ONE morning in the fall of 1956, in a salon at 12 East 57th Street, the eminent American couturier Charles James presented his first children’s-wear line to a group of editors that included Diana Vreeland. Sherry and cookies were served, and with a sense of camp that preceded Marc Jacobs by 50 years, Mr. James had ladies in nurses’ uniforms bring out the tiny garments.
Leading the parade, held by a nurse and dressed in a pale blue cape, was 8-month-old Charlie Jr. Fatherhood had surely affected Mr. James. What else could explain why a design genius would bother with a pipsqueak trade like children’s wear? Even then, it was a tough business, filled with manufacturers with names like Cute Togs and Bo-peep trying to strain a profit from a yard of seersucker. On the other hand, Mr. James’s idea of baby clothes, like all his ideas, was attached to a principle.
“Most American fashion is based on older women trying to look like babies,” he told a writer for The New Yorker, taking a swipe at Claire McCardell and others who designed adult play clothes. “We’ve reversed the process.” But Mr. James did not mean miniatures. What astonishes about his designs is just how thoroughly childlike, in shape and detail, they were. The Jamesian magic was in the execution.
A doomed designer (his decline began soon after) is probably not the best lead-in to an article about the rise of designer children’s lines, though maybe it is. In the last year or two, Lanvin, Gucci, Stella McCartney and Marni have entered the market. A decade ago, Ralph Lauren’s template of a high-end lifestyle brand had few imitators. Dior had Baby Dior, founded in 1967 (before that, the house made outfits for some of its celebrated clients, like Elizabeth Taylor, who ordered matching tweed suits for herself and her young daughter Liza), but the luxury-goods business, with justification, tended to regard itself as an adults-only world. Can you imagine a child’s version of Tom Ford’s Gucci? Versace? It would have interrupted the sex fantasy. And in the late ’90s, these companies were focused on the huge profits reaped from handbags.
Now, children are the new accessory, as once-snooty brands line up to please conservative-minded millennials while they use tiny garments to strengthen their brand power in regions like Asia. Last year, Burberry sold $91 million in clothing for children — from newborn, including diaper bags covered in Burberry’s beige check, to early teens — for an increase of 23 percent over the previous year. Most of Burberry’s 12 free-standing children’s stores are in Asia and the Middle East.
Seemingly overnight, brands like Oscar de la Renta, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Roberto Cavalli, Missoni, Milly and Phillip Lim moved into expanded children’s areas of stores, like the new one at Bergdorf Goodman. And while they haven’t exactly pushed aside traditional makers, like the Milwaukee-based Florence Eiseman and Rachel Riley, a British label, they are able to command attention, as well as those hefty designer prices.
“Sometimes I’m just blown away by the price of designer clothes,” Ms. Riley said, adding, “Some of their fabrics are mediocre.” When told that Lanvin’s first collection of children’s wear included a $1,200 tulle shift, with a strand of faux pearls knotted in tulle, a signature of the designer Alber Elbaz, and a trench coat in fuchsia taffeta for $1,570, Ms. Riley made a shuddering noise. Then she said, peeved, as if defending her ground of smock dresses and ballet slippers, “Are they made for children’s bodies?”
Actually, no. They were miniaturized versions of Lanvin’s adult looks, according to Mr. Elbaz.
Ms. Riley said, “Children have big tummies and stand in funny ways.” Although she has made one or two concessions to popular tastes, like making her ballet flats in nail-varnish colors, she remains fixed in her view that children should be children and not little brand ambassadors or, in the current parlance, “prostitots.” She said: “I can’t bear advertising on children. And why would a child need to have anything remotely sexy? To me, it’s unethical.”
Although there is too much designer stuff to be qualified simply as grandma bait, a retail term for pricey baby things, young mothers are certainly not suckers. “Dreadful,” said someone on the UrbanBaby blog about Diane Von Furstenberg’s recent hookup with Gap Kids. Nor are they likely to be mollified by the news that sales of children’s apparel grew faster last year than women’s, the NPD Group said, with much traction from luxury labels.
“I just can’t justify the prices,” said Chantal Scott, a mother of a 5-year-old, who owns Livie & Boo, a children’s resale shop in Brooklyn. Having once worked for a luxury brand, she added, “I know how much things really cost.” She meant the standard markup, which for luxury brands is roughly 7.5 times cost. So if the price of a dress is $375, the cost is $50. By contrast, a vertical retailer — a chain like the Children’s Place — uses a 3.5 markup.
Not long ago, a customer brought Ms. Scott a Marc Jacobs dress, hoping to recoup some of the $400 she had spent for it. “I told her the most I could ask for it was $50,” she said. “That’s what people are willing to pay for a resale item. She was expecting more.”
It’s easy to feel a sense of nausea at such prices and at the idea that children, especially little girls, are being groomed to be future shoppers, though a Gucci bib is scarcely a prequel to a Gucci bag. But it’s also not a new concern, as writers and academics like Daniel T. Cook, an associate professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University, Camden, have observed.
“So much of kids’ and parents’ lives, compared to the early ’60s, is centered around commerce and the media,” Mr. Cook said. “It’s kind of the lingua franca.” More interesting to him is how high-end brands, with all of their celebrity dazzle and easy entry points (children’s clothing is one), feed a transnational middle class, with the same styles appearing in Paris and Beijing as in Rio. “There is a kind of global childhood that’s starting to emerge with the professional classes in the world,” he said. “Clothing is related to that.”
Despite the impressive-sounding numbers that designers say they get from children’s lines — Michelle Smith of Milly said she booked $1 million in orders her first season — the reality is that designer wear is still a garnish for the $32 billion children’s apparel industry.
Holding a $375 silk-print girl’s dress by Gucci, Andrew Rosen, the respected founder of Theory and a catalyst behind several other brands, said, “This is talking to the 1 percent, or the less than 1 percent, of the population.” He added, referring to luxury makers with children’s lines: “I would believe that none of these guys are doing it to make money. It’s all about being more relevant. You want to keep the customers engaged in your brand.”
I had brought Mr. Rosen the Gucci dress, along with other garments by competitors, to ask what he thought of the quality. Were they worth the price? I showed him the Lanvin coat and dress, a $380 Moncler down jacket and a Stella McCartney knit tunic. Separately, Cindy Ferrara, a production specialist with years of experience at Liz Claiborne and Danskin, reviewed those and many other garments with me at the Times Building.
After all, one hopes that there’s a reason, beyond blunt commerce and making happy customers, to do children’s clothes and that someone might be innovative, as Mr. James was with his sunsuits. By placing the seams and folds in a specific way, he actually emphasized the roundness of a child’s body.
Neither Ms. Ferrara nor Mr. Rosen was all that impressed with the Gucci dress. Pointing to a side seam, where the print didn’t match up, he said, “On their main line, they would have never done something like this.” Ms. Ferrara said, “This would have all matched.” She noticed places on the inside where seams were puckered, known as roping. “The handling could be better,” she said. (A spokesman for Gucci, which makes its clothes in Italy, said the unmatched pattern was a design decision rather than a defect and that the company would need to see the dress to judge the roping properly.)
Moncler’s mini-me jacket, made in Romania, also fell short. “I don’t think they did such a hot job with it,” Ms. Ferrara said. “There’s puckering. And it’s a regular old zipper. I don’t think the color matches well. It looks gray.” Mr. Rosen thought the price seemed high. (Joseph Barrato, the president of Moncler North America, responded: “Occasionally there could be a seam or an aesthetic someone will not agree on. However, the price-ratio value is there.”)
The winners were a Burberry trench and kilt (“authentic”), the Stella knit tunic (“I would actually spend the money for this,” Ms. Ferrara said) and, despite the cost and some sewing faults, the Lanvin pieces. “It’s couture,” Mr. Rosen said.
But if quality really matters to you, the makers of traditional children’s clothes — Eiseman, Rachel Riley — and a dress from Oscar de la Renta, made in Portugal, fared best in the review. Not only did their products have features like French seams and chain-stitched linings; they also cost less.
Mr. Rosen wasn’t surprised. “That’s their business,” he said.