what’s cool now? Teenage fashion. We asked four teenagers for their fashion tips, while they styled themselves for a special photo shoot. Example. I asked Will Spratley, 15-year-old music and drama enthusiast, whose style he admired. He pulled out his copy of NME, and flicked to an article about Gorillaz. “I think Damon Albarn looks good,” he said. And then he added, helpfully, “He’s the lead singer of Blur.” Thanks for the tip, son. Ouch.
They say spending time with young people keeps you young yourself. Rubbish. I’ve just spent a day with four teenagers, and I feel about 95. There is nothing like discovering exactly how ancient you appear to the youth of today to put paid to fanciful notions that one is still – as we said in my day – down with the kids.
But ’twas ever thus. To be a teenager is to live in a parallel universe to the world of grownups and little kids. Teenagers have their own vocabulary, their own jokes, their own heroes. They scorn our rules, but police their own society with exacting systems of etiquette in which the simple matter of making conversation with a member of the opposite sex is as bound by convention on the top deck of a bus as it ever was when Jane Austen was observing a country dance. At the nub of teenage rebellion is their compulsion to flaunt their difference. Why else do you think they come down to breakfast sporting those white iPod earphones (or in the case of 15-year-old Ryan Noel-Hartley outsize headphones in unignorable fire-engine red) if not to tell the rest of the world that teenage lives are lived to a soundtrack we can’t hear, aren’t invited to hear, and wouldn’t understand even if we did?
How do the teenagers of today want to dress? To find out, we asked four teenagers – 13-year-old Marla, and 15-year-olds Grace, Will and Ryan – to choose and model two outfits of their choice (one casual, one smart) for G2. Fashion styling, it turns out, is second nature to a generation who have grown up with wall-to-wall fashion coverage and are too young to remember a time before Gok and Brix, let alone Trinny and Susannah. All four knew exactly what they wanted and where to find it.
The first surprise was the almost complete absence of trends. They are more concerned with what their peers are wearing than they are with what Miuccia Prada is inspired by this season.
Neither are they particularly interested in what celebrities are wearing, although the exception that proves the rule was, inevitably, Alexa Chung. (Or, as 13-year-old Marla Zion put it with impressive self-awareness, “being completely predictable, I guess I’d have to say Alexa Chung”.) And many of the old rules about how-to-look-cool seem to have fallen by the generational wayside: black, for instance, was largely sidelined in favour of bright colour. Ryan wore a T-shirt with a motif of gunmen against a peace sign – “it’s by Banksy. He’s an artist. It’s against war and stuff” – which he said was his current favourite piece of clothing, along with a pair of bright yellow Converse.
Music played a much bigger role than catwalk fashion. When Ryan, who modelled his smart look “on gentleman R&B singers, like Usher” put on the red headphones, I asked him if they were an accessory, or for listening to music, and he said (politely stating the bleeding obvious to the old lady) that they were for both. Ideally, he said, he’d like a pair in every colour, to coordinate with any outfit.
Will Spratley plays guitar and sings in an alternative rock band (“I guess we’re a bit like Muse”) and gets his fashion as well as his music from the pages of NME. (He doesn’t dress like Muse. “They wear colourful shirts,” he explains in sombre tones, making this sound like an unfortunate affliction, such as being deaf in one ear.) He liked Kings of Leon’s look “in their denim phase” but these days is “more indie”. Check shirts and Fred Perry polo shirts rule his wardrobe.
The girls, too, mesh clothes with music. Grace Horigan, 15, who came to our shoot after sitting two GCSE exams that day, had chosen a day outfit “for a festival” – high-waisted denim shorts, flowing white top, boots, feather necklace – while Marla, who has wanted to be in a band “since about year two” is the lead singer and guitarist in a band, Forever Making History, who recently played their first pub gig. She is comfortable on stage, but wrinkles her nose and shakes her hair over her face when I ask her how she would define her own style. “Um. Indie, I guess. Rock.”
Some things never change. Teenagers are incredibly fussy about how they look, often obsessing over details that don’t seem important to adults. When I walk into the studio, Marla is leaning over in front of a mirror, tying a bow faux-nonchalantly into her hair. Five minutes later she is still tying and retying it. After 10 minutes, still not satisfied, she discards it completely. A few minutes with Ryan reveals the same attention to detail: a watch chosen to match a purple shirt, for instance. Ryan will on occasion “wear trackies, but only if I’m definitely, definitely not leaving the house. And I’d still wear a good T-shirt.”
On the other hand, teenagers don’t “dress up” in the same way we do. I couldn’t always tell which were supposed to be their “day” outfits, and which the “evening” ones. Teenage self-consciousness generates a horror of drawing attention to oneself, it seems. (Marla complains that the red Converse she has chosen don’t look right because they are “too clean. When I get new shoes, I get all my friends to jump on them a bit to mess them up.”) She has a horror of being “the most dressed-up person in the room”, she says. Grace, two years older, has begun to channel a more sophisticated look and is more aware of trends, but still injects her look with deliberate scruffiness. Her “evening” outfit is very much like a down-played, scuffed-up version of Serena van der Woodsen, the Gossip Girl character played by Blake Lively.
Achieving the not-looking-very-dressed-up effect takes more effort than you’d think. But recoiling from the notion of obvious glamour – neither girl would ever wear heels, because as Grace puts it “no one we know has those kind of parties” – but both have a ritual with their friends, which turns getting ready for going out into a party in itself. Marla’s friends come to her house and they listen to music and chat while putting on “a lot of dark makeup”. Chat about what?
“Nothing.” Fashion? “No.” TV? “Not really. Random stuff. Gossip at school. Boys.” Grace and her friends pool their clothes. “We lay them out on a bed, talk about who’s already worn what, who wants to wear what, and everyone shares. We borrow my older sister’s clothes, too.” But despite the involved process, the end result is fairly low key. “I save the more dressy stuff for if I’m out with mum and dad.”
The one subject that reduces this eloquent quartet to teenage mumbling is other teenagers. Marla starts fidgeting and twirling her hair when I ask about how the tribes divide at her school. It is easy to forget how straight-up brutal teenagers are about each other: Marla gets called “trendy or Emo” at school, by the “chavs” who have “orange faces and straightened hair and Nike tracksuits”. Grace gives a weary, knowing look and explains that her year divides into “chavs or townies on one side, trendies or indies on the other”. Will, who customises his grammar school uniform by wearing skinny suit trousers from Topman and a blazer that’s slightly too small, tones down his weekend look for mufti day, “otherwise I’ll get the piss taken out of me. Last time, I wore the top button of my polo shirt done up, and everyone went on about that for ages.” Will and Ryan share a disdain for Jack Wills, the newest label to have made a splash in the teen market. “Kids wear Jack Wills,” says Ryan, “because they think it makes them look cool and rich.”
Their age puts them at the beginning of the curve towards financial autonomy, which is reflected in where and how they buy clothes. Will earns money from his parents for mowing the lawn, washing the car, walking the dog, which he spends in Topman, River Island and Asos.
“I’ve just spent nearly £150 on summer stuff – I’ve grown a lot since last year. Now I’ll start saving to buy winter stuff next term.” Ryan (most expensive purchase: a blazer from Gap) shops at Topman, Next and H&M, thanks to his allowance “and an indulgent mum”. All of Grace’s pocket money ends up in Topshop, H&M, Urban Outfitters, “plus I get bought essential things by my parents.” Marla (last item bought: H&M stripy top) goes window shopping with friends “just to try stuff on”; for real shopping, she goes with mum. “I love Topshop, but it’s expensive. I get £5 allowance, but most of that goes on food because I always get hungry when I’m out.”
And do you know what? Sometimes parents are, like, really unfair.
Marla’s mum, for instance, won’t let her wear short skirts. When you say short, I ask, what do you mean exactly? She points to a spot about half a centimetre below her knicker line, but gives me such a heartfelt can-you-believe-how-unfair-she-is look that I can’t bring myself to tell her that her mum has a point. “And then,” Marla continues, “when it’s cold she sometimes literally makes me wear a jacket!” Imagine. What about your dad, where does he stand? “Oh, Dad leaves us to it. Otherwise we both turn on him.” Will’s dad doesn’t like him rolling up his trousers, “because he thinks it looks camp” and likes him to put a shirt on if the grandparents are visiting. Ryan’s mum Jo is at the shoot with him, so she gets the last word. “Has he told you he’s really fussy about his underwear? It has to be really expensive.” Ryan groans. “Oh, Mum, did you have to?” he beseeches her, blushing. Some things never change.