NEW YORK — Herman Joseph's eyes light up when he lists some of his favorite clothing lines: True Religion. Rock & Republic. 7 For All Mankind.
Once, he even paid $300 for a pair of black and silver Gucci dress shoes.
"I used to like to be fly," the 19-year-old said of his pricey wardrobe. "It gave me confidence in myself."
But now, sitting in the Manhattan youth center where he's working toward getting his GED, Joseph is wearing no-name jeans. He, like several of the other young people in his program, lost his job. They've been talking less about who's wearing what, and wearing less of what's in style.
For young people from low-income backgrounds, often faced with paying their own way and helping support their families, interest in designer labels is waning as the economic downturn strains wallets and helps boost the appeal of frugality.
Staffers at programs serving low-income youth in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York notice a reduced focus on top labels, whether due to dwindling resources or changing tastes. It's a shift away from decades-old stereotypes of poor kids obsessed with bling and brand labels.
While people with lower incomes have disproportionately sought out high-end brands for at least the last 18 years, they've recently been turning away from them, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group.
Spending on designer wear by families earning between $15,000 and $25,000 a year fell by 29 percent in 2008 from the year before, according to NPD.
That's a significantly larger decline than for any other income group tracked by NPD. Families earning between $50,000 and $100,000 yearly, for example, spent an estimated 7 percent less on designer apparel in 2008 compared with the previous year.
The change has served some retailers well. Joseph and several others at The Door youth center in Manhattan say they have switched to shopping at more affordable chains like Old Navy.
Old Navy, owned by Gap Inc., saw June sales at stores open at least a year were down 7 percent from a year earlier, compared with a 10 percent drop for all Gap businesses, which include its more-expensive namesake stores, Banana Republic and other brands. Old Navy carries the least expensive clothing among Gap Inc. stores.
At Abercrombie & Fitch, which has long marketed itself as an exclusive youth brand, same-store sales fell 32 percent in June compared to last year — while at the less-expensive Aeropostale, those sales were up 12 percent compared to the year before.
Twenty-year-old Daryl Salter, who also is studying at The Door to get his GED, says his friends are bragging less about their wardrobes. Before, there was a common refrain: "Man, I paid $500 for these. How much are those? What you got on?'"
Salter's priorities also changed as the economy worsened. He lost his job as a dock worker, and rent on the apartment he shares with his mother and sister in Brooklyn has gone up to $600 a month. Their family's fridge is usually empty, their phone line was cut off and a generous cousin has stopped giving him money.
Now he holds himself back from adding to his collection of fashionable baseball hats and hip jeans — focusing instead on how he can help his 18-year-old sister come up with the cash to start college in the fall. His own plans for starting college are on hold.
At The Door, "there was a certain period when certain types of clothing labels were clearly more important than anything else," even among some of the poorest members, says Greg Morris, a program director at the center.
Now Morris says he's hearing the young people say: "We have to focus our money on what's most important right now — whether that's taking care of bills, or taking care of our kids, or taking care of the rent."
It's a sentiment echoed at youth centers around the country: At A Place Called Home youth center in South Central Los Angeles, girls getting free prom dresses have stopped checking for the designer's logo before making their pick. At a Boys & Girls Club in Detroit, kids still are rushing to use the center's computers to check Nike's Web site — but a glance through the club's lost and found reveals how rare top-label clothing has become.
Brand names do hold forceful sway over many low-income urban youth, says Holly P. Alford, a professor of fashion design at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies youth and African-American fashion. For those with few opportunities to claim advantage or status, the boost that comes with wearing a sought-after brand can take on additional meaning.
"They feel like their society looks down on them," Alford said. "Sometimes some of these status symbols are just a way of saying, 'Hey, look! Here I am. See who I am?'"
But the belief that these youngsters place more importance on labels than their wealthier peers is simply a myth — and one that has hurt the self-image of many, says Shirley Brice Heath, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University who has studied youth in poor communities.
Lower-income shoppers spend a higher percentage of their discretionary income on designer labels than middle-income shoppers, although they still spend smaller sums than their wealthier counterparts, according to NPD.
The group declined to release information on spending patterns specific to urban areas, and would not say exactly what amount, on average, individual low-income shoppers spent on designer labels.
In the last few years, an array of new brands with a range of prices has captured the imagination of urban youth — from the bedazzled, glittering sweat shirts of Ed Hardy, which can cost upward of $200, to rapper-driven brands like Jay-Z's Rocawear.
The new options, some of them both hip and affordable, may have challenged teens to rethink their allegiance to costlier brands, says Tim Bess, men's fashion analyst at the Doneger Group. The economic downturn accelerated a shift that already was under way, Bess said.
For some young people at The Door, being fashionable dropped among their priorities years ago.
For years, Christopher Pannell's primary motivation has been his son. After the 20-year-old was laid off from his job as a stockperson at Madison Square Garden, his mother, a home health aide, moved in with him and his 8-year-old son to help them make ends meet.
His focus is on getting the necessities for Patrick — making sure he has clothes, school supplies and after-school activities.
"Right now what I get is not important," Pannell said after a group meeting at The Door. "I support him first before I support myself."
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