By  on August 21, 2007

CHICAGO — If you build it, they will come.

At least, that's what has happened in family-friendly neighborhoods here, where a flurry of new children's specialty stores have opened, enjoying enough success to give retailers ideas about expansion.

The trend makes sense because the children's apparel market is split up and parents are left with little choice outside Gap, Gymboree and Target, said Keven Wilder, a Chicago retail consultant.

"Affluent parents are hungry for options for their kids," she said. "They're looking for attractive, interesting apparel. Because the market is fragmented, it's a place where entrepreneurs can play."

A growing number of children's specialty stores have launched in neighborhoods from Wicker Park and Bucktown to Lake View and Lincoln Square.

"They have really sprung up," Wilder said. Although she can't point to data showing more parents are staying in the city to raise their children, "that's the perception. You do see a lot of strollers."

Among the entrepreneurs are: Grow

Owner Deree Kobets and her husband, Kevin, plan to expand the reach of their eco-friendly children's specialty store Grow, launching an online shopping component by the beginning of 2008.

The airy 1,400-square-foot shop with light wood floors and exposed brick features modern, eco-friendly gear and furniture along with colorful classics from Kate Quinn Organics, print dresses from Icky Baby, denim with vintage fabric patches from Baby Bean and animal-themed organic cotton separates from Kiwi Industries.

Before opening last September, Kobets, who has two children, said she noticed a gap in Chicago's growing children's market. "All the boutiques seem to have the same thing," she said. "It was all really trendy."

Kobets sought more modern, simple, classic looks without logos or cheeky sayings, including Kate Quinn's long-sleeve kimono onesies in chocolate with vanilla trim, sky blue with midnight black trim and blackberry with vanilla trim for $20 and matching pants for $26.

For boys this fall, Kobets is stocking professor coats in chocolate brown with Sherpa lining for $42 from Kate Quinn, reversible down jackets from One Kid for $88 and corduroy and cargo pants from the same line for $39.For girls, highlights include patchwork jumpers from Icky Baby, $38, ruffle dresses from Baby Bean, $68 and chocolate-brown corduroy skirts, $48, with long-sleeve T-shirts, $34, from Mill & Mia.

The apparel, which Kobets said will be 100 percent organic by spring, complements the nontoxic waterproof crib mattresses, innovative Orbit Baby stroller systems that can be disassembled for future recycling, streamlined rockers from Nurseryworks and natural and organic baby products from Earth Mama Angel Baby.

Kobets said her Division Street location in Wicker Park is perfect because the couple lives in the neighborhood, which is known for its open-minded, artsy bent, and the store is across the street from Milk & Honey cafe, which attracts stroller traffic. Little Threads

The owners of Little Threads, Randi Valenta and Amanda Hall, are eyeing an offshoot to their cheery children's specialty store, which has seen its business increase to include size 12 for boys and 16 for girls.

"We are growing with our customers," Valenta said.

The three-year-old store in the city's West Lakeview neighborhood of Roscoe Village initially stocked only clothing to size 4-7 for boys, 10 for girls, but given that both owners now have nine-year-old children and many customers do, as well, they increased their offerings. "They might come in for baby clothes and they are staying with us as the kids are growing," Valenta said.

Now, half the store is devoted to infants and the other half is for children sizes 2T to 16.

Location also plays a key role for the merchants.

Opening along Roscoe Street seemed like a natural decision since the family-friendly area is growing in terms of retail and residential development and restaurants. Being situated in a bright corner storefront across the street from Starbucks doesn't hurt, either.

Hall who designed the 1,500-square-foot selling space, went with a bright palette, painting the walls different colors of lime green, blue, orange and bright pink to go along with the purple ceiling and polished concrete floor conducive to strollers.

"We did not want it to feel like a precious baby store," Valenta said. "It's fun and urban looking."In addition, the store, which carries lines such as Baby Lulu, Charlie Rocket, Junk Food and Shilav, sponsors a T-ball team, helps fund concerts in a neighborhood park and posts information on babysitters and other child-related vendors. "We're a good resource for people," said Valenta, who has three children. "It's fun to be part of the community."

Little Threads expects volume for 2007 to reach $750,000.

Prices range from $22 Little Miss Sunshine or Star Wars T-shirts to $98 fancy dresses from Cakewalk.

Clients range from those who spend $1,000 building a wardrobe to shoppers who pick up one T-shirt for $22, with the store's most moderate lines performing the best, Valenta said. Red 21

Owner Todd Leadingham said the concept behind his all boys' boutique, Red 21, with locations on Damen Avenue in Bucktown and in suburban Highland Park, Ill., has proved so promising that he plans to open four to five new stores in the Chicago suburbs and in Milwaukee this spring.

"We would be doing them all at once," said Leadingham, whose concept involves creating a kid-friendly environment and carrying only one line, Wes and Willy. "We really thought there was a hole in the market. There was nothing out there for boys."

And boys, who usually hate to go shopping, don't want to leave Red 21, Leadingham said.

The bright, open 2,400-square-foot corner space in Bucktown is no doubt enticing for kids and their parents as it is stocked with bikes, trikes and Tonka trucks ready for play, giant stuffed dinosaurs, an assembled train track with toy trains, basketball hoop with a dozen basketballs and a flat-screen television usually tuned into sports.

The apparel selection entails mostly graphic long-sleeve layered T-shirts, $26, flannel shirts, $26, and football hoodies, $40, paired with cargo pants, $29, guitar embroidered jeans, $39, flannel lounge pants, $26, and cotton nylon athletic pants, $33.

Bestsellers include T-shirts with skull and crossbones, shirts with rock 'n' roll graphics such as guitars, guitar picks or drums and tops with sports graphics ranging from baseball and basketball to skateboarding, hang gliding and lacrosse. Leadingham estimates 2007 sales volume at $250,000.To better promote the store and connect with its clients, Red 21 also offers yoga classes for boys and girls and hosts personal appearances by athletes such as former Chicago Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins and batting champion Bill Madlock, both of whom signed autographs and attracted fans lined up around the block, Leadingham said.

Leadingham learned about retail from his mother, who ran a children's boutique called Daydreams in Highland Park for 30 years. The two revamped the store to become Red 21 two years ago and then opened the Red 21 Chicago location a year ago.

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