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The Clothing Boom in the Land of the Little People : Companies Are Finding the Move From Big Folks to Kids Can Be Very Rich . . . and Very Competitive.

August 20, 1995|Carol Pogash | Bay Area author Carol Pogash has written articles for the Washington Post and New York Times. Her book, "As Real as It Gets: The Life of a Hospital at the Center of the AIDS Epidemic," was published in 1992 by Birch Lane Press.

When 5-month-old Emma Pierce Rempel heads for the pool, she wears her hat, shorts, T-shirt, sun block and infant shades that slide down her blip of a nose. In Southern California, sunglasses for newborns are just plain "functional," explains her mother, CBS evening news producer, Barbara Pierce.

Before he could toddle, 6-month-old Charley Yoshimura owned a pair of Charles Barkley black Nikes, purchased by his father, Akira, a New York production designer, who works for "Saturday Night Live." While the foot coverings lack the Nike air technology, they have flexible soles. They are not intended for shooting baskets.

Chicago Investment adviser Georgeanna Fischetti can reel off baby labels as if she's reading stock quotes from NASDAQ: "Flapdoodle, Cows and Lizards, Gap, Nike, Patagonia." Her favorite pastime is shopping with Fela, her granddaughter. Fela's father tends toward $25 polka dot shirts and thrift shop Bermuda shorts. Her mother favors campy clothes. Fela is the family's only clothes pony. Fischetti has spent more than $800 on her "year to date," sans regret.

Baby clothes used to cover babies bodies, not to amuse, amaze or make a statement. "Twenty years ago," says children's designer Margaret Holt, associate professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, "children looked like children." Babies' clothes had a waddling duck or a silly elephant on them. Infant and toddler hues mimicked Baskin-Robbins' flavors: mint chip, pale lemon, muted strawberry or bubble gum blue--predictable pastels. And synthetics were acceptable.

But no longer. Today, parents can dress their kids like miniature adults. At Neiman Marcus, they can plunk down $110 on a TSE cashmere sweater for a 3-month-old girl, or $220 toward a Ralph Lauren ivory linen suit for a year-old boy.

And there are labels for people who aren't wealthy but who prefer higher-price point clothes than are found at Target and Kids R Us. Gymboree, babyGap and Baby Guess? were designed for them. Walking into a Gymboree boutique is like jamming yourself into a kaleidoscope. The Bay Area company, now nationwide, makes 38 strongly colored apparel lines a year for children up to age 6. A few doors away in many upscale malls, GapKids stores offer adult styling--in tasteful, chalky tones--for kids not yet toilet trained, including, for example, pants for boys with faux flies. Little Charley Yoshimura, owner of baby Nikes, wears a pair of babyGap khakis that "look sleek, with sort of a wide-butt effect," says his wisecracking, New York writer and teacher Sara Nelson.

For the parent wanting a retro style, Baby Guess? chief designer Dawn Bigley is creating a line that includes Marilyn Monroe pedal-pushers (Capri pants) in denim, pin stripe or mini pastel plaid, for toddlers through adolescents.

For infant feet, Reebok sells shoes with heavy-duty-sounding names such as BB4600s, Revenge Crest and Pay Dirt, styles just like Dad's. Nike provides 13 choices, including hiking boots and volleyball, street hockey and aerobics shoes.

Tiny eyeglass frames for 2-year-olds and up, made by L.A. Eyeworks, can be modified with tiny clip-on sunglasses. Parents can buy all-cotton clothes for baby's sensitive skin. Or they can purchase baby clothes made from only organically grown cotton. Then there's Patagonia, which says that with baby, you can still kayak and climb, as long as the kid is properly outfitted. Patagonia sells baby aviator hats, for cold, windy climates, in "heron blue" or "rhubarb," as well as other baby gear made from "Syncilla," a melange of "virgin fibers and fibers recycled form plastic bottles."

"I have yet to see any fashion in the adult market that I can't find for a 2-year-old," says Monique Greenwood, executive editor and associate publisher of Children's Business, a trade publication. Greenwood's 3-year-old daughter owns a little black dress with black chiffon and rhinestone stone buttons that can take her black-tie affairs. This miniaturization of adult attire provides the same inexplicable appeal as dollhouses, says Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and women's studies at the UC at Berkeley. Cute, clever clothes offer one way for parents to show that "their children are cared for and loved. It's one thing to get pleasure from dressing up your children, but, she said, when kids are shoved into designer-label clothes, "that is simply saying, 'we're rich.' "And that," she says, "turns the child into an object--a designer child."

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