Retailer Torie Steele recently sold out the 40th and last of her $250 Italian cashmere sweaters--cashmere for kids, that is.
One mother who stepped into Steele's 6-month-old T. S. Bambini shop on Rodeo Drive was so intent on bundling her daughter in cashmere--and was so disappointed to learn that the sweaters were gone--that she bought a tiny Valentino cashmere coat instead. Price tag: $425.
"She hunted the store for cashmere," Steele recalls.
In this season of excess, cashmere sweaters for children are only the beginning. Kids who haven't yet learned to read either Dr. Seuss or a store label can now toddle off to day care in leather pants and tailored cotton shirts layered under bulky hand-knit sweaters--all, of course, imported from Europe. At night, little boys can dress in smoking jackets and tiny tuxes, while girls can slip into the finest velvets, taffetas and silks--just like Mommy's.
Expensive children's clothing is certainly nothing new. But the difference today is with the parents, who seem to be indulging their children as never before. Considerable numbers are postponing childbirth until they are financially secure, and many of today's babies are entering the world in two-income households in which luxury children's items have become increasingly within reach.
The country is also witnessing the largest number of first births in history--1.5 million a year, compared with 1 million in 1961 at the tail end of the postwar baby boom, reports the National Center for Health Statistics. It is a figure that hasn't escaped the manufacturers of children's clothes.
"The first birth generates the majority of expensive gifts," says Stephen Carter, a descendant of William Carter, founder of Carter's, one of the country's oldest manufacturers of infant's and children's clothes.
Carter's recently joined what it calls the "fashion playwear" business. Two years ago, the Needham Heights, Mass.-based company secured the license to manufacture Baby Dior clothing and gifts and has just signed an agreement with 20th Century Fox Licensing and Merchandising Corp. to design and market television's "Dynasty" infant and children's clothes.
Yet if mothers today are willing to pamper their children in the same manner that television's millionaire mom Krystle Carrington indulges her newborn baby, some people are wondering, "Where will it end?"
"Sometimes if you dress a child like a mini-adult, there is a tendency to put pressure on them to act like adults," cautions Lee Hausner, a psychologist with the Beverly Hills Unified School District, adding that at an early age children care less about labels than whether or not their clothes itch.
"Remember, when an outfit costs $100, the parent is enormously concerned if the kid spills paint on it," Hausner says. "Children shouldn't be denied the right to be children."
In addition to the psychological implications of dressing in a sophisticated manner, some parents also are concerned about the influence on advertising and promotion. Sexually suggestive poses have been used in some children's fashion layouts, such as those that have appeared in Harper's Bazaar and in Saks Fifth Avenue catalogues. "It's wrong," says Mary Elizabeth Hart, publisher of Baby Talk magazine. "It's a disservice to children."
Nevertheless, upscale children's clothes continue to sell.
"Across the country, there's more business to be done in higher price points than there was 15 years ago," Pat Van Olinda, editor of the industry publication Earnshaw's Infants-Girls-Boys-wear Review, says. "It isn't the whole business, but the delayed family, the smaller family, the two-income family--it's all having an impact on children's wear, particularly in boutiques and better department and specialty stores."
Eric Graff, a merchandising analyst for Associated Merchandising Corp., a national retail-service organization, says, "Now that consumers are willing to spend more to get the fashion look and manufacturer they want, many department stores throughout the country have closed down their budget children's operations. They're taking their money and using them in 'upstairs' markets instead.
"If miniskirts are in, we have miniskirts. If it's oversize dresses, we have oversize dresses. Whatever is in fashion for the adults comes in for children now," Jeanette Ouazanan, owner of Les Enfants, an upscale children's store in West Hollywood says. "Nine times out of 10, if the mother is wearing a big dress, leg warmers, a great belt and super shoes, she'll dress her little toddler the same way. We have big fashions for little people."
If children are starting to resemble yuppies-in-training, one explanation is the influx of top-name designers who are cashing in on the new baby boom and scaling down their adult patterns for kids. American designers such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt started the kiddie-couture phenomenon with designs for children's jeans and T-shirts, but now names like Giorgio Armani, Krizia, Yves Saint Laurent, Missoni, Valentino, Jean Charles de Castelbajac and shoe designer Maude Frizon are lending European cachet and styling to the craze.
San Francisco designer Jessica McClintock describes her collection of girls' dresses as a smaller version of the romantic, lace-edged clothes she creates for grown-ups. "I think Little Lord Fauntleroy's suit was the very same suit his father wore. It's not a new concept for children to emulate their parents," McClintock says.
These days, any article of clothing that smacks of being too "babyish" seems to have become hopelessly out of favor. "A lot of my friends have turned against Florence Eiseman," says Alison Greenberg, mother of Peter, 9, and Kate, 3, referring to the children's wear designer whose classic designs remind Greenberg and her friends "of how we dressed as children."
"My feeling is that by the time these children are 16, they will have exquisite taste levels and will demand quality and expert design," points out Pauline McCourtney, co-owner of This Little Piggy & Co., a children's boutique in Beverly Hills that sells mostly custom-quality clothing and European imports, including some manufacturers that have outfitted children of royalty.
Actually, there is a practical reason for buying expensive, well-made clothes, adds her partner Gail Simms. They have ample hems and seam allowances and, consequently, room for growth. "You don't have to buy a new wardrobe every six months," Simms says.