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Students style up back-to-school supplies

Miami Springs High graduate Ralph Rodriguez has been helping students express their individuality for years.

This year is no different. The 21-year-old designs custom backpacks using acrylic paint.

“Even as years have passed, kids still want me to design their book bags,” Rodriguez said. “Kids never stop wanting to have the coolest items to show off to their friends.”

While Rodriguez provides a less traditional alternative to customized looks, stores are still selling plenty of backpacks and putting their own touches on them.

Gretell Perez, assistant manager of the Claire’s accessories store in Westland Mall in Hialeah, says that students this season are looking for any backpack or purse that will show off their individuality.

“Jansport-type book bags seem to be old news with adolescents,” Perez said. “Girls shopping at our store want to go to school with purses of all shapes, sizes and textures.” She also notes that many teens are purchasing key chain monograms as well as One Direction and Justin Bieber buttons to personalize their backpacks.

“Everyone is different in what they use to express themselves,” said Nick Gurruchaga, a junior at MAST Academy in Key Biscayne. “For any student with or without uniforms, backpacks can be pretty versatile.”

With Miami Dade County Public Schools enforcing uniform policies in most schools, students have limited choices on how to stand out.

“Although my school has uniforms, girls show off their style with expensive Michael Kors bags or simple side shoulder bags,” said Stephanie Trueba, a junior at Miami Killian Senior High in Kendall.

Colored polos

And some schools still offer options on what students can wear. Gulliver Preparatory School in Kendall requires uniforms, but provides students with a wide array of colored polos.

“Boys typically wear shades of blue, while girls go for the hot pink and more feminine colors,” said Nati Zunjic, a freshman at Gulliver. “We may have uniforms, but we also have a variety of choices.”

Boys and girls alike will be doing what it takes to stand out this school year.

Rodriguez recalls creating a design for a student whowas a fan of the video game “Gears of War.” After showing off the design for a few days, he became known for his backpack.

“Kids want people to notice them and remember who they are,” Rodriguez said.

Another trend this season entails designs based on social media.

Some companies that specialize in customized products are seeing social media names such as Twitter handles replace initials or birth names as IDs. Others are using a wink-wink emoticon or social-media acronyms that not all parents can decipher. Hashtags are notably the of-the-moment, pop-culture rallying point.

“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. “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.)

Twitter handles

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

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.

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

This report was supplemented by Samantha Critchell of The Associated Press.