Designers tailor to today's kid

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - Instead of strutting in stilettos, they bounced in saddle shoes. No, these were not the usual models seen on the runways of Fashion Week, except for the labels on the clothes they were wearing:

Escada, Hilfiger, Sean John, Kenneth Cole, Nicole Miller.

Those were some of the designers showing their fall lines here yesterday - for 4- to 11-year-olds. Call it high fashion for the knee-high set, the kind of cashmere blazers, leather jackets and faux furs that trendy moms and dads wear, miniaturized for their offspring.

It was a first for Fashion Week, an entire show of children's clothing in the same Bryant Park tents where designers are displaying their grown-up lines, but an acknowledgment of a market trend that has been building in recent years: While sales of adult apparel have been dropping, consumers are spending more than ever on children's wear.

Sales of children's clothes jumped 10 percent in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, making it a $30 billion industry. During the same period, consumers spent almost 9 percent less on men's clothing and more than 6 percent less on women's wear.

"It's definitely a testament to the importance of the children's wear industry that they're actually presenting a live runway show during a very prestigious event," says Erin Clack, senior editor of Children's Business, a division of the fashion bible, Women's Wear Daily.

For the apparel industry, children represent an opportunity for growth and brand expansion at a time when the adult market is stagnating.

Parents who have waited until later in life to have kids are now paying top dollar to clothe their kids in the same designers they've worn. Additionally, the celebrities who have set the style for adults - from Gwyneth Paltrow to Madonna to Will Smith and Jada Pinkett - now are parents themselves, and what they buy for their children is helping set trends for the next generation.

"Ten, 15 years ago, the younger stars really didn't play up their identity as parents," says Daniel Cook, an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied children's consumer culture. "They're embracing it in the ways they know how, which is to turn it into something for an audience, too."

Celebrity offspring

Some of the models in yesterday's show were children or siblings of celebs: Ming Lee Simmons, daughter of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and his designer wife Kimora Lee, looked like a little pink princess in a tiara and sparkly ballet shoes. Lindsay Lohan's siblings, Aliana and Dakota Lohan, were stylishly casual in cords and sweaters, jeans and vests. Boogie Dash, son of Rocawear founder Damon Dash, channeled R&B; heartthrob Usher in a black leather jacket and sneakers.

"Actors are becoming parents and they have very different attitudes than they had 20 or 30 years ago," says Miriam Arond, editor-in-chief of Child magazine, which staged yesterday's lively, colorful show. "Children are walking down the red carpet with their parents now."

In the show, 40 children modeled outfits in four categories: varsity, Western-inspired, holiday and fantasy. There were playful argyles, mix-matched patterns, pleated skirts, ruffled dresses and muffs, bright-colored tights, bold stripes, rain boots, pink faux fur, preppy cashmere blazers, even Native American headdresses. Audience members, including their parents, clapped and whistled their approval.

Many of the clothes were created exclusively for the show and ranged from perennially preppy labels such as Izod, Children's Place and Gap Kids to urban lines Rocawear, Sean John, Phat Farm and Marc Ecko.

"Really, almost every designer is going into children's fashion, which is certainly not something that was going on years ago," Arond said. "When we thought about it, it was obvious that this was something that we should be doing."

In the past two to three years, high-end jeans-wear companies such as Juicy Couture and Paper Denim and Cloth have expanded into children's wear. New York designer Tocca started a line; Italian-born Roberto Cavalli has, too. Kenneth Cole, Timberland, Phat Farm and Skechers all have introduced children's lines in the past few years.

Many of their offerings are as upscale as their adult antecedents - a new DKNY line for kids, for example, will include a $300 lambskin leather jacket.

"We're targeting mothers and fathers who are 35 to 50 who are very aware of the DKNY label," said David Allaway, vice president of sales and marketing at DKNY, which is launching what it calls a "premium contemporary" children's line after several years out of the kids market. "Parents who are waiting to have kids later in life and who have more disposable income to put their kids in premium brand wear."

"There seems to be a trophy child phenomenon that's going on," agrees Cook, the University of Illinois professor. "Children for all kinds of reasons increasingly have become status symbols for the upper-middle-class in our country."

For years, Sears, J.C. Penney and more recently Wal-Mart and Target owned the children's retail industry. Then, retailers such as Children's Place and designers such as Ralph Lauren realized the potential of such a market and succeeded mightily in tapping into it.

'An opportunity'

"The children's apparel business, up until now, has sold body covering," said retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc. in New York. "Children's Place and Ralph Lauren sold children's fashion.

"There's an opportunity here," Davidowitz said. "We're going to see a lot more designers offering upscale children's fashion. Ralph Lauren has been so successful at building the children's business and luxury has been such a tremendous growth segment that when you put the two together, it's natural that this would happen."

America has 30 percent more millionaires in 2004 than in 2003, Davidowitz said, "A lot of them have kids. They don't want to shop in Sears, Penney's, Wal-Mart or Target. A lot of people will spend a lot of money on their children, depending on how good the fashion is."

Kids, too, are becoming more assertive about how they dress, observers say.

"The children themselves are really showing their personalities through their clothes," says Child's fashion director Gay Morris Empson. "They have much more of a say. Those kids are vocal."

These days, schoolgirls want Louis Vuitton handbags to carry their shimmer gloss and Gummi Bears. Even boys want in on the fashion action.

"If you talk to boys who normally don't care too much about fashion," Empson says, "it is important to them that they have to wear their two shirts; they have to have their shirts untucked."

Some celebrities have even gotten in on the kids' fashion boom.

This fall, Lourdes' mom, Madonna, launched a line of children's wear called English Roses, a spinoff of the singer's 2003 children's book, The English Roses. It includes footwear, raingear, T-shirts and jewelry.

"Women see celebrities really into dressing their children, and they see this and want to do it too," Clack says.

Especially women with means, who are already used to buying designer clothes for themselves. That's why much of the boom in children's wear has been taking place at the high end of the retail spectrum, says Jim Klaus, president of Children's Wear Digest, a national catalog that caters to middle- and upper-middle-class parents.

"The designers are bringing their lines down to children," Klaus says, "because the women who are willing to spend a lot of money are also willing to spend that money on their kids."

Staff writers Dan Thanh Dang and Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

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