Sometimes he likes to perform what he calls “the Outfit Check.” Coral J. Crew cashmere V-neck sweater—check. Gucci charcoal skinny jeans—check. Gucci double-G logo belt—check. Spotless brand-new cream-and-gold Louis Vuitton Damier checkerboard- pattern sneakers—check. Blue Fendi glasses frames with the FENDI sticker still stuck on the lower corner of the lens—check. When he’s dressed like this, he says, “I feel high-class—like nobody can tell me nothing.”
But the outfit loses its protective aura when Kevahn Thorpe is wearing it, as he is on this June morning, before Judge Gregory Carro in State Supreme Court in downtown Manhattan. And Carro is, in fact, about to tell Kevahn something. At a word from the judge, the court officers can step forward to handcuff Kevahn, in all his finery, right there in the courtroom, shouting, “One comin’ in!” as they escort him to the holding cells and eventually to Rikers Island. Kevahn is a slight 17-year-old standing no more than five foot seven, but if this is what Carro decides to do, it won’t be his first trip to the Island. This arrest is the latest in a long series of thefts of high fashion from Gucci and Prada to Bergdorf and Barneys, and even though he has never been convicted of anything more serious than possession of stolen goods, a misdemeanor, Kevahn is now facing a one-to-three-year sentence in prison upstate for repeated offenses.
The first time he tried shoplifting, at 16, “I was in Macy’s, the one in Queens Center Mall,” says Kevahn, who has a handsome, angular face, a black-velvet complexion, and a cool, watchful gaze occasionally undone by an irrepressible, wide smile. To a kid who lived with his single mother in the Queensbridge Houses projects, the department store offered an irresistible array of all the things he couldn’t have. He was with his brother, Jovahn, who is one year older. Almost as a game, Kevahn says, the boys “took mad T-shirts”—meaning a lot. The brands were American Rag and Buffalo, which Kevahn now derides as “those cheap shirts.” But the boys got away with their caper and decided to repeat it. “We thought we could just go back there and do it anytime,” he says. “So we got caught.”
These were kids who displayed some of the classic warning signs of juvenile delinquency. Their father wasn’t around much, and their mother was overwhelmed. When Kevahn was 13, he was arrested with two classmates for the theft of a teacher’s credit card and spent six months in a Department of Juvenile Justice facility. But now he was an honors student at Long Island City High School. Calculus was his favorite subject. He could slide between street syntax and proper English. The MySpace page he had set up the year before featured ice-cream-cone graphics and paeans to The Simpsons, listed award-winning children’s and young-adult books as his favorites, and announced that he wanted to go to Harvard Law School. “He got no hood in him at all,” says his brother.
“I think he should’ve been from Beverly Hills,” says his classmate Monet. “When I first met Kevahn, it was in a science class. He wasn’t into fashion. He was into Jordans. He’d just wear regular, like, Akademiks pants, like somethin’ you could get off Jamaica Avenue, and some T-shirt, like what normal kids wear—something he wouldn’t be caught dead in right now.” She and her twin sister, Melisa, became Kevahn’s best friends. “He was smart,” says Melisa. “Kevahn’s mind is not like an average kid’s mind.”
Kevahn was anything but average. By the end of freshman year, he had posted a photo of himself in Christian Dior glasses. The next year, he started a new MySpace page and wallpapered it in Gucci logos. It hadn’t yet occurred to this Queens kid with nothing that he could simply cross the East River and step right into the world conjured up by these labels. But that was about to change.
Kevahn’s epiphany came when he found himself at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, trying to find the train station with his mother. “I saw Dior, Bottega, everything there, and I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s right here, right near where I live!’ ” he says. It was like going from Kansas to Oz. “Kids around where I live can’t be buying there,” he says. But buying wasn’t the point. After the Macy’s bust, he says, “my friend showed me where Barneys is at.” And when he walked through those doors on Madison Avenue, he gained entrance to a glittering realm in which the luxurious trappings of his dreams were literally within reach. “I was like, ‘Oh, Barneys don’t have alarms? Why should we be taking this cheap Macy’s stuff when we could just go to Barneys?’ ”
Kevahn’s recollection of the birth of his crime spree matches the official record. In New York, the consequences for a teenager arrested for shoplifting (which Kevahn and his brother referred to as “crafting”) are relatively serious: Kids 16 and over, while still minors under civil law, are considered adults in the criminal-justice system. That means they go to Rikers and get an adult record. However, the first few times someone is charged with petit larceny—a mere misdemeanor—he usually gets off with a warning. But that warning didn’t stop Kevahn. The allure of Barneys was too powerful.
“I experimented and took this Comme des Garçons shirt,” he remembers. “I was just testing, like, how easy it is. That was my first high-class shirt I took. Then me and my brother went to Bergdorf Goodman, and we stole vintage Ralph Lauren polos—and that’s the hardest store to steal from. The next day, we went to Barneys again, and we took some 7 for All Mankind jeans. And I went in Bergdorf Goodman and stole a navy-blue Gucci V-neck T-shirt, and then I was like, Damn, I need a pair of shoes with these, so I went right to Prada and I crafted—I took those lavender patent-leather Pradas.”
He was caught multiple times but got away with plenty. The method was simple—he’d put his own clothes over stolen ones, or he’d stuff them down his pants or simply drop them into a shopping bag. The brothers were entranced by the environment they had stepped into. “Barneys, that store sells—they have plain T-shirts in there for $500,” marvels Jovahn. “They have Seven jeans, True Religions, Polo shirts for, like, $200!” He adds with a small laugh, “Uh, you know, we weren’t buyin’ nothing, so … ” Jovahn was arrested, too, but a trip through the Department of Corrections was enough for him, he says, and he begged off further exploits.
Kevahn, meanwhile, was arrested over and over—always at department stores, he emphasizes, “never in no label stores,” like Prada, where the staff is perhaps more sensitive to the possibility that a young black kid drifting among the merchandise might be an up-and-coming entertainer or a rich private-schooler and not necessarily a thief. And by then, he was dressing for the occasion. As helpful salesclerks retrieved sneakers from the stockroom, he whisked the ones he wanted under a couch and played a kind of shell game with display models and shoeboxes. When he was caught, he pleaded down the petit-larceny charges to disorderly conduct, until a judge finally got fed up and sent him to Rikers Island for the first time, on a ten-day sentence.
But he only grew more determined. When his frustrated mother threw nine pairs of sneakers down their building’s trash chute, Kevahn waited up all night and was there when the sanitation workers unloaded the garbage compactor to retrieve them. His junior school year had started, and he was reveling in his new reputation. “If you’re walking down the street with average clothes, people won’t pay attention to you,” says Melisa. “But then you walk down the street wearing, like, a thousand-dollar outfit, people gonna look at you a certain way. He’d hide stuff from his mom and keep it here. He’d actually come from Queensbridge in the morning and get dressed and go all the way back out there.”
This costume drama gave him a new role to play, one in which he felt himself to be literally worth more. “I was the first person with patent-leather Pradas,” he says. “Now everybody in Queensbridge got patent-leather Pradas.” He began to spread the wealth among his friends. “He went into an eyeglass place, and he stole like five pair of frames,” says Monet. “Even the security guards in my school, they’d be like, ‘Kevahn said he got the hookup on glasses, and he was gonna give me some glasses!’ ” He studied and catalogued brands, makes, models, and prices with almost Rain Man–like specificity and devotion. “In school, they called him Gucci or Fly K,” says Melisa.
The only problem was that he was now spending more time on Rikers than at school, which didn’t quite jibe with his new image. But his brushes with the law didn’t seem to faze him, let alone stop him from stealing. “He would do it constantly,” says his brother. “Get mad stuff, and then go back the next day, get a lot of clothes, next day get more, and then bam, one day he gets caught. He goes in jail, comes back out of jail, he does it again.”
Kevahn is handcuffed to the bench at the side of the arraignments room at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse the first time I see him. The extent of his thievery is so audacious that it’s easy to forget he is all of 16 years old, a small kid lost inside a striped Hugo Boss sweater. That’s what he has been wearing on Rikers Island, where he has spent almost a month—not because he was sentenced to that much time but simply because no one can pay his $2,500 bail. His arrests have brought him to the attention of Legal Aid’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Team. Nancy Ginsburg, the unit’s director, and Rosemary Vassallo, Kevahn’s assigned lawyer, are trying to figure out what to do with him.
To be sent to a residential program, he must be diagnosed with a drug or mental-health problem or identify as gay. In a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, Kevahn has been diagnosed with what is perhaps a fairly self-evident case of childhood conduct disorder. He might benefit from counseling but does not require medication. He doesn’t do drugs. And though he reports that people on Rikers are “accusing” him of being gay—and the question is unavoidable for a delicately built boy obsessed with fashion—he maintains that he is not.
He claims, in his interview with Vassallo, that he has been tested and found to have an IQ of 127. He says that he doesn’t shoplift because of peer pressure but because he wants to be “the best dressed.” (“He complimented me on my suit today,” notes Vassallo, who is wearing tweed and pearls.)
Two petit-larceny cases have landed him before Judge ShawnDya L. Simpson, who wears leopard-print stilettos with her black robes and seems to be taking an unusual interest in Kevahn. The judge wants to hear from his mother, Hopian Pownall, and takes the rare step of closing the courtroom to sit and talk with her. As Simpson pats her back, Pownall weeps and rails that she has had enough of the situation with her son and now has to take care of herself. She refuses to allow Kevahn to come home—even if that means he will stay in Rikers—and then leaves court, saying she has things to do. “She ain’t interested,” Simpson says with a sigh. Jovahn now lives with their grandmother—their father’s mother—but she also refuses to take Kevahn. Finally, a bed is found for him at Covenant House, the shelter for homeless kids. “A lot of people are trying to work on your behalf,” Simpson lectures Kevahn as he stands before her. “Your mother and grandmother think that you are basically a handful. So just consider me your mother and your father for the next six months to a year. You will stay out of Barneys. At Covenant House, you’re going to wear what they’ve got in a box.” She pauses to let that sink in, then warns him that if he steals again, “you’re going to jail for six months.” After Kevahn is led away, Simpson stops to talk with the Legal Aid team. “His whole body jerked” at her line about dressing out of the giveaway box, she notes with satisfaction. “That was the only time I got a reaction,” she muses, shaking her head. “I don’t know if I got through.”
Kevahn runs away from Covenant House that same night.
Kevahn’s epiphany came when he found himself at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. “I saw Dior, Bottega, everything there, and I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s right here, right near where I live!’ ”
“I almost had a heart attack when I was on Rikers,” Kevahn tells me over an M&M cookie at Starbucks. He’s been back at his mom’s house, and going to school, but he’s also been arrested and released yet again. But he wasn’t afraid in jail. The problem came when he was getting released. In exchange for his property receipt, “they gave me a different bag,” he says, still fuming. He’s outraged by what he takes as a violation of his own property rights, in a creative interpretation of the old saw that possession is nine-tenths of the law. “I was tight, too”—his outfit was perfect—“I had my black Christian Dior glasses and my navy-blue patent-leather Pradas.” To try to retrieve his belongings, he actually made an appointment to go back to Rikers, something that is difficult to imagine any recently released prisoner voluntarily doing.
“I was scared when I first came there,” he admits. Although adolescents under 18 are housed separately from the adult population, a slender kid togged out like Kevahn could expect to get some extra attention. He got some hard looks, he says, when everyone was lining up against the wall, and he says he thought, They’re about to do something to me right now. Nothing happened. To seem tougher, he told everyone he was in on assault. But he knew one of the corrections officers from his neighborhood, so “I didn’t have no problems.” Except for one distasteful rule—he was forced to wear the fluorescent-orange Chinese-slipper-like shoes that inmates call “Air Patakis.”
Five days later, he’s wearing them again. This time he’s been arrested on charges of criminal possession of a stolen credit card and grand larceny at the Apple Store in midtown. He was suspected of trying to steal a pair of earphones, and when he was stopped, he had an iPod that had been bought previously with a stolen credit card—one of at least four unauthorized Apple purchases with the card. “He walked in the house with two iPhones, three iPods, and a Bose system,” his friend Monet remembers. “He would try to give ’em to us. He said, ‘I bought them.’ He showed us a receipt and everything.”
It was as if the card were a passport to the place where he so desperately wanted to live. “I went to a store in Manhattan with him one time,” says Monet. “He was like, ‘We gonna go to Prada, then we gonna go to Fendi.’ He said he had his grandmother’s credit card and he’s gotta get some Pradas. He was like, ‘Come on, I’ll get you a pair.’ And when we got to the Prada store, he just walked in like he was P. Diddy. He saw these gold Pradas with straps, and he was like, ‘Oh, I have to have those.’ He was like, ‘Miss, do you have these in a size 38?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, you want to try them on?’ He was like, ‘No need to try them on. Just put ’em in a bag, ring ’em up.’ He had this attitude like he owned the world.” But now Kevahn would spend Christmas on Rikers.
On a raw, rainy winter day, a crowded bus carrying visitors trundles across the bridge to Rikers. The inmates wear jail-issue gray jumpsuits and socks and flip-flops to the communal visiting room but otherwise are allowed to wear their own civilian clothes—anything except gang colors or “contraband” items like, say, rhinestone-encrusted Christian Dior glasses worn without a prescription. Other teenagers who have been to the Island have told me that if a skinny kid was dressed in designer sweaters and sneakers in there, his things would be stolen. Sitting across a plastic table from Kevahn, in the din of families visiting on either side of us, I ask if people take his clothes. “No,” he says, with a small smile. “They can’t fit into it.”
I ask him what the worst thing is about being locked up. “There’s no respect,” he says. “I’m used to walking into any luxury store and being greeted at the door.” He quotes the refrain from the song “Glamorous” by Fergie and Ludacris: “If you don’t have no money, take your broke ass home,” and adds, “I say the opposite: If you can pay … ” Then you can stay. Even if you only appear to have paid. Right here in the middle of Rikers, Kevahn is animatedly critiquing his favorite designers, stores, and shopping bags. He’s a big fan of Hedi Slimane, the former designer at Dior Homme—he’s even mentioned that he’d like to be a Dior model—and eagerly quizzes me on how to pronounce his name correctly.
“I was the first person with patent-leather Pradas. Now everybody in Queensbridge got patent-leather Pradas.”
Even though he was charged with criminal trespass at Saks when he was recognized there after he’d previously been arrested for stealing, he says he’d go back. The same goes for Barneys. It’s as if the stores are religious shrines for him. I ask if he knows about Winona Ryder shoplifting at Saks and Barneys and that she was dressed by Marc Jacobs for her own felony trial. “Can she go back into Barneys?” he asks. I say I’m not sure, but I bet she can. “Why?” he asks.
If there is any hope that an extended stay in jail can scare a kid straight, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, Kevahn is learning that he can survive here. While he was there, a 17-year-old committed suicide on Rikers. Kevahn says he saw it happen. “I was cleaning up late at night, sweeping, to keep it sanitary. I do it every day.” He heard one corrections officer shout to another, “Somebody hung up!” He heard more shouting—“Hung up, hung up!”—and everyone went running to see. He saw them take this kid down.
I tell him I’ll give his family a message if he’s got one. He does. He wants me to tell his mom that he doesn’t have anything in his commissary account. If she’ll put some money in, he can buy himself some Chips Ahoy cookies.
He’s going to have to get it together if he expects to not spend the rest of his life locked up,” says Nancy Ginsburg, the director of the adolescent team at Legal Aid. “I mean, this kid is like a one-man crime wave!” She laughs in disbelief.
On his 17th birthday, Kevahn is brought to court from Rikers to face his new charges. His mother has taken the day off from work to come to court and see him. Over a fast-food lunch, she recalls an afternoon when she’d just returned home from her job as an aide to developmentally disabled adults. A salesclerk from the Hugo Boss store called her cell phone to say that Kevahn had put some things on hold for her to come in and buy, and when would she be in to pay for them? He’d told the clerk that he was out shopping with his mom, and that she’d be there in a minute, wearing a brown cashmere coat. His mother breaks out in laughter, in spite of her worry and disapproval, remembering that detail. She told the clerk that if they saw him in the store again, they needed to make him leave or call the police.
In the late afternoon, Kevahn is finally called before State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Carro. He is led out handcuffed in his gray Dior zip-up cardigan. “Happy birthday,” his mom mouths to Kevahn, whose face lights up when he sees her. He gets a sentence of six months, to be served in Rikers and which includes the time he’s already logged there, so he won’t have to stay in much longer. Over the phone, his mother says that she has been thinking about the Judge Hatchett show—on which the judge deals sternly with teenagers who have gone astray—and wondering how she can get in touch with Hatchett and go on the show with Kevahn.
A month later, Kevahn is released. I ask his mother if she’s worried about him stealing again. “Of course the thought crosses my mind,” she says. “That’s what he does.” Less than 24 hours later, Kevahn is arrested for stealing a pair of sneakers at a sample-sale store, where he was spotted slipping a pair of red patent-leather Pradas into a shopping bag. “He knows his stuff, this kid,” says Joel Soren, the owner, with reluctant admiration. “I caught him down the block,” he says, “and dragged him back by the collar.” The sneakers were in his bag. “He begged me, ‘Please don’t call the cops. Please, please, sir.’ ” Kevahn went back to Rikers, and now there’s a Polaroid of him taped to the wall of the store, under a sign reading hall of shame.
Jovahn tells me over the phone that Kevahn called him that day from Rikers and told Jovahn to bring him a pair of Prada sneakers and a J.Crew cashmere sweater. I tell him about the time I saw Kevahn stroll into court carrying a Bergdorf shopping bag and a brand-new iPod and iPhone, then take out a bottle of cologne and spritz himself. Jovahn dissolves in peals of laughter. “Word, that’s him right there, that’s him!” He laughs again. “He steals those perfumes. Everything you see him with, he steals! His glasses, down to the feet.” Does Kevahn ever sell any of it? “Nah, he never did that. He wants all those clothes on him. He wants to be the flyest ever.”
“I experimented and took this Comme des Garçons shirt. I was just testing, like, how easy it is. That was my first high-class shirt.”
In early May, Kevahn is given a stern warning by Judge Carro. He sits before him wearing a light-gray J. Crew cashmere sweater, a gray Gucci polo shirt, and gray Gucci jeans, with a pair of orange Air Patakis adding a discordant note to the ensemble. “I understand your mother’s here,” Carro says. “There are people who care about you. Last time, you left here and committed another crime. You do that again, it’s state prison, with the big guys. It’s up to you. You can still turn it around. This is your last chance.” Kevahn’s handcuffs are unlocked.
Two weeks later, he is arrested at the Soho Apple Store after he takes a $299 set of Bose Quiet Comfort earphones off the shelf, places them in a shopping bag, and tries to leave. He is arraigned and released by a new judge who doesn’t know his history. But Judge Carro is informed, and now, it is safe to say, Kevahn’s problems are about to get much more serious.
It still seems to be a game to him, as if he’s reveling in the risk-taking, calculating the odds—the math skills come in handy—and deciding they’re in his favor. And, amazingly enough, he does get one last chance from Judge Carro. “No more arrests,” Vassallo tells him. “I know,” he says.
Over egg-and-bacon sandwiches with him and Jovahn at Starbucks, I tell Kevahn that I went to the sample-sale store. “What, 36th Street?” he asks, starting to giggle. “You’re on the wall,” I tell him. “You lyin’!” he shouts. “I’m not lying,” I say, and he throws back his head and laughs out loud. Now I find that I’m struggling to maintain my own composure, even though I know very well that this is serious, this isn’t a laughing matter at all. “You’re on the wall,” I tell him, “and over it, it says”—I’m having trouble getting the words out—“hall of shame.” He and his brother fall into a high-pitched, helpless, table-slapping fit of laughter.
Just a few days later, Kevahn is arrested again, with a friend, at the Port Authority Duane Reade, after they try to use a credit card for which they don’t have matching I.D. It’s over.
After spending the summer on Rikers, Kevahn is sentenced by Judge Carro to one-to-three years in state prison. All the time he has spent on Rikers over the past year will count toward the sentence, but he’ll still have to go upstate. “I’m not sure what your problem is,” the judge tells him. “I tried to give you a chance. I certainly don’t get any joy putting someone your age into a state prison. But you backed me into a corner.” Kevahn looks around the courtroom. This time, no family or friends are here for him.
He gets an additional one-year sentence from Judge Simpson on a misdemeanor case she’s been holding open for months. The week before he appears in her courtroom, the Times runs a story titled “Behind the Gavel, a Sense of Style.” Simpson is described in the story as “a lover of designer brands like Gucci and Prada.” When she sentences Kevahn, she takes the opportunity to make an example of him to another teenager facing similar charges. “This boy is a genius,” she tells the other kid about Kevahn. “When he goes to school, he gets A’s. But he just could not stay out of trouble.” She asks Kevahn if he’d like to say anything. “I saw you in the New York Times,” he tells her.
I pay a last visit to Kevahn on Rikers in September. It’s Fashion Week, and he’s been following the coverage in the papers. “A few people here, they’re deep into fashion,” he says. “But OT [old-timers], not the adolescents. Adolescents don’t know nothing.” He shakes his head. “You know Chanel came out with men’s sweats now?” he asks. “Chanel C’s come down like this”—he points down the side of his leg, draped in a capacious gray Department of Corrections jumpsuit, cuffed many times at his ankles. “In Jeffreys they sell ’em, and some OT was tellin’ me they sell ’em at Chanel too,” he says, conjuring the startling image of hardened prisoners gathering in corners of the recreation yard to gossip about the latest stock arrivals at exclusive boutiques.
When I ask about his plans for after he gets out of prison, all he wants to talk about is fashion, firing questions at me: “Who does Dior now?” “Who designs Paul Smith?” “Remember Louis Vuitton? Like, a few seasons ago, he did a SpongeBob theme? You know Louis Vuitton started off making trunks, right? In the 1800s?” “Balenciaga, who does it for women’s?” He pauses to learn how to correctly pronounce Nicolás Ghesquière’s name. “You know that Yves Saint Laurent died, right? At 71 years old. He’s the first person, the first designer, to have black people model his clothing.” A burly Department of Corrections captain is supervising our visit, and I’ve been imagining his disdain as he listens to this conversation. Now he interrupts. “He could be good working for a fashion publicist,” he says. “That’s something I can see you at, right there.”
Kevahn keeps talking. “A Ralph Lauren small is not a true small. It’s not no Gucci small. In Dior, I would get an extra-small. In the 21-and-a-half-centimeter Dior jeans I’d get a 28, and in the 17-and-a-half-centimeter—that’s the smallest-cut jean, that’s the narrow—I get that in a 29 sometimes.”
On September 19, Kevahn is sent upstate, to Greene Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Coxsackie, New York. He spends the holidays there. After he gets in a fight, he is sent to Sing Sing, the notorious maximum-security prison, where he spends his 18th birthday, last week. His first chance of release is in late March. But his gilded fantasy was still on MySpace, where Kevahn posted photos of his trophies like a big-game hunter posing with his kills, shot after shot of him modeling freshly stolen clothes, some with tags still attached, against a background of chaotic household squalor—laundry spilling out of a basket, Gucci sneakers posed on grimy linoleum against the fridge. JUST CALL ME A DIOR DENIM MODEL, reads one caption. THERE’S MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM (SERIOUSLY) under a close-up of a Gucci shirt. I TOLD U I HAD MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM. But the illusion was cracking. Under one photo with a caption that read like a list of fashion credits, a classmate had posted a comment: YOU WHOLE OUTFIT WAS STOLEN SO IT DON’T EVEN MATTER.
Is it that once you’re around all that stuff, it just gets really tempting? I asked Kevahn over the phone, before his luck ran out for the last time.
“No, not even,” he said. “It doesn’t get tempting. It’s when I want to do it, when I need an outfit, when I’m desperate for a new outfit—” he checked himself. “It used to get tempting, but—”
But what do you think you’re going to do now, when you’re desperate for a new outfit? What’s going to happen?
“Um, you know what’s going to happen.”
I know what’s going to happen?
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “I’m going to be upstate.”