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Teens put their own spin on personalization

Teenagers refer to social media to express themselves.

NEW YORK: As the thousands of Sophias and Isabellas and Jacobs and Masons born this past year will learn in the future when they go to pick up their backpacks off the football field or sort their duffels in college dorms, their names aren’t as unique as they are.

But their Twitter handles will be one of a kind, and some companies that specialize in customized products are already seeing social media names replace initials or birth names as IDs. Or you might find something decorated with a wink-wink emoticon or social-media acronym that not all parents can decipher, or the hashtag that is an of-the-moment, pop-culture rallying point.

Social media networks are influencing actual design, not just which designs are popular.

“As we see customization become more ubiquitous, we see this trend growing,” says Marc Cowlin, director of marketing at CafePress, an online retailer that lets consumers put their own stamp on apparel, accessories and more. “If you think about what you do in your regular life, you customize everything: your TV schedule, with DVRs letting us watch what we want to watch and when. Your radio is an iPod playlist or niche satellite, so why not with your own product?”

He adds: “Teenagers love having something in their hands that no one else has, or that only the right people have.”

CafePress has grown simultaneously with social media, and Cowlin says personalization is its fastest-growing category. It seems each day there’s a new “shop” specializing in a hashtag; it could be a saying from a movie, or a plug for a school team or club. (Something like #GoTigers.)

You can buy pajamas or flashlights with a favorite phrase inspired by texters: LOL, TTYL or BRB, for example.

Cowlin also expects to see upward sales of water bottles and T-shirts labeled with Twitter handles this back-to-school season, and Twitter chatter indicates similar interest in personalized laptop and cell phone cases.

“It’s a generation that’s interested in any merchandise that tips its hat to social media,” Cowlin says.

They have a point, Cowlin adds: “By personalizing your water bottle with your Twitter handle, it’s less likely to get lost. There might be 50 white water bottles on the field, but only one will have your social media name.”

Daniella Yacobovsky, who co-founded an online jewelry business, Bauble Bar, 18 months ago, sees the same strong interest in personalized products but still was taken by surprise by the success of the company’s Twitter handle necklace.

Think of it as the next-generation Carrie Bradshaw nameplate for girls whose moms will know what the Carrie Bradshaw nameplate is. (For those who don’t, it’s one of the first fashion trends that Sarah Jessica Parker’s “Sex and the City” character started. A necklace with a girlie script spelling your name was all the rage for 20-somethings a decade ago.)

Social media references are “a very 2012 way of expressing yourself,” Yacobovsky says.

“You can have it say something that’s not your exact name but something like it with an ‘at’ symbol in front so everyone will know who it is. But the name can be reflective of you – maybe your name, or the name of your blog, or an insider nickname, but you’re not stuck in the box of your given name.”

Not everyone has bought into the trend, though.

L.L. Bean, a go-to source for school bags embroidered with names and initials, now can do the “at” sign, but no one is asking for it, says spokeswoman Mary Rose MacKinnon.

About 60 percent of the book packs sold by the brand are embroidered with classic initials. Still, she says, it is the tween and teen shopper driving that personalization business, too.

For Bauble Bar, the Twitter handle necklace has been popular for gifts, hitting the “$80-$100 sweet spot” that works for teenage birthday gifts and graduation presents, Yacobovsky says.

And other people are buying it for themselves.

“Something like this necklace lends itself to viral sharing. You order it, personalize it, take an Instagram picture of it when you get it and then put it on Twitter, and then your followers want it with their name on it,” she says.

Social media are both a democratizing force in fashion and one that plays to aspirations to be an insider, according to Suchit Majmudar, vice president of brand development and strategy for mall retailer Charming Charlie, which is selling emoticon necklaces.

Teenagers have for many generations used style both to make a statement and to fit in, he notes, but in 2012, it’s all quite literally at their fingertips.

They also understand and feel comfortable using the technology to make the products, adds Cowlin of CafePress.

“They grew up with it, they know how to do it. They’ll jump in front of a computer screen and play with design tools until they get it all just the way they want it,” he says. “There’s a big difference watching my 14 year-old-daughter customize something versus myself or my wife.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 13, 2012, on page 12.

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