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Teen fashion maven Tavi Gevinson is 16 going on 30

With a new book to show for a summer of work and reflection, Oak Park high schooler ponders what's next

Christopher Borrelli

5:54 PM EDT, September 18, 2012

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Tavi Gevinson, for whom we will all work one day, was walking home from school, books pressed to her chest, skirt swishing. It was a portrait of suburban idyll, the first day of class at Oak Park and River Forest High School. And yet, during the first two class periods, she held back tears, she said. She didn't have friends in those classes and couldn't help thinking she had a great summer and now, with the start of her junior year, it was gone.

Plus, in a way, she hadn't had a summer: She spent June in the library compiling "Rookie: Yearbook One," her first book; then edited it; then Rookie, her online magazine for teenage girls, hit its creative stride, drawing hundreds of thousands of readers a month. She also acted in her first feature film and went on an Urban Outfitters-sponsored, 16-city road trip with Rookie staff, meeting the community of independent-minded teenage girls who've come to regard the 16-year-old as a droll, discerning impresario of teendom.

More important, it was the summer that Gevinson began to transition from novelty to established voice — from being an unnervingly precious middle-school fashion blogger, profiled by the New Yorker at 14 and feted by the fashion industry at 12 (so self-possessed that she turned down "The Oprah Winfrey Show"), to being an unnervingly incisive and poised media brand with staying power. (Thursday at 7 p.m., she will discuss the "Rookie: Yearbook One," released this month, at Unity Temple in Oak Park.)

And now, transformative summer kaput, she had English again.

Her teacher asked students to stand and say something about themselves. Gevinson, joking, said she was disappointed her required summer reading, "Montana 1948," was unaffiliated with Hannah Montana. But then another student introduced himself by saying something quasi-shocking/thoughtless and the exercise curdled. She became glum. She remembers thinking: "After a summer of being around people who are sarcastic but positive and not going out of their way to be provocative … really? We are really doing this? It's so immature."

Then again, Gevinson is uncommonly mature, said Steve Goldberg, her former philosophy teacher: "Part 16-year-old, part 30-year-old sophisticate. I had a lovely, smart student who confided in me she was jealous of Tavi, a little intimidated. She wanted to hate Tavi, but as she got to know and talk to Tavi, she found it impossible."

On that sunny first day of school, Gevinson came home to a dining room full of boxes. She had shipped them back from Los Angeles a few days earlier. Tavi has a wide face, dark eyes, yellow bangs and the husky voice and deadpan manner of a character in a Wes Anderson movie. She guided me to the boxes. "This is partly why I've been feeling emotional," she said. Each box overflowed with handmade presents that fans gave her on the road trip. She reached into a box and pulled out a furry blue diary with a metal clasp.

She reached back in and pulled out a small booklet.

"This is a zine about 'Twin Peaks.' It's nice to know there are girls across the country who like the things I like. This reeks of nail polish in a good way. This has sequins. This also has sequins. This" — she held up a coat with "2 Kool 4 Skool" stitched on the back — "is from these girls who asked me to join their girl gang."

She paused to explain: The tour ended in Los Angeles, where Rookie staff, working in a gallery owned by Urban Outfitters, created an art installation of a teenage girl's bedroom. They asked fans to contribute stuff from their bedrooms. The theme was friendship and fandom, "which are big when you're a teenager," Gevinson told me. "They can seem otherworldly and powerful. But then everything is so new when you're a teenager."

She reached back in the box.

She pulled out a pin reading "Riots Not Diets," and a recipe box with her name scrawled across the top in glue and glitter. She unfolded a letter and read: "Tavi, the memory of a bunch of Rookie girls in a circle after the 'Freaks and Geeks' marathon, sharing blankets and memories and languages and how Justin Bieber is underrated and Taylor Swift is amazing, is a memory I will always keep close to my heart." Gevinson said, "That is so sweet," then sighed and added: "I've read things on blogs that Rookie is for, like, weird girls — 'I'm sick of this weird girls trope, blah blah.' That's just lazy."

I said she looked tired.

"I am. I mean, obviously I have been lucky, but it's not like someone's given me Rookie and can take it away. That also means Rookie, everything, I'm responsible for it now. I'm responsible for keeping all this going and staying inspired to do this because I am responsible for jobs now. Which is fine but intimidating."

A few days later, she was back in Los Angeles. She was finishing her part in the still-untitled film from director Nicole Holofcener, whose observant indie hits such as "Lovely & Amazing" and "Friends With Money," often about thoughtful, fretful women navigating the shoals of everyday drama, play somewhat like grown-up addendums to Rookie. (Gevinson, who plays the best friend of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character's daughter, has "an uncanny ability to bring pop culture into discussions without oversimplifying," Goldberg said. Gevinson told me her character is in "one of those 'Ghost World' relationships with her best friend, growing apart.")

A few weeks after LA, she was in New York for the book party for "Rookie: Yearbook One." Emma Straub, 32, a celebrated fiction writer who counts herself among four dozen or so Rookie freelancers, told me she had never seen the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho more crowded: "There were no chairs left, people sat on the floor, the room was full of engaged, fashionable girls. And grown women. Though the core were teenage girls who've come to see Tavi as a beacon of awesomeness. It was a serious love fest."

During her New York trip, Gevinson also took in Fashion Week and went on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." "You grew up outside Chicago?" Fallon asked her. "I'm still growing up outside Chicago," Tavi replied. Steve Gevinson, Tavi's father and business adviser, said later that Tavi missed nine of her first 15 days of school.

A month after school started, I went back to the Gevinson household to watch Tavi clean her room. She told me she had to. Their home is modest, on the corner of a middle-class block, surrounded by overgrown grass and trees. Her father, a retired Oak Park high school English teacher, was sitting on the porch with a laptop. Her mother, Berit Engen, a weaver who grew up in Norway, answered the door. By now familiar with press coming to the house, she smiled, turned and shouted: "TAAAVVVIIIIIIII!!!!"

"Coming!" Tavi yelled.

She is the youngest of three daughters. She began her fashion blog, Style Rookie, at 11. Her parents weren't aware of it until she came to them and said she needed permission to be interviewed by The New York Times. The rest is well-documented: Tavi became a fashion-world celebrity. She was flown around the world to fashion shows, invited to write for magazines, asked to appear in commercials and give a TED Talk. Her blog, which often featured an unsmiling Gevinson modeling couture sent by designers, was so perceptive and lucid that New York magazine insisted she was a fashion-world hoax. It was also getting 50,000 readers a day. Jump forward to 2010: Gevinson announced she would start an online magazine for teenage girls, inspired by the original, feisty Sassy magazine — opinionated, idiosyncratic and partly driven by what Tavi likes now.

Rookie launched last September using a bank loan obtained by Steve Gevinson. A year later, it has four employees (including Gevinson) and made smart use of Tavi's connections, attracting contributors such as Zooey Deschanel and Judd Apatow. It's advertiser supported, though Gevinson runs the show. Her father said that "as painful as it is to see money going away," Tavi does turn down advertisers she considers a compromise of Rookie's integrity. Ira Glass of "This American Life" is an adviser. Anaheed Alani, 42, Glass' wife and a former Chicago Reader editor, is a Rookie editor. "I always said I wouldn't work for anyone who isn't smarter than me, and it's still the case," Alani said. "I just can't wait until Tavi turns 18 and people stop treating her like a talking dog."

For instance: a newspaper reporter who wants to see a smart, thoughtful magazine editor clean her room. When Tavi came to door, she said she didn't want to clean her room now. When I saw it, I understood.

"Step on anything," she said, as if this were an option. Her bedroom floor was a landfill of posters and books and clothing and glitter and records and magazines and torn pages and scissors and letters and DVDs and cards and CDs and clothes hangers and clothing baskets. She said she came in to start cleaning the other day, but just moved stuff from one shelf to another, defeated. An old turntable sat in a corner, across a pink desk covered in stickers. Strung across the windows, letters from friends. Strung across her bed, a "Sweet 16" banner from her birthday party (for which the dining room was decorated to look like a prom). There was a wreath of paper flowers, bookshelves overstuffed with Nick Hornby, Lynda Barry, Bob Dylan. On the walls, a Mary Ellen Mark photo, music video stills, a Sonic Youth album cover, a Japanese poster of "The Virgin Suicides."

Her room is so full of old things newly discovered it looks Instagrammed — like a 3-D collage of aesthetics and influences. (In fact, that's sort of what Gevinson sends Alani for editorial direction, a monthly thematic art collage.) Not unlike Rookie, the room speaks to her tastes, and these days she is less obsessed with fashion, more smitten with art, books, music, movies. She doesn't want to be the Fashion Girl of Oak Park anymore. Style Rookie is mostly mothballed. "It was fun when I was dressing for myself. I'd get bullied (at school) over it but held this weird little secret that, actually, a big community outside of school knows me."

Halfheartedly filling a plastic shopping bag with trash, Gevinson said, "See my bunk bed? I wish I could get a real bed again, but this place is so disgusting. I haven't slept in here in a year and a half. I sleep in my sister's bed or on the couch. Plus, I'm also just sick of seeing this stuff. I think every time you change as a teenager you become annoyed with the person you used to be. When I was a sophomore and a freshman I had more time to channel my creativity into what my room looked like or putting together awesome outfits that I would wear to school. Now I value sleep more and would rather wear a pair of jeans."

Alani, who lives in New York, said her time on Rookie doesn't really kick in until Gevinson gets home from school. Gevinson does her homework, then Alani and Gevinson work (remotely) on Rookie into the wee hours.

Gevinson told me she is planning to take a year off between high school and college, probably to make movies. She said she walked by an apartment building the other day and thought for a hot minute about getting her own place. She worries, though, that she'll get permanently derailed and never go to college. She worries about being stuck in her teenage years with Rookie. And, until recently, she worried about her honors math class. "I switched out the other day," she said. "I'm already taking three honors classes. I know it's cliched and I hate perpetuating a stereotype, but I hate math and I'm not good at it and I don't want to get better. I don't need the extra stress in my life. My dad and I argued about it. I said, 'I'm responsible for people's jobs! Rookie has to be good. If I don't do my math, it hurts me. But if I neglect Rookie, it makes other people's jobs harder!' He said no, it makes my job harder, and I said, 'No! It doesn't! I have no interest in math, Dad!'"

For his part, Steve Gevinson said he hates seeing the weight of pressure bearing down on his daughter. He would like to see her to go to college, but also admits: "Unlike our other daughters, unlike a lot of people who go to college, Tavi doesn't need to go to college to figure out what she wants to do or figure out who she is. Tavi knows all that. If anything I want her to go to get a liberal arts education and read good books."

As for the room …

Tavi said, "It'll be new crap, just different crap. The guy in 'High Fidelity' says books, records, movies — these things matter. If you raise yourself on pop culture, you get attached to memories you don't want to get rid of. I'm not ready to move on. I just think I want a room to remind me of all the good things people create."

A week later, I got an email from Gevinson: She was dressing up again. "I also don't think I want to make films when I grow up anymore. I think I want to do, like, eight things, but it's probably better not to say what they are."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli