“I want to go to Chanel!” says Shairi Turner, looking across 57th Street at a row of glittering designer boutiques. We are sipping hot chocolate in the atrium of the IBM Building—three Washington Irving High School girls, their youth adviser, and this reporter—all set, despite the driving rain, for a day of uptown shopping. Though the girls are self-described fashion addicts, they don’t get into Manhattan much, except to go to school—as soon as the final bell rings, it’s back to Brooklyn for sisters Janine and Jevonne Diljohn and Roosevelt Island for Shairi. Which is not to say the trio isn’t familiar with brands like Chanel, Fendi, Burberry, and Prada, names that turn up all the time on televised red carpets, the pages of People magazine, and of course in plenty of rap lyrics.
For this occasion, Shairi, who is 14 and wants to be either a comic book writer or a fashion designer, is wearing carefully faded jeans that have frayed hems and rawhide side laces that she says she got “at a plus-sized store called New Woman somewhere in the Bronx,” and an Absolutely Alien shirt with a green E.T. trapped in a vodka bottle. Janine,16 and torn between a future career in journalism or fashion design, has on jeans with beaded fringe and a black lace-up top trimmed with a feather that she bought last Friday for $2 in a store on Flatbush Avenue: “It’s just a cheap store, but I liked the feather.” Her book bag has already benefited from her creative intervention. “It was boring, gray. I put on a piece of snakeskin I found in fashion class.” The snakeskin is blue, heart shaped, and attached with a bunch of safety pins; the bag also sports the inscription Eninaj, which is Janine backward and the name of her prospective fashion line. Janine’s sister Jevonne, who is 15 and wearing Gems cord jeans, claims she doesn’t know what she wants to be. (Later it emerges that there has been some talk of her running a store that features Janine’s designs.)
The frosty hauteur of the Chanel boutique thaws slightly when it is explained that we are visiting with three very fashion-conscious students who just want to look around; still, the staff watches us like hawks. Nevertheless the girls are having a ball, and there’s even a souvenir—when it’s raining, the store gives out long skinny plastic bags that say Chanel, meant to cover your umbrella so the ecru carpet doesn’t get wet.
Their plastic bags in tow, the girls fly up the double staircase. “I want to live in here for the rest of my life!” Shairi says. There is general astonishment at the clothes and the prices: chiffon undershirts with double C’s for $990; fluttery summer dresses at $2,090. Pausing in front of a mauve-colored bouclé suit, Janine asks, “Did she make this?” Who is she? “Chanel.” When she’s told that the clothes are produced in a factory and anyway, Coco is long deceased and the line is designed by Karl Lagerfeld, Janine asks why he doesn’t just work under his own name—a good question, and one that recurs at our next stop, the John Galliano-designed collection at the Christian Dior flagship next door.
If Chanel’s offerings exude a certain upscale reserve, the merchandise at Dior, despite the prevalence of four-figure price tags, seems calculated to appeal to urban teenagers. “Chanel made me feel young and poor; this makes me feel young and full of potential and—inspired!” says Jevonne, gasping with admiration at a pair of $1,975 blue jeans decorated with rows of silvery “CD” buckles running from outer ankle to waistband. Janine, meanwhile, who is taking a sewing class at Washington Irving with designer Norma Kamali, is looking with academic interest at a pale blue chiffon skirt that has an intricate handkerchief hem. “I just want to know the technique that goes into this,” she murmurs, almost to herself. She’s less impressed with the $195 T-shirt that has “J’Adore Dior” appliquéd with cross-stitches. “I could sew that for myself,” she shrugs.
We make a flying visit to the top floor of Barneys, where no one pays us any mind, which is refreshing, and though there are piles of jeans everywhere they are not eliciting much interest. Instead, Janine swoons for a crocheted sweater with lace-up detailing reminiscent of the shirt she’s wearing; Shairi falls for a lacy top. “Turner, you have a thing for lingerie!” someone teases, and Shairi blushes. A discussion ensues about which is more tiring: shopping with money or without? After some debate, everyone agrees that most tiring of all is probably being a salesperson at Chanel, standing in the stores for hours on a rainy day with no customers.
Despite the weather, the girls are anxious to walk over to Fifth Avenue and down to H&M, a store that only Janine has been to. On the way, we cut through Tiffany—Shairi seems surprised to learn that they do not and have never served breakfast—where everything is locked away in glass cases and the guards seem almost happy to see us. “I found my ring, now I need to find the husband!” Shairi shouts as we exit onto Fifth and walk south. In the window of Nine West, we see a pair of perforated pumps almost exactly like the ones Janine is wearing. She got hers at Payless and thought they were copies of ones she’d seen at Parade. As it turns out, the Parade shoes were aping the Nine Wests, which themselves were replicas of Pradas. This downward trajectory gives everyone a good laugh.
The huge open door and gigantic image of Avril Lavigne on the vast video screen at H&M make the girls feel right at home, and the prices are cheering as well. Janine falls in love with a sheer red printed skirt, with a dipping hem like the blue chiffon at Dior, that is $19. “It’s different than the clothes at Dior, but not that different,” she observes, summing up neatly the dilemma that is wreaking havoc on the fashion industry as a whole. H&M has greeted the new season with a little bit of everything: Chinese tapestry knickers, fake Juicy Couture hoodies, crocheted sweaters with extra-long sleeves, Polynesian printed wrap skirts. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and the girls, who each have $10 to spend, take a long time making their selections. They end up with a pink wrap skirt for Janine, two practical sleeveless tops for Jevonne, and a pair of big sunglasses and silvery hoop earrings for Shairi. It’s dark by the time we leave the store, and all of Manhattan is aglow. Janine turns her face to the sky, the lights of Cartier dancing behind her. Looking up at the giant H&M sign, she says, “I love this store.”