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Positive Signs

Though other sectors appear to be slowing, experts forecast a growth year for children's wear.

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Though other sectors appear to be slowing, experts forecast a growth year for children’s wear.

Though the rest of the economy seems shaky, this may be a good year to be in the children’s clothing business.

Although slowing with the rest of apparel sales, children’s clothing revenues at retail are still expected to be the only apparel sector to post a year-over-year increase in 2008.

Children’s clothing sales are forecast to gain 2.5 to 3 percent this year, according to forecasting firm The NPD Group, which in contrast expects women’s apparel sales as a group to decline at least 2 percent, and men’s apparel to show no growth.

“Kids’ apparel is the last area to get hit when there’s a recession and consumers are cutting back,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief apparel industry analyst. Last year, children’s apparel sales gained 6 percent.

Like other apparel, the pinch in children’s sales is being felt across retail channels, starting with high-end merchants, Cohen said. While wealthy consumers haven’t put the breaks on buying children’s fashion, middle-class shoppers, once flush with cash, are weighing the need for these purchases more carefully.

Consequently, “the mid-level retailer will get some of their consumers back,” Cohen said, citing a range of stores including J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Macy’s. At the same time, mass merchants are in line to absorb sales for kids’ apparel from among cash-strapped middle-class consumers.

Among independent retailers, “We are already noticing the tough economic times,” said Adam Neumann, president of New York-based Krawlers, maker of organic cotton baby and toddler apparel, sold in some 500 specialty stores. Neumann described how a dozen former retail customers have recently closed — all family-run stores in business for 20 to 25 years.

To meet these mixed market conditions, Neumann balances sales between the company’s midtier Krawlers brand (wholesale cotton jersey and denim separates and sets are priced $7 to $17.50) and a higher-end organic cotton label, Egg Baby, produced in partnership with designer Susan Lazar (with wholesale separate prices from $25 to $35).

NPD’s Cohen said, despite watching their household budgets, Americans are still on the prowl for good fashion and design for children, which includes a keen interest in organic apparel. “The key is for brands and retailers to have the right assortment of in-season and pre-season products and fashion and basics. Too many stores are going to get conservative,” Cohen said.

Likewise, the shifting consumer market also spells opportunities for independent kids’ apparel vendors, Cohen said. “That’s where the ideas will come,” he said.

One trend that appears to be recession-proof in the kids’ market for boys and girls is silk-screened T-shirts, hoodies and onesies with phrases and graphics that strike a political or artistic chord with adults. “Change Is Good” is one election-year message that’s popular at Rebel Ink Baby in St. Paul, which sells its $10 wholesale onesies and T-shirts to 80 boutiques in 27 states and Canada. A hot Rebel Ink shirt sold in eight New York boutiques says, “I Love My Gay Uncle.”

“The baby shirts are moving quicker than the other merchandise,” said Todd Turfler, who runs Rebel Ink with his wife, Lisa Reiter, and whose latest design is a baby peering through bars saying, “I Live in a Gated Community.”

Silk-screening on baby and children’s apparel is also a key part of skateboard and surfing fashion, which spills into the overall street fashion scene.

“Skateboarding isn’t in any form of a recession,” said Maureen Kendall of Little Ruler apparel, who started the Santa Cruz, Calif., business three years ago with her skateboard champion husband, Jeff Kendall. Angelina Jolie and Gwen Stefani have bought Little Ruler T-shirts, onesies and hoodies for their kids, carrying classic skateboard graphics and slogans like “Skateboarding Is Not a Crime” or “Why Can’t My Boyfriend Skate.” Wholesale prices are $11 to $16.

In addition to selling to every state in the U.S., Kendall said European wholesale and e-commerce business has been brisk. “The market begins with the younger parents who are all over cooler fashion for their child. They don’t want the truck and train patterns they had to deal with,” Kendall said.

Kids wanting to be themselves is behind the new United Kingdom label Vintage Kit, which started in April with an e-commerce site and storefront in Bath, England. The line is inspired by the old British “Janet and John” series of early story books, said Katherine Trigg, designer and company principal. Customers at the store have included model Kate Moss and actress Amanda Holden.

“It boils down to old-fashioned kids being kids, but it’s still cool,” said Trigg of her cotton print apparel with a storybook Western wear appeal. A pair of leggings that could be chaps wholesales for $18 while a turquoise shirtdress with black winter rose pattern and brown-and-green plaid cropped jacket, for $28 wholesale, could fit an aspiring Annie Oakley.

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