"I have no idea what I'm supposed to get my daughter for Christmas," the woman says. "She's fifteen. I don't even know what she likes. She's just kind of lazy."
Sobel is not -- and the seventeen-year-old's impressive credentials qualify her to handle just this type of emergency. Last spring, the then-high school junior was named FlatIron's "Teen Shopping Guru," besting over a dozen other candidates for the title with a contest-winning essay that explained her lifelong love of shopping. As guru, her primary task is to help parents navigate the infinite supply of things on offer at the Broomfield shopping center -- to separate the cool from the chaff.
Today Sobel is wearing a pair of vintage-style jeans with silver sparkles (from Rave, downstairs) and black, thick-heeled boots (Steve Madden, just around the corner). Around her neck hangs a heart pendant she picked up at Express a couple of days ago. Smiling, her lips glossed a pale pink, she runs through a list of gifts that she knows, just knows, will thrill the woman's daughter: burgundy Ugg boots from Nordstrom; a patterned winter poncho from Gadzooks; the first season of The OC on DVD. When she's finished, the woman rushes off to buy everything Sobel's just mentioned.
"I kind of feel like I'm doing a public service," Sobel says. "It makes me feel good to take some of the pressure off the parents. Because for a lot of them, what they think is in may not really be in at all. Like, my mom, if she's going to buy me something, I'm probably not going to like it. She tries, but her idea of cute is not necessarily mine. You can be really fashionable or really unfashionable, and it doesn't have anything to do with your parents."
If Sobel wasn't at FlatIron helping clueless adults, she'd probably be here anyway -- orbiting a cluster of stores that cater to teenage girls, looking for the Next Big Thing before it moves from the display window to the sale rack. This has always been a popular, and challenging, pubescent pursuit. But over the past few years, it's gotten even harder for young people to keep up. Many major retailers now produce six or seven lines a year to satisfy the appetites of consumers who get bored quickly, cutting the shelf life of most trends in half. And by the time those trends hit suburban shopping malls in middle markets like Denver, they're practically over with, anyway. Those Ugg boots at Nordstrom? All the rage in New York and Los Angeles, like, a year ago.
Sobel knows this, so she reads fashion magazines like W and Vogue to keep current with what's coming to Colorado. She's been to Manhattan a few times with her family; on each trip, she took careful notes on what she saw on the street, packing up ideas like souvenirs.
"You have to have a real love for fashion, and for media," she says. "You have to like to pay attention to what people are talking about. It's hard work, actually. You have to read magazines and watch what the celebrities are doing. Every time you see Jessica Simpson or Sarah Jessica Parker, you have to stop and ask, 'What are they wearing?' Because pretty soon it will be everywhere."
At Monarch High School in Louisville, where she is on the honor roll and the lacrosse team, Sobel is known for her ability to divine fashion's hits and misses. She predicted the return of the poncho months before it hit local stores. As for the corduroy-clutch craze, Sobel saw that one coming, too. At the moment, she is in love with layers. "Different materials are in, like mixing cords with silk," she says, her eyes lighting up. "Yeah, that's awesome." She's also into accessories like belts and jewelry.
"It can be exhausting to try to stay up on things, because you can have something that reaches the height of its coolness, but once it's in every store, then it starts to fade, and it's not so cool anymore," she explains. "But I've always loved giving fashion advice. For me, it's like a hobby. I had this one kid come up to me and say, 'My mom bought one of the watches you recommended, and I love it.' And I was like, 'Yeah!'"
Retailers worship teenagers like Sobel, dedicated trend enthusiasts who spend billions of dollars annually on music, clothes, makeup and computer games -- essentially purposeless things that are absolutely essential in so many young people's lives. If style erupts like an earthquake, the theory goes, a person like Sobel is at the epicenter, spreading cool concentrically outward into other, less hip peer groups. Hip kids have always influenced what other kids buy; increasingly, they're the ones who determine what everyone buys.
"It used to be that no one paid that much attention to the young people. It was all on the parents: Parents had the purchase power, and the kids didn't really matter," says Sharon Lee, co-founder of Look-Look, an L.A.-based marketing consultant firm that tracks youth attitudes on everything from soft drinks to sneakers. "About twenty years ago, if you walked into a shoe store, the proprietor would never even address a young person unless they were with a parent. Now they're inviting them; they want them to hang out.
"It shows you that the tables have really turned; there's a whole new respect," Lee adds. "Young people are just a lot better at adopting new ideas, new technology. They don't have a hard time keeping up. It's the grownups that do."
Sobel's reign as Teen Shopping Guru will end next August, around the time she gets ready to pack up for college. She'd like to study journalism and one day work for a fashion magazine, preferably Vogue, and move to a style-conscious city like Paris or New York. For now, though, she keeps busy at school, and giving advice, and even working another part-time job that that helps pay for her ever-growing collection of cute, cool stuff. She works at a clothing store in FlatIron Crossing, unpacking endless shipments of...more cute, cool stuff. Beyond the store discount, the gig has one major perk. On her way to work, Sobel can scope all the windows from one end of the mall to the next.
"I go into the stores to ask the managers what's hot so that I can tell the parents, because they don't know," she says. "And I always say that I'm not going to buy anything. I don't have a credit card. I have to prioritize. But it's hard."