A look from Ralph Lauren's RL Gang children's clothing line. (Ralph Lauren )
It's hard to miss those paparazzi shots of celebrity toddlers being toted around by their famous parents, kids who are dressed, well, to look just like mom or dad. Gwen Stefani's boys sport mohawks, black rocker T-shirts and baggy cargo pants like their dad Gavin Rossdale; Jessica Alba's daughter Honor Warren mimics her mother's frilly, feminine style; and little Suri Cruise seems to love perusing the shoe section at Barneys New York just as much as does her stylish mother, Katie Holmes.
The parade of mini-me's isn't relegated to celebrities and seems to be a trend among many parents who are buying designer wear for their kids, much to the delight, no doubt, of luxury houses that have expanded to include tiny sizes.
Some companies, such as Ralph Lauren, have offered children's fare for years; others, such as Versace and Lanvin, are releasing their kids' lines later this year. In the 12-month period that concluded in May 2011, sales of children's clothing in the U.S. reached $32.4 billion, and $800 million of that was spent on designer lines, according to the NPD Group Inc. Consumer Tracking Service.
"People are no longer buying over-the-top homes and cars," says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD. "We did that, and that kind of backfired, but we will continue to splurge on our kids. In their minds, the best thing consumers can do is make sure their kids get all the right things and dress the part."
Cohen adds that this is one reason why the children's clothing market is being infiltrated by a growing number of high-end designers and luxury brands and that the area is generally one of the last to be affected by a recession and one of the first to recover. In 2008, when the adult apparel industry dipped 5%, the sale of children's clothing dropped just 1%.
"That could practically be considered growth in this market," Cohen says.
The wealthy, of course, have always garbed their children in luxurious fabrics; go to any large museum and check out paintings from the last several hundred years and you'll see infants in lace; toddlers in velvet and 7-year-olds in dresses with embroidered pearls.
Most families, of course, have never had that option. Nonetheless, in the last few decades, the sales of children's clothing have grown rapidly, as parents in the U.S. have upped the number of garments in the family wardrobe. Even parents who might scrimp on clothing for themselves will buy beautiful dresses and jackets for a family photo portrait or a special occasion. And options for the wealthy have multiplied in the last several years.
Many luxury fashion houses (think Fendi, Missoni, Prada, Armani, Gucci, Dior, Burberry, Marc Jacobs and Phillip Lim) have a children's division, which generally includes garments designed to fit a range of ages that runs from newborn to 12 years old. Some of the designers churn out mini versions of their men's and women's ready-to-wear lines or logo heavy accessories; others merely riff on the aesthetic of their already established brand.
"It is about picking the most charming and cute items, and scaling them down," says Phillip Lim, whose whimsical children's line is called Kid. "Nothing is skimped on. It's just as you'd get in the adult version — Italian fabrics, hand embroidery, only smaller. It's like 'Mommy and me.'"
Versace is just joining the kids' clothing game, releasing the Young Versace line this fall. As one might expect, the style will be slightly over the top and very much in line with the glitzy look of the luxury house adult fare — Medusa heads and all. "Nothing is plain; it's very rock 'n' roll and colorful," says Gian Giacomo Ferraris, chief executive of Versace. "This is the attitude of the house. It expresses our glamorous DNA."
Part of that expression includes limited-edition leather items and Swarovski-encrusted baby bottles.
"We're finding that our customers are looking for very special emotional pieces with a wow factor," says Colleen Sherin, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, which carries a robust selection of designer kids lines, including Prada, Burberry and Fendi. "There's an emotional response to the items and not really any price resistance."
Sherin says footwear (from brands like Prada and Gucci) gets the biggest response in the children's category on the Saks.com website and that the designer children's wear category in general is an area of growth for the retailer.
"These lines have the same innovative design found in the brand's ready-to-wear collections," she says. "They've translated the look into kid's clothing, so the woman who wears these labels is going to find the children's line appealing."
The price tags ($250 and higher for designer kids' shoes and around $350 to $475 for a coat) are about half that for the grown-up versions and, just as with the adult lines, the desire for having Burberry check on a collar or a Gucci horse bit detail on a ballet flat is appealing to parents with big bank accounts.
"It's all about the generation of the mini-me," says Amy Tara Koch, style expert and author of "Bump It Up," a book about how to have a stylish pregnancy. "They want their kids to stand out — or in the language of 'Project Runway' — to have a point of view. It's like the fashion-forward version of playing dress-up with an American Girl doll."
"Especially with the first baby, people go crazy, they have no limits," says Rosie Pope, a New York maternity concierge, designer of a maternity clothing line and star of the Bravo channel's "Pregnant in Heels." "They justify the purchase in their heads. And since at 6 months, the babies start to look like little people and parents can really start to see them as an extension of themselves, it's part of the whole process of becoming a parent. It's the fun part."