WHEN Samantha Meiler shops for her son, she has a very specific look in mind: designer jeans, velour track suits, L.A.M.B. sneakers, a sporty-urban vibe.
Of course, lil' Rossdale is still a toddler, and Meiler's son is just 21 months old. But they're part of a growing set of pint-sized fashion plates, wearing shrunken-down versions of trendy adult clothes.
In the last few years, the obsession with dressing little kids like Dogtown skaters, Malibu moms and even Upper East Side socialites has hit a new, Suri-high level.
More clothing companies than ever are producing what the rag trade refers to as mini-me clothes on every price level. Marquee American designers, such as Phillip Lim and Marc Jacobs, are turning out Lilliputian renditions of clothes that sail down the runway each season.
European design houses that have a long tradition of producing children's clothes are paying more attention to their kids wear lines. Instead of just churning out jumpers in Burberry checks or Missoni waves, they're making children's clothes that look like grown-up togs in teeny-tiny sizes. So naturally, the fast-fashion folk have followed suit: H&M and Zara are turning out mini-me looks for kids of all sizes.
Lim's new collection for girls, Kid by Phillip Lim, mirrors his ready-to-wear line almost down to the pleat. "It's the first time a line has been so literally inspired by the adult collection," says Tracy Edwards, a vice president at Barneys New York, which carries the collection. "It's fresh and so current to what was happening in adult fashion."
For fall, Lim is offering structural pea coats, tunic dresses with massive bows, pleated and cuffed shorts and belted sweaters, for $55 to $325. "With this generation of new-age baby boomers, even though they have a kid now, they still have a specific aesthetic," Lim says, "and it relates to their whole life -- the type of car they drive, the shoes they wear. I was thinking that when they dress their child, they want something tasteful, something fun and interesting."
In L.A. there are still a few popular stores stocking traditional, expensive children's lines like Oilily and Pampolino, but most have transformed into emporiums for freakishly small adult apparel.
And while women's national apparel sales have followed the economy downward, kids' clothing sales have dipped less profoundly, according to retail research company NDP Group. And sales for infant-toddler clothes are the only clothing sector that's significantly up, from $14.7 million in March and April 2007 to $15.3 million in the same period this year.
At Pumpkinheads in Brentwood, which stocks diminutive True Religion and J Brand jeans and Splendid tees, sales are up 12% so far this year. "I think the luxury market is almost unaffected by the economy," owner Jamara Ghalayini says. "Also with the gas prices and the economy, it seems like people are traveling less, so have more money to spend on their kids."
Lisa Kline, who owns four boutiques and one kids' store, said sales at her kids' store are outpacing the others. (Everything she buys, including Chip & Pepper jeans and C&C California tees, is a shrunken-down version of looks you might see wandering up and down Robertson Boulevard -- sans the triple-shot Starbucks latte). Kline added that her sales staff uses celebrity kids mania as a selling tool, pointing out which Kingsley shirt Maddox Jolie-Pitt was recently seen in, etc. "People care about that stuff," she says.
Clearly. In focus groups conducted by celebrity tabloid Life & Style Weekly, Meiler said, readers are always riveted by celebrity offspring and what they're wearing. "Kingston is the most popular boy," she said. "These kids are setting trends without even knowing it. Madonna's daughter Lourdes is a total fashion diva, and Maddox is like the forefather of celebrity kids' fashion."
People magazine even bought a celebrity babies blog recently that chronicles the scintillating lives and looks of Bluebell Halliwell (Geri Halliwell's 2-year-old daughter) and Honor Marie Warren (the daughter of Jessica Alba and Cash Warren is only 2 weeks old, but already a tabloid sensation), among others.
The media coverage has "just created a bigger push and demand for shrunken-down adult clothing," said Serge Azria, designer for contemporary women's line Joie, which recently debuted kids' and tween collections that sell at Barneys New York and Lisa Kline Kids.
"Kids are getting more informed these days about what labels that their favorite celebrities wear, and want to emulate their favorite role model," Azria says.
These tots may not be moving $3,000 Balenciaga bags, but after Tom Cruise's chubby-cheeked daughter Suri, who was recently fitted for a pair of custom Christian Louboutin shoes, was seen in a belted Burberry dress, the house's signature nova check plaid started popping up on kids all over L.A.
Eugenia Ulasewicz, president of Burberry in the Americas, couldn't gauge the Suri effect, but overall she characterizes kids' sales as "very strong." And it might be naive to think that Suri and her pocket-sized pals, including the Beckham boys, aren't at least partially responsible. After decades of licensing out its children's lines, Burberry is progressively bringing these collections in-house.
"Where we did have children's clothes, we saw there was a real customer appetite for our product," Ulasewicz says. "When you saw adult versions done in children's versions, the consumers were embracing what we did."
The company recently assembled a design team for children's clothes and opened its first kids'-only store in March in Hong Kong, with two more locations in the Middle East and the U.S. planned by the end of this year. Up to 30% of the looks will be influenced directly by the runway, Ulasewicz says, with the rest inspired by the brand's classic, outerwear-driven collection.
But what rational person pays $180 for a Burberry shirtdress or $150 for a Little Marc (Marc Jacobs) swing coat for a human being still working out how to twist the cap on a bottle of Elmer's? Sure, there are christenings and special events that justify a special purchase, but for some -- even some with money to burn -- buying duds that cost more than dinner at Mr. Chow smacks of wastefulness.
Ali Froley, a mother of two young children who runs the Los Angeles office of the public relations firm Bismarck Phillips Communications & Media, said buying expensive clothes that mimic adult fashion "is a waste of money and I think it's weird. It's freaky when moms have mini-mes running around. And kids grow out of things so quickly, I don't see the point."
Froley, who represents women's fashion brands, added that the practice of dressing your kids like a celebrity tot is "personally, just a little sad. It's, like, dress your kids like themselves."
But for parents accustomed to keeping up with the Joneses in other areas of life, dressing their 4-year-olds in Tod's loafers and Chloe dresses is just another way to assert their style and affluence. And kitting out your kids in designer duds is far cheaper than swathing yourself in Chloe.
"You can live out your fashion fantasies through your kids," says Meiler, a Life & Style editor who dissects duds worn by Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, Violet Affleck and other celebrity offspring for Life & Style. "The adult equivalent would be $1,000, and in kids it's only $100. Plus, I don't look like Gwen Stefani, and nothing I put on is going to make me look like Gwen Stefani. But with kids, people can show their personalities."