DESIGNERS THINK SMALL: KIDS’ WEAR SHAPING UP AS NEW STATUS MARKET
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Like mother, like daughter has never been easier for the designer customer.
In the last six months, a number of American and European designers, including Laura Biagiotti, Dries Van Noten, Enrico Coveri, Norma Kamali, Nicole Miller and DKNY, have staked out the children’s market with the latest in designer chic.
For spring selling, for example, Donna Karan has created a miniature version of her tube skirt — albeit, less body-hugging — while Dries Van Noten, known for his minimalist design, is offering tiny versions of his military-inspired jackets with zip-front pockets.
Nicole Miller has come out with her signature moss crepe A-line cocktail dress — perfect for a girl who aspires to the society party circuit — and for fall, Norma Kamali has created her trademark sleeping-bag coats just for kids.
A year and a half ago, Gucci got into the children’s scene, offering eight shoe styles, including the horse-bit loafer. The shoes, which retail from $85 to $115, are sold in 14 Gucci freestanding stores nationwide and are doing well, according to a spokeswoman. She added, however, that Gucci does not plan to enter the children’s apparel market.
Other designer names aggressively developing their children’s businesses are Moschino, which markets Moschino Bambino for infants and toddlers, and Moschino Junior for preteens, as well as Gianni Versace’s Young Versace, for four-to-16-year-olds. Both are coming out with dressier collections for fall and holiday, showing lots of silk taffeta and velvet designs. Versace is also introducing a children’s home furnishings line that includes designer-inspired prints in sheets, duvets and miniature sofas. The line will make its debut in Italy for fall and will be rolled out in the U.S. over the next two years.
These designers are targeting a market with a retail volume of only about $10 million. Industry sources, however, forecast a 20 percent annual increase, propelled by a baby boom, by adults’ growing obsession with status, and by the increasing sophistication of children who are bombarded by fashion influences from all types of media. Some industry observers also cite a new wave of society parties — where baby boomer parents dress up their kids and take them along on the charity circuit.
“Status is definitely trickling down to kids,” said David Wolfe, creative director of Doneger Group, a buying office here. “They are looking at their mothers and older sisters, and they want to wear the same brands. They are also looking at pop icons and want to dress just like them.”
Witness the star baby of the moment: Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes Maria Leon Ciccone. The baby has been spotted in custom-made Prada mary jane shoes with embroidered flowers and D&G embroidered dresses. Spokeswomen for Prada and D&G, incidentally, said they had no plans to go into children’s wear.
“Kids are aware of brand names, and if they can’t afford it, they want the cheaper, contemporary version,” said Mona May, costume designer for “Clueless,” the 1994 movie about Beverly Hills teens. May is also the costume designer for the TV series, which began airing last fall.
May noted that the series, whose stars wear such labels as Dolce & Gabbana, Jil Sander and Moschino, has attracted the attention of a much younger audience than she anticipated.
“I thought the show would draw the early teen audience, but the core group is under 10,” she said. “They write me letters and draw me pictures of the outfits they like.”
“You can see the trend just on the streets,” continued May. “I was just at Neiman Marcus the other day, and I saw a little kid talking on a cellular phone picking out clothes. It is just amazing.”
Noting an appetite for status names, American and European designers are aiming to differentiate themselves in the U.S. market from the fussy, frilly children’s wear out there as well as the wealth of casual basics offered by Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and CK Calvin Klein. At the same time, this push into designer fashions is different from that of the carefree Eighties, when there were fewer limits on price and flash.
Now, the bulk of the designer dresses top out at $400 retail, while blouses go no higher than $150 and outerwear’s ceiling is $350, according to industry sources. And the look is not as flamboyant.
“Back then, people did not care about prices, and everything was so flamboyant, with diamond-studded polo shirts and such,” said Vangeli Papaioannou, owner of La Pin, an 11-unit designer children’s wear chain based here, as well as the owner of Moda Greca, the U.S.-based distributors for such children’s lines as Moschino Bambino, Moschino Junior, Laura Biagiotti and Enrico Coveri.
“People used 100-percent silk, and customers did not care whether the baby threw up all over it,” said Papaioannou. “This time around, we are now adjusting to the prices of the market. We are also making sure the garments can be washable at home.”
To keep costs in check, Papaioannou noted that Moschino has reduced the number of flaps in the jackets and kept embroidery to a minimum.
Still, Papaioannou, an 18-year veteran in the children’s market who is also in talks with D&G, Valentino and Romeo Gigli to develop children’s lines, said the time is ripe for children’s designer clothes.
“If it is done right, it can be a great experience,” he said.
Papaioannou estimates that Moschino Junior and Moschino Bambino, licensed by Valtib SpA, Perugia, Italy, could generate a wholesale volume of $300,000 to $400,000 for fall, a 20 percent increase from the year-ago period. And he believes that Laura Biagiotti, which makes its debut in August in 50 store accounts and is licensed by Italia Griffe SpA, Pescara, Italy, is expected to generate $300,000 in wholesale volume for the season.
Moschino’s Bambino and Junior lines are in 100 accounts in the U.S., with plans to double that within a year and a half, according to a spokeswoman.
Enrico Coveri, licensed by Nilva SpA, Bologna, Italy, should post a wholesale volume of $400,000 for the spring season.
“If you want to attract a market like the U.S., then you can’t just offer basics; you have to offer something special,” said Alessandro Bastagli, managing director of Bavers SA, Manno, Switzerland, the licensee of Gianni Versace.
He said the best-selling items are the Versace-inspired pieces, including the perforated, white zip-front, A-line dress for spring and the cropped jacket and HotPants in floral designs, as well as military looks.
Versace’s Young Versace is currently in 30 accounts, including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Bastagli said he plans to double its wholesale volume in the U.S. to $2.5 million within the year. The line is represented here by David Glazer Inc.
“There is definitely a big market out there,” said Norma Kamali. After a 10-year hiatus, she has reentered the children’s market for fall. The line, licensed by Kid Duds, Cannon Falls, Minn., targets toddlers to 12 year olds, with gym looks under the OMO label as well as printed evening gowns.
“This baby boomlet is happening, and grandparents have quite a younger mind-set,” she continued. “They are interested in buying young designer brands.”
Kamali estimates that first-year wholesale volume should be $2.5 million. The wholesale price range is $10 to $50.
Some of the big stores — including Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus — are further developing their children’s business. Bergdorf Goodman, however, which sells infants’ clothes, and Charivari, which picked up Dries Van Noten for spring, do not have plans to develop their children’s business.
“With this baby boom happening, I think people should have started really getting into the business a couple of years ago,” said Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president of Barneys New York, which has increased the children’s area at its Madison Avenue store by 20 percent. The area targets infants through age six.
The lines being added for spring are Dries Van Noten, Bon Point, Naf Naf, Jean Barrquet, Chevignon, Miniman, Klimager and Galipette. Best-selling items include motorcycle jackets, retro crop tops and matching bell-bottoms, drop-waisted A-line retro dresses in multicolors and leopard-print swimsuits.
“On average, people will spend up to $250 to $300 for an outfit,” said a Barneys spokeswoman.
Pressman added that despite the high prices of Dries Van Noten, whose jackets retail for $325, the line, which debuted last month, has done well.
“The baby and toddler business has been good, and we are definitely growing it,” said Patti Hardsell, divisional merchandise manager for children’s wear at Neiman Marcus. Neiman’s offers clothes targeting six-month-old babies to two-year-old toddlers in 27 of its 30 stores, including two new children’s shops in Paramus Mall, Paramus, N.J., and Short Hills Mall in Short Hills, N.J.
Getting into the children’s business isn’t easy. A number of designers have gone in and out of it, like Adrienne Vittadini, which exited the category two years ago, and Giorgio Armani, which pulled its children’s line out of the U.S. market last year and is concentrating on the European market. And firms are constantly changing their licensing partners.
The knottiest issue is price, a key concern for the American market, more so than in Europe. While children’s garments require less fabric, they are usually more costly to make, given that they are more labor-intensive. And then there is the issue of the variety of sizes, complicating the design process still further. There’s the baby newborn, which is from birth to six months; infant size, from six to 12 months; toddler, from 2T to 4T; 4x to 6x, and 7 to 16.
“A lot of designers, at first, think it is so easy,” said Papaioannou. “But it is a whole different ball game. You have to have a mind-set of the child. There are so many details that you have to think about, like putting the pockets down low and not having so many strings hanging, or not putting the zippers near the throat.”
He added that he is able to keep prices in check because of his strong network with Italian fabric mills.
Wholesale prices for Moschino Junior range from $25 for a T-shirt to $170 for a leather jacket or dress.
“We are trying to be very conscious about prices,” agreed Bastagli of Versace. To lower them, Bastagli said, he plans to increase production of the line by 30 percent within a year because “we can get better buys on fabrics, if we make more units.”
Young Versace’s skirts, pants and blouses wholesale from $30 to $78, while outerwear goes from $65 to $152, and dresses are $76 to $152.
This is the second try for both DKNY and Nicole Miller children’s wear.
DKNY had tested a children’s line in-house from spring ’93 to spring ’94, but found that the prices were too high, according to Murrey Nelson, vice president of licensing at Donna Karan. Now, it has hooked up with Albert Group, based in Les Herbiers, France, which produces the line. It has a license to sell in Europe and the Mideast, but Donna Karan has retained the right to sell in the U.S.
The new line is in “the spirit of DKNY” and offers seersucker dresses, polo dresses and lots of logo fashions in such colors as lime green and orange and accents of blue, black and white. The line carries sizes 4x to 6x as well as 7 to 16 and boys 4 to 7 and 8 to 16.
Nicole Miller’s first licensing arrangement for children’s, which ended last year after three years, was a disaster, according to the designer.
“It was very misdirected,” said Miller, who was turned off by the Prada knockoffs and such junior looks as holograms. “It just wasn’t me.”
After doing it in-house for six months, Miller has hooked up with Los Angeles-based Un Deux Trois, a junior and children’s wear maker, to develop a line for toddlers through age 16.
The collection will start off small, focusing on black moss crepe dresses to hit stores in April, but will expand for fall to include stretch pants and jackets, suede, and bamboo print dresses. Dresses will wholesale for about $70.
The line, which is expected to post a first-year wholesale volume of $2 million, will be in all 40 Nicole Miller stores, as well as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.
“I have strong opinions of what a child should look like,” said Miller. “And my opinion is that there are just too many frilly things out there. I just don’t think little kids should dress the way I did when I was a little girl.”