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High Couture Saturates Lucrative 'Tween' Market

The traditional clients of the fashion houses of Paris, Milan and other fashion capitals have been adults with the means to pay top dollar for designer labels. In recent years, fashion houses have developed designer lines of clothing that are more affordable, thus expanding their customer-base. Now, the fashion world has discovered a new, untapped demographic -- teenagers not even old enough to work full-time jobs. VOA's Crystal Park has more on the youth fashion trend.

The world of high fashion, which was once synonymous with expensive couture, used to be affordable only for the rich and famous. But, now, more and more children and young teenagers can be seen wearing clothing with designer labels, such as Louis Vuitton, or Christian Dior.

This is, in part, due to a push by marketers to capture the lucrative market of teenagers and so-called "tweens" -- those in the 8-to-12 age-range, who are considered be ‘[be]tween’ children and teenagers.

MarketingSherpa, a group that provides advice to marketers, says there are roughly 19.5 million “tweens” in the United States and more than 17 million teenagers.

Recent high school graduate Leslee Johnson is a teenager, who is, in her words, obsessed with fashion. She has a closet full of brand name clothes, such as Polo and Bebe. She also boasts a collection of more than 20 designer handbags.

"I absolutely love Polo," says Leslee.

Though Johnson does have a summer job, she admits she did not buy most of the things in her closet. Most were gifts from her mother or grandparents.

A youth marketing research group, called, “,” says “tweens” account for $221 billion of spending a year. Most of that money, $170 billion, actually comes from parents or other adults.

But Leslee Johnson's mother, Lisa, says her child is not spoiled. She says her daughter has had to earn everything she has received. Johnson says, “I (have) had no problem saying, ‘no,’ (I) absolutely will say ‘no.’ There will be a reason. There might be an incentive at home to earn it by doing stuff around the house, or getting good grades -- something. Ironically, that is how Leslee did very well in school, and graduated with honors.”

Howard University child development Professor Velma Lapoint says marketing companies target young consumers because, “They can influence their parents’ and older family members' purchasing decisions around major household items. And, secondly, if marketers can get young children, including the ‘tweens’ to commit to a particular brand, while they're young, they will, in fact, have these young people as future brand customers.”

But it's not just about being stylish. One 14-year-old boy says, “Oh, the brand name is everything. It shows your status.” His friend also agrees, “Yeah, if you get store-brand clothing, like Lucky brand jeans, as opposed to Price Club brand jeans, you're definitely going to have to go with the Lucky brand as opposed to the Price Club. It's more important.”

Another phenomenon among the young is the growing number of teenagers who have their own credit cards. Marketing researcher says one in three high school seniors carries a credit card. Leslee Johnson does not. But her mother says Leslee is still inexperienced in money matters. She says, "[As for] teaching her financial responsibility, I haven't done well on that. I do worry about that."

Child development expert Velma LaPoint says children allowed to spend money without constraint can develop anxiety. She said, "We see they take on more materialistic values. Many of them can experience high anxiety. They can experience psychosomatic challenges. They really just become anxious and then that anxiety influences certain types of bodily functions."

LaPoint says parents should have control over what their children buy. She says, “Many of us recognize that the business marketing ventures in our culture are a multi-billion [dollar], very, very powerful, [and] wield a very powerful influence on our children. So, what we are suggesting is that parents play, and continue to play, the gate-keeping role that many have always played.”

There are many groups and organizations that try to help parents supervise the advertising messages their children see. The Public Broadcasting Service has a Web site, called "Don't Buy It", which offers advice on how to help children become intelligent consumers.