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LOS ANGELES — The tween market is morphing almost as fast as its customers.
First there were Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Then Hilary Duff. Now, Miley Cyrus is growing her fashion empire. Who among the newest stable of starlets — including Keke Palmer and Selena Gomez — is poised to reign as the next tween queen?
The opportunities are ripe, although the category hasn’t been immune to the recession. There are about 20 million girls between the ages of five and 14, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Girls between the ages of seven and 12 accounted for $7.45 billion in clothing sales in the 12 months through August. The same age group spent $7.85 billion a year ago, according to research firm The NPD Group.
“All the shows like ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘True Jackson’ and ‘90210’ have a style to them; all these shows have fashion,” said Palmer, the 16-year-old star of Nickelodeon’s “True Jackson, VP.” “We all like watching this stuff.”
The pioneers in the category are moving on.
Duff, 22, has been phasing out her four-year-old tween brand, Stuff by Hilary Duff, to focus on shoppers more of her age with Femme for DKNY Jeans, her collaboration with DKNY Jeans that launched in the fall. The 23-year-old Olsens parlayed their status as fashion insiders into their contemporary brand Elizabeth and James and high-end line The Row before signing a deal for a junior line, Olsenboye, sold at J.C. Penney stores.
Now, Cyrus, the 16-year-old star of the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” has teamed with MaxAzria to create a junior line exclusively for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and the Jonas Brothers hope to appeal to their female fans with a tween clothing line.
Dress Barn Inc. made a $157 million stock deal in June to acquire Tween Brands Inc. and its 908 Justice stores catering to seven- to 14-year-old girls. During the same month, Aéropostale Inc. opened the first store for its new tween concept, P.S. From Aéropostale, aimed at seven- to 12-year-olds.
Wal-Mart filled a void left by the departure of the Olsens’ tween clothing label, mary-kateandashley, with Mad Style by True Jackson, a new fashion line inspired by “True Jackson, VP.” And Gomez, 17, the star of the Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” is readying for the fall 2010 debut of her junior fashion brand, Dream Out Loud by Selena Gomez.
In addition, companies with names like Est. Today and Fashionology LA are sprouting on cyberspace and in brick-and-mortar form to allow style-centric tweens to customize everything from T-shirts to zebra-print leggings. And a 13-year-old Chicago fashion blogger named Tavi Gevinson has become the latest “It” girl, landing on the cover of Pop magazine and attending fashion shows of designers such as Alexander Wang, Rodarte and Marc Jacobs.
Robert Thorne, the marketer who groomed the Olsen twins and Duff to become tween fashion players, is changing the rules of celebrity branding with a line called Primp, which will launch a tween line dubbed Primp Girl at Macy’s Inc., The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. and Dillard’s Inc. this holiday. Primp Girl also will unveil a limited edition collection at Kitson in early January. As with the Olsens and Duff, Thorne acts as brand manager and licensing agent for Primp Girl and brokered the deals.
But, in a departure from his previous ventures, Thorne is jettisoning the single celebrity who served as the face and identity for a slew of licensing deals. Instead, he’s focusing on one fashion brand that will tap into the fast-changing landscape of young stars. Plus, he’ll use tweens’ preferred media — the Internet, iPhone, iPod and fan magazines such as Popstar and Twist — to disseminate photos and videos of celebrities wearing Primp Girl.
Primp already filmed actress Chelsea Staub, 21, from the Disney Channel’s “Jonas,” gabbing about back-to-school fashion with designer Wells Butler at the company’s warehouse. It posted six episodes for free on iTunes detailing how Primp makes its clothes and then sells them at trade shows such as Coterie. It’s also developing a free iPhone application that shows Primp’s look books, list of retailers and Butler’s Twitter updates.
Next month, Primp Girl will launch a yearlong campaign highlighting clothes designed by a dozen celebrities, including actress Madison Pettis, 11; Radio Disney singer and YouTube sensation Savannah Outen, 17, and actress Jennette McCurdy, also 17, from “iCarly.” Proceeds from the collaborations will be donated to a charity chosen by each celebrity.
“It’s tough when you’re always racing against the clock with a tween celebrity who’s outgrowing the customer,” Thorne said. “We put a lot of work in these [licensing programs], and five to six years isn’t enough to build a strong branded business.”
With Primp Girl’s rotating circle of celebrities, Thorne said: “You’ll always have a new tween celebrity. It continues to breathe fresh air into the brand. That’s how we intend to keep a decade or two [of business] with the tween. ”
Thorne emphasized the celebrities aren’t being paid to wear Primp Girl or collaborate with the brand. Rather, the company is sending free clothes to the young stars in exchange for the publicity surrounding them when they wear Primp Girl.
For instance, Primp Girl recently sent a purple hoodie emblazoned with silver stars to Noah Cyrus, Miley’s nine-year-old sister. Cyrus, along with her cousin, Emily Reaves, then raved about the company in a YouTube video that was viewed more than 31,800 times and mentioned on Web sites such as Ocean Up, Celebuzz and The Insider. Primp said it aims to corral celebrities who are between the ages of 10 and 18 to help plug Primp Girl.
“I don’t care what they do as long as they’re widely known and looked up to,” Thorne said.
Such endorsements aren’t anything new for Los Angeles-based Primp. Founded in 2004, the label started attracting attention after Jessica Simpson, Katherine Heigl, Hayden Panettiere and other starlets were photographed wearing its sweats screen-printed with whimsical images of anchors, whales and ice cream cones.
Primp broke into the tween market at Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom in fall 2008 with dresses, thermal shirts, fleece hoodies and sweatpants retailing for more than $70. Because of a recent federal law requiring children’s clothing to be tested for lead and other potentially harmful materials, Primp switched production from a factory that specializes in women’s clothing to Mamiye Bros., the New York-based manufacturer that produced the clothes for the Olsens’ tween line.
Primp Girl is relaunching this holiday as a lower-priced line at Macy’s, Bon-Ton and Dillard’s, with retail prices between $18.50 for an allover-print V-neck T-shirt and $35 for a zip-up hoodie. Kitson’s spring lineup of T-shirts, hoodies and sweatpants are priced from $18 to $80, reflecting the more trendy designs and better construction that the boutique requires. Thorne forecast that sales of Primp Girl will reach between $35 million and $55 million next year. Eventually, the brand will expand to sleepwear, loungewear and swimwear, then handbags, footwear, hair accessories, jewelry and bedroom and bathroom products.
Thorne intends to return to Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom in the spring with better-priced tween fashion that is a youthful interpretation of the printed looks from the contemporary women’s line. He plans for Primp Girl to extend into a lower-priced subbrand for mass or midtier retailers in 2011.
Thorne’s strategy to promote Primp Girl works with what marketing consultant Jane Buckingham dubs “the iPoding of celebrities” among the tween set. In the same way they mix a rock song, a country ballad and a hip-hop tune on an iPod, tweens will take style cues from celebrities.
Besides, unlike the previous tween trifecta — the Olsens, Duff and Miley Cyrus — no one from the current crop of young stars has broken out as a bona fide brand. Cyrus is the reigning tween queen. According to Forbes magazine, she earned $25 million from June 2008 to last June, sold four million albums, tallied $86 million at the world box office for her movies and filmed 30 more episodes of “Hannah Montana” for the Disney Channel. In the magazine’s list of top 100 celebrities for 2009, Cyrus was number 29 overall, though she ranked fifth in terms of Web hits — ahead of Jennifer Aniston, Kanye West and Madonna.
And wannabe successors keep popping up. The latest is Bridgit Mendler, 16, a willowy blonde guest star on “Wizards of Waverly Place,” who will premiere her own series, “Good Luck Charlie,” on the Disney Channel next year.
“It’s not just one person that [tweens] aspire to be,” said Buckingham, founder of Trendera, a marketing and consulting firm in Los Angeles. “They like all those girls.”
Therein lies the challenge for fashion brands. “You have more opportunities to sell them more things,” Buckingham said. “They have more looks, more experimentation.” At the same time, she noted: “It’s harder to get them to be loyal and it’s harder to predict what they want.”
For tweens, brands are as important as the ability to express their individuality.
“At that age, you don’t want to stand out too much,” said David Cote, chairman and chief executive officer of Est. Today, which launched its online customization Web site for tweens in December. “The girls want to wear something that has a name behind it.”
Tweens also like to be in control. New York-based Est. Today allows them to customize T-shirts with images of stars and owls, interspersed with sayings like “So Rad!” They can show off their designs online to other users or buy the item they created for $12 apiece.
“In the past, as consumers, you got what was served to you,” Cote said. “Now, because of the shows, the Internet and other education, the consumer is very savvy.”