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Baby Blues

The expansion of premium denim into the children's wear arena comes as sales for pricey threads for pipsqueaks is climbing rapidly in the U.S.

“Road Warriors on Venice Beach” was the typically fantastical theme of John Galliano’s most recent men’s wear collection, and it featured satin harem pants, spiked body pads and bondage masks. The ideal inspiration for a children’s wear line? Dr. Spock might not have thought so, but Diesel founder Renzo Rosso believes it is. 

Earlier this month, Diesel SpA announced it will produce and distribute a licensed John Galliano line for boys and girls ages 4 to 14, set to debut at retail next fall. While devotees of OshKosh B’Gosh might find the designer duds for tykes slightly outlandish, Diesel has a successful history of marketing premium fashion to style-savvy children and their parents. 

“Diesel pioneered children’s wear by applying innovation, research and more than 20 years of denim know-how to the kids’ market when it basically didn’t even exist,” said Rosso, who debuted the Dieselito kids’ label back in 1984. Today, the Diesel kids’ line rings up adult-sized sales of nearly $100 million. According to the company, those figures represent 100 percent growth from a year and a half ago.

It’s that kind of swelling demand for status labels in the children’s market that has prompted a growing number of premium jeans brands to launch or expand their offerings for toddlers, kids and young teens. Since 2005, True Religion, 7 For All Mankind, Rock & Republic, Energie, Evisu, Joe’s Jeans and Lucky Brand Jeans have waded into the kiddie pool, offering premium denim and related tops and outerwear for the lunch-box set in the U.S. 

The expansion of premium denim into the children’s wear arena comes as sales for pricey threads for pipsqueaks is climbing rapidly in the U.S. The top end of the children’s market has seen the biggest sales gains over the past two years, according to NPD Group data: Kids’ clothes costing $50 and over grew 39 percent for the 12 months ending in July, compared with an 11.3 percent increase for the kids’ apparel market as a whole. 

Of course, the great bulk of children’s wear is still relatively inexpensive, with clothes costing under $20 representing $31.4 billion of the total $35.4 billion market. 

For companies that do target kids with $175 selvedge denim jeans and $200 leather bomber jackets, the market represents a prime expansion opportunity, at a time when demand for denim in adult sizes has stalled after years of steady growth. For the 12 months ending in July, men’s denim sales actually dipped 3.5 percent to $4.42 billion, according to NPD Group. 

“Our kids’ line has done phenomenally since we launched in the fall of 2005,” said Tim Kaeding, creative director at 7 For All Mankind, which sells its $125 kids’ jeans in about 290 doors in the U.S. “There’s this whole new mentality among parents that you can spend more on jeans, and that has trickled down to their spending on kids. If you’re wearing 7’s, why would you want your kids to wear cheap jeans?” 

The extension of premium denim brands onto kids’ racks is part of the larger trend of luxury marketing pervading nearly every corner of the consumer marketplace. With dogs chowing down on organic pet food and sporting Coach collars, Evian bottling $20 decanters of water, and Starbucks charging $4 for iced coffee, it seems natural for choosy moms splurge on True Religion or Energie for their precious progeny. 

Today, the Energie children’s business represents about 12 percent of total Energie brand sales in the U.S. For parents who want the trend-forward Energie look, it may be surprising to find that the retail prices of the brand’s kids’ designs are not much less than adult styles—boys’ jeans sell for between $85 and $200, about 30 percent lower than their men’s counterparts. Why such big price tags for such little clothes? It turns out the cost of manufacturing premium kids’ fashions isn’t much less than regular-sized apparel. 

“The cost of fabric is only about 30 percent of the cost of making a garment. For us, the cost of cutting, sewing, hardware and import duties is the same for a kid’s jean as an adult’s,” explained Chris Hoffman, vice-president of wholesale at Energie. “It’s an intensive business, and the customer is getting true fashion and great quality that can be passed down to younger siblings.” 

Joe’s Jeans, however, has taken a slightly different approach to the kids’ market, choosing to focus on opening price points of $79 to $88 for jeans—a departure from its high-end emphasis in the adult market. “We specifically decided to be a great value for the mom,” explained Elena Pickett, vice-president of sales at Joe’s Jeans. “Kids grow out of clothes so fast, and anything over $100 can be a big psychological hurdle for mom.” 

The Joe’s Jeans kids’ line will ring up about $1.5 million in sales this year to 150 stores, including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Lisa Kline Kids and E Street Denim. “This is a growing business and we think it can be $5 million to $7 million over the next few years,” said Pickett. 

With the premium prices that parents are paying for children’s jeans, they want to see high quality and irresistible fashion novelty. “My customers always want to see something new, fresh and trendy,” said Haim Hayom, owner of Piccolo Mondo and Viva Bambi, two upscale children’s boutiques in Forest Hills, N.Y. “They want to get compliments on their kids’ style. Why do they spend so much money on it? For the same reason that people drive a BMW 750 when a Toyota will take you to the same place.” 

Hayom stocks kids’ wear from labels like Roberto Cavalli, Armani Junior, Diesel, Juicy Couture, John Richmond, 7 For All Mankind, Ed Hardy and Paul Frank. He finds new labels by visiting the upscale children’s wear trade shows Pitti Bimbo in Florence and ENK’s Children’s Club in New York. 

Fashion novelty is easily evident in the True Religion children’s collection, which features the L.A.-based brand’s California vintage aesthetic. The boys’ line offers up elaborately printed sweatshirts with Ozzy Osbourne and Beatles imagery, and jeans are sun-bleached and destroyed. The line is sold in about 300 doors across the U.S., including its own freestanding stores, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Barneys. 

The True Religion kids’ business comprises about 4 to 5 percent of the company’s $144.6 million in total sales (for the year ended in June). 

At Diesel, the kids’ collection shifts trends quickly to keep parents and children interested in new looks. “We change seasonally and follow the changes of the adult collection at the same speed,” noted Wilbert Das, creative director at the Italian company. 

To add to that sense of excitement, Diesel hosts monthly “Baby Loves Disco” parties in its stores in New York and San Francisco, where kids can dance and play with other children. Dance contests are held  during the events, where kids can win $200 gift certificates. 

Like Diesel, Lucky Brand Jeans has opened dedicated children’s stores, and the Liz Claiborne–owned brand now operates nine freestanding or pass-through Lucky Kid units. In addition, Lucky Kid is sold in 132 Lucky Brand stores—and the line is meant to be affordably stylish, with jeans starting at $68, hoodies from $48 and jackets from $68. 

“Lucky Kid is Lucky Brand stuff ‘bonsai’d,’” explained a company spokesman. “This means we don’t design for kids—we just take all the clothes we love from Lucky Brand Jeans and shrink it down to fit little bodies. We don’t cut corners on anything.” 

For true tiny denim connoisseurs, cultish Japanese brand Evisu offers its signature raw Japanese selvedge jeans with bold logos, while Levi’s markets its Little Levi’s Vintage collection. The latter line is inspired by true authentic designs from the Levi’s archive—with details like buckle backs and vintage hangtags modeled after an 1873 prototype—making them very cute collector’s items. Prices range from $49 for graphic T-shirts to $150 for a jean jacket, and the label is sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Scoop Kids, Lucky Wang and Best & Co. 

The Evisu line is similarly pricey, with its Evisu Kizzu jeans for infants going for $59 to $89 and its Evisu 55 jeans for boys priced from $140 to $199. Even so, the business is experiencing 10 to 15 percent growth each year, according to national sales manager Adam Schmidt. “Everyone wants to have their own mini-me,” he explained of the boom. 

Another boon to the business? The market is always growing—literally. “In its first year of life a baby goes through four sizes—and therefore four complete wardrobes,” pointed out Chad Jackson, marketing manager at Evisu. “It goes through another two sizes in year two, and then one size per year after that. So there is a great opportunity to get multiple purchases.”