones employed where they love to shop, Ciara Richardson, age 19, stands folding low-cut button-up shirts at Abercrombie and Fitch. A dimmed and thumping club-like milieu is a good indicator you’ve passed through the store’s perfumigated entryway where, at any moment, it seems likely teenagers may begin grinding amid the empire-waist sweaters, furry-hooded sweatshirts and jackets, and fat horizontal stripes.

While that may not happen, what you’re even less likely to see these days is a lot of embroidery. According to Richardson, she and fellow teens aren’t after embroidered items because they go out of style faster than the plain items they are buying up and layering.

U-Trau’s Herzig has experienced this shift away from embroidery, which seems to tip the scale toward alternative decoration techniques: “As far as embellishments, our embroidery machines have not been used in a couple years,” Herzig remarks. “It’s all screening for us. Screen printing, big screen prints, mixed media, sewn-on letters, really large graphics, glitters, puff inks, just a lot of three-dimensional. We’ll do a puff ink with flat ink so it gives it the three-dimensional look.”

She also mentions popular use of pearls and glitters for added effect, as well as generally increased proportions. “At one point, the screen printing was really little and delicate. Now, the bigger the better.”

Exiting this high-school haven and moving into Charlotte Russe, Crystall Garrison, age 23, and Shay Peterson, age 19, cite the New York and California fashion scenes as major influences on trends seen today. Hand-in-hand with both locales, celebrities on the streets and in magazines shape retail-store styles.

According to Peterson, shoppers frequently bring in magazines demanding the assembled outfits within, because, says Garrison, people like to be told what to wear when exploring and experimenting with new looks. Specifically, the pair named spotlight celeb Jessica Simpson as a style icon, enabling teenagers everywhere to feel chic in skinny jeans and Ugg boots.

Another must-have ensemble that’s snowballed its way through the nearby college community includes tights, a long sweater, and flats or, for a dressed-up twist, ankle-length heels. And, of course, the cyclical world of fashion has thrown teens back into the loose fabrics of the ‘60s, sequin details of the disco era, and peasant tops of the ‘70s, all with a modern spin.

“In general, current styles are influenced by trends from other decades and, as a result, influence the teen promotional marketplace,” Raposo points out. “Madras fabric, tunic-cut styles and cuffed pants are all examples of trends from the seventies and eighties that have been updated and are now back in style.”

On embellishments, both girls admit that embroidered items are currently available in the store, and being purchased at that—but, mainly as a summer trend, they’re being offered and bought on a clearance-only basis.

Heading down the escalator for a final fashion sweep, two young lads ascend toward the food court, sans skateboards, sporting white flat-billed caps and black T-shirts with asymmetrically-placed screen prints.

At school, their more preppy male colleagues are likely wearing big wool sweaters, striped collared shirts, and classic items from or resembling the Polo collection, all of which dominate the guy’s side of each store we visit.

Arguably, the most important and persistent of trends includes the comfort-driven styles for both guys and gals, exhibited in the relaxed and comfy everyday items on down to the popularity of PJs themselves.

Back on the promotional-products front where retail meets wholesale, it’s clear that our sources are privy to more in teenwear than general styles and embellishments thereon.

To gain such expertise, Herzig makes a habit of familiarizing herself with retail happenings, obtaining exposure in varying venues: “We make a point to watch the young shows, see what people are wearing. I spend a lot of time in the malls, just seeing what people are buying, what the fits and trends are like.”

Manufacturers go beyond merely discovering and acknowledging these trends when appealing to teens, responding to the demands expressed at retail by incorporating findings into their junior lines.

U-Trau does just that, bringing a retail-driven influence to the drawing board and coming out with styles that have a unique twist with different fabrications.

Says Herzig: “We do a lot of custom fabrics, so we’re able to take what we see and hear and put it to use on the design board with our manufacturers here.”

Beyond the mall

Outside the shopping precinct’s confines, teens most commonly get their hands on custom promotional fashions through the only scene at which (we hope) they spend more time than the shopping mall: school. High-schoolers and college-bound teens alike frequently look to their school or school bookstore for the school spirit, comfy class wear, and gifts for paying parents and family. The closely-related sports and team markets are always a sure bet for this unique group that requires individually-tailored items.

“The girls love that what they can find from us are things that they already have in their closet, but yet they can get it with their dance, their cheer, whatever high-school embellished on it,” Herzig states, mentioning dance and cheer camps and academies, as well as another, rather unique opportunity to target teens: “We have a huge beauty-pageant following,” she laughs. “We just did a trip down to Montgomery, Alabama, to the National American Miss, and they buy a ton of our stuff for the gift shops at all these pageants.”

As for zeroing in on potential teen buyers, decision makers and those otherwise involved in teen fashion, Herzig recommends direct mail and hitting the good ol’ fashion phones to generate business.

“What’s worked for us is cold calls, and just mailing out our catalog, getting our product in front of them,” she states.

As for what decorators can do to appeal to an audience of juniors once its patronage is already established, Herzig once again points in retail’s direction: “I think for decorators, they should pay strong attention to what’s going on in retail in those younger markets. Graphic Ts are big wherever you go, so they can take that influence and put it on their product.”

According to Herzig, teens will be thrilled to purchase a shirt that looks like the retail T they bought from Abercrombie for $40 at a more wholesale $19.95—a price point she and her design team call magic.

Zip-loc money bags

With a part-time job and/or allowance-based income, the teen market proves additionally unique where pricing is concerned.

“Even though teens are label-conscious, they are more conscious about price than any other age group,” Raposo explains. “This is why companies that inexpensively recreate high-priced label items are successful. Promotional products can do the same, and jump on this great opportunity.”

Inconsistent incomes means parents play a large role in their teen’s purchasing behavior, according to Raposo.

“While some teens depend solely on themselves for discretionary income, others can rely on their parents,” she says. “As a result, pricing must be comparable to product. Teens are willing to pay more for a unique product regardless of their income, so promotional-product professionals must keep that in mind.”

Herzig, however, sees this group’s demographics as a factor that precludes parental control.

“We don’t hear much from the parents,” she states, “seventy percent of our sales is the college market, so these are girls out there shopping for themselves for the first time.”

Whatever their monetary role, most adults will forever remain dumbfounded by their teenager’s fashion. In the eyes of adolescents? Their parents, and the style of the general adult populace*, will always be un-cool. Accordingly, to moms and dads offering up teen fashions for their children’s birthdays, the best advice is don’t. Stick with the gift cards.

*  Which includes me, 25, in a pair of slacks, a long-sleeved button-down shirt, and a short-sleeved sweater overtop, looking like I’m “having one of those days,” according to a mall teen who will remain nameless. Apparently, these lame and unfashionable layers aren’t the ones teens are currently talking about.