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Busting the Piggy Bank

Indulgent parents are spending whatever it takes to bring up baby in high style.


From all appearances, the women nibbling bunny-shaped cookies and chatting about their children could have been gathered at a baby shower. But the table full of hand-knitted cotton sweaters and finely smocked dresses wasn't displaying newly bestowed gifts. These were samples of an exclusive European baby clothing line, Emma T., and the occasion was an invitation-only trunk show in the courtyard of Jamie Tisch's Better Things boutique in West Hollywood. In between their appointments with personal trainers, manicurists and decorators, the designer-labeled mothers with nary a sign of fatigue, fat or frizzies scooped up the $50 sweaters and $75 dresses.

"You don't feel guilty shopping for your kids," said Tisch, wife of film producer Steve Tisch who sponsored the trunk show and was buying for their three toddlers. The A-list Hollywood insider and the other mother shoppers are like many parents who've had it with blah basics and can afford today's haute tot couture.Whether they buy a $450 itty-bitty Burberry trench coat, an $85 Banana Republic cashmere cardigan or a $2,000 hand-painted Silver Cross pram, today's pampering parents are going positively buggy for babies and kids.

For the money, they earn bragging rights and a stylish sophistication that's light-years beyond the classic Buster Brown and Carter's that have stocked kids' closets for generations. Cash registers are ringing as shoppers respond to slicker styles that feature superior workmanship and fabrics, a combination that has kept children's apparel immune from the ills plaguing every other segment of the luxury apparel business.

Cool baby booty is leading shoppers back into stores, where sales of infant and toddler wear increased 5.7% last year, making it the only apparel category that posted an increase. Shoppers are attracted to an improved variety of clothes for older children, too, as the very idea of indulgent dressing has changed.

Luxury used to mean some sort of impractical finery that sentenced little girls to suffer in stiff skirts and boys to struggle in suspender pants. Now the good stuff is an airy $60 linen shirt, a comfy $50 designer T-shirt or a one-of-a-kind playsuit that weathers mud and lots of laundering.

Trunk show shopper and interior designer Elizabeth Dinkel frequents upscale Neiman Marcus and French boutiques Bonpoint and Tartine et Chocolat for her two children because the clothing "teaches them an appreciation for beautiful things." The Beverly Hills mother, wearing pearls and a Gucci bag, adds, "I appreciate finer things. Therefore, I want my children to have them too."

A well-dressed child may not guarantee a future art aficionado, but the dashing tykes have symbolic value for their parents, said Angela Johnson, editor of Youth Markets Alert, a New York trade publication. Luxurious children's wear is "a way of displaying your success," she said. "In some circles, dressing a kid in more special clothes is a way of showing, 'I have a kid and a career, and I manage all of this.'"

Not every mother of means considers the trend healthy. Actress and writer Heather Thomas tries not to indulge her 22-month-old daughter with clothes above $100. "I think it's an obsession," she said, while scanning the Emma T. sweaters. "I think human beings have switched their perfectionism to their children, having failed to meet the standards themselves."

Setting the pace is "the spoiled generation," the baby boomers, who are the most affluent and influential of all consumer groups, said Marshal Cohen, president of NPD Fashionworld, a Port Washington, N.Y., market research firm: "We are bestowing our standards on our kids." And as boomers become grandparents with each turn of the calendar, they're generously giving gifts, which constitute nearly 40% of children's apparel purchases.

Not so long ago, pricey and precious baby gifts were affectionately known as "grandma bait," said Linda Jeffcott, president of Haute Baby, which has luxury boutiques in Beverly Hills, Dallas and Houston. "This is a family thing now. Aunts, uncles, cousins, best friends, husbands--they all want to be in on it now," she said. Her boutiques attract celebrities such as Jodie Foster and Geena Davis, who can easily afford her most expensive items, such as $100 jean jackets or $750 bedding ensembles. But these aren't her only clients.

"People of all incomes want something special. Even if they are on a hamburger income, they are still going to put the baby first. That is not part of the 'me' era that we saw for the last 10 years," said the 23-year veteran of the children's apparel industry.

Even in these uncertain times, kids are coming first, said NPD's Cohen. "People are thinking differently today than they were a year ago," he said, noting how the terrorist attacks strengthened the country's growing pro-family sentiment. The material expressions of our changed priorities are still easy to see.

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