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All grown up: Back-to-school style gets an adult makeover

Identity politics still determine how kids of all ages dress, but this season’s hippest back-to-school looks also subvert them. It’s all about the mash-up, experts say. And an emulation of adult style.

Photos: Lise Varrette; Styling: Corey Ng/Page One. Hair and makeup: Vanessa Jarman/Page One. Shot on location at Downtown Altern

It's less than two weeks until the start of school and 17-year-old Alessa Dassios of Toronto is already mentally planning her wardrobe.

"Short shorts top the list," says the Grade 12 student at R.H. King Academy, where uniforms are worn; the shorts, she clarifies, are for after 4 p.m.

"I'm also [incorporating]a pair of skinny jeans and a plaid shirt. I'm a prepster. That's my scene. But grunge kids and hipsters will want to be different."

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As in other years, identity politics are a big part of what kids will be wearing in the classroom this season, making back-to-school fashion for fall 2011 as varied as the colours in a box of Crayola crayons.

Many, though, will also be injecting a healthy dose of individuality into their wardrobes, moulding standard or classic looks in their own distinct images.

"Back-to-school dressing this season is all about what we call mash-up style," says Nancy Dennis, Sears Canada's brand and trend director for children's wear.

"Layering colours, graphics, trompe l'oeil prints and accessories is such a fun, carefree look and allows kids to experiment and find their own personal style. Think Willow Smith: Her unique and confident style defines this mash-up approach."

As Dennis suggests, dressing to assert identity may be more important to kids than sporting a particular label, but celebrity influences remain strong.

"Each fall season, kids really take their cues from pop culture – that's a constant," says Gap Inc. Canada spokeswoman Tara Wickwire. "But the inspiration changes with the players. This year, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Emma Roberts, Vanessa Hudgens, Hailee Steinfeld, Gossip Girl, Glee, Pretty Little Liars and Twilight are all big influences."

So, too, is a relative pop-culture dinosaur like director Woody Allen. (Yes, you read that right.) The nerdy look that Allen perfected in movies such as Annie Hall and Manhattan is making a comeback, including among tweens and teens who have never seen his films. One of the hottest looks among such junior hipsters is, for instance, heavy-frame eyeglasses fitted with non-prescription plastic lenses that even those with 20/20 eyesight are wearing.

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"It's considered avant-garde," Dassios says. "Only you know that the glasses are fake."

Emulating adult style is a fast-growing trend, fuelled by easy access to new and sophisticated looks on the Internet and social media, Colin McDonald, style commentator for The Huffington Post, explains.

"Kids today are dressing more and more like their adult counterparts," he observes. "They have become more aware of the latest trends, designers and brands and are overwhelmed by a variety of them fighting for their attention."

The incorporation of more jolts of colour into their wardrobes is one way that young people are putting their own stamps on the season's fashion whirligig. Helping them along is Quagmire, a new Canadian kids-clothing line whose calling card is colour-shifting T-shirts and polos for boys and girls. Quagmire's tie-dye screen prints change in tone whenever they're exposed to UV light, much like mood rings for the torso.

"They're super-functional shirts that are almost toys," Quagmire co-founder Geoff Tait says from the company's headquarters in Toronto. "We're totally amped to bring this crazy fabric technology to the masses – the colour-changing process absolutely blows the minds of 21st-century kids."

But gender differences still prevail.

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"For guys," McDonald says, "it's all about the skater look: messy hair, hoodies, skinny and baggy jeans, plaids and stripes, tennis and hightop sneakers. For girls, it's about boho-chic, the mixing and matching of styles and patterns: chunky knits, leggings, vests, maxi-dresses, florals, clogs and boots."

Among the more adventurous, meanwhile, the direction is distinctly dressier. At GapKids, boys clothing is military-inspired, sporting crests, cargo pockets and skull motifs. For girls, there are new British-inspired collections, called Covent Garden and Portobello Road, featuring ruffles, paisley, knee-high boots, silks, mohair, polka dots and embellished graphic T-shirts.

Even denim is getting a remedial lesson is style.

"Jeans are selling well at GapKids this season, specifically skinny jeans for boys and girls, a new grey wash for boys and our legging jeans and skinny cropped jeans for girls in new colours including pink wash, stone and grey," says Wickwire. "At Old Navy, girls love the cheetah-print skinny jeans and boys are gravitating to the distressed skinny-style jeans."

Dassios, the 17-year-old, confirms that jeans remain a staple of the young (and the young at heart). But to be truly different this season, she is leaning more in the direction of dresses.

"I love wearing skirts and dresses, which is a little different because few girls choose them for everyday wear," she says.

"Teen style can be confusing," she concludes. "There are so many choices. But this is how I make it work for me – by standing outside the pack."

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