Little Dandies : The Psychology Behind Designer Duds for Kids


Walk into the Guess Kids shop on Rodeo Drive and it’s hard to believe this is a place where kids go for their back-to-school duds.

The store--complete with antique wooden trunks and worn leather saddles--looks like a Western movie set. Hanging from the oh-so-stylish clothing racks are $92 jackets, $60 blue jeans and, for the chic Beverly Hills infant, $39 overalls.

Not all parents are whisking their children to designer stores for back-to-school shopping, but a steadily growing number are.


At a time when the economic slowdown has many Californians searching through the J.C. Penney bargain bins, the kids’ designer clothing market continues to expand. Over the last three years, sales at Baby Guess stores have doubled every year, the company says.

And, with few other new avenues for growth available, a slew of top-name designers of adult clothing--from DKNY to Polo to Tommy Hilfiger--have recently joined the $20-billion children’s apparel market.

“I can’t believe how fast this designer crap for kids is selling,” said Marian Salzman, president of the New York consulting firm BKG Youth, which studies the buying habits of children and parents. “Parents are sublimating their own desires for material pleasures and putting them onto their kids.”

About the only “quality time” many parents find to spend with their kids these days is at the clothing store, Salzman said. A lot of mothers and fathers--and grandparents--feel guilty about this, so they are digging deeper into their billfolds to buy the kids the kind of costly, designer-name clothing that most grown-ups would not buy for themselves. As a result, she said, “the days of sending kids off to school in $19 Keds and $23 Levis are over.”

It’s a matter of shifting priorities, said Elysa Lazar, publisher of the New York-based newsletter Kids Report. “Parents today believe it’s more important to dress their kids well than themselves.” And some are spending more than $200 for a single designer outfit, she said.

So it should be no surprise that back-to-school spending on kids’ clothing today exceeds $400 a child, nearly twice the amount that was spent a few years ago, industry executives estimate.


“The yuppies want more for their puppies,” said Alan G. Millstein, publisher of New York-based Fashion Network News. At the same time, youngsters weaned on MTV increasingly are dictating to their parents the designer fashions they want to wear.

“You’re selling image, status and lifestyle to parents who want to show off all they can afford to buy for their kids,” said Dan Acuff, president of Glendale-based Youth Market System Consulting. “And kids know if they wear the wrong kind of clothes to school they could get beat up--or worse, laughed at.”

One of the first clothing chains to put children in the the same kind of snazzy clothes their parents wear was Gap, which opened the first Gapkids stores in 1986. That line was so successful that Gap went on to launch the BabyGap line in 1990.

Gap executives would not discuss their children’s lines, but a recent report from the New York investment firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. estimated that Gapkids has been so successful that sales (per square foot of retail space) at the stores exceeds those at Gap stores by 30%.

Designer Donna Karan, best known for her fashions for women, last year began selling her first line of children’s clothing, DKNY Kids. The clothes, including jeans and blazers priced from $30 to $300, are mostly sold at upscale clothing stores such as I. Magnin and Neiman-Marcus.

Karan said she started the line out of frustration because she couldn’t find anything fashionable for her grandchildren to wear. A DKNY infant line is also being developed.

These days, girls as young as 3 know what they want to wear--and make their parents aware of it, said Michel Benasra, chairman and chief executive of Los Angeles-based Pour le bebe, parent company to Guess Kids/Baby Guess, a licensee of the Guess? brand. “We try to target both the young customer and the young mother,” said Benasra. Every month, Baby Guess (for newborns to 7-year-olds) and Guess Kids (for ages 8 to 14) outlets together sell more than a million garments, Benasra said. There are currently 150 Guess Kids stores and boutiques nationwide. Next year, he said, his company expects to open 200 additional Guess Kids boutiques inside department stores.

Even stodgy L.L. Bean has started a children’s clothing line and is heavily promoting it in its fall catalogue.

“It was a competitive disadvantage not to have a children’s line,” said Betsy Kelly, director of children’s apparel. So L.L. Bean is now pushing $43 pullovers and $49 kids’ warm-up jackets. Company executives say customers demanded it.

But not everyone has such demands. And some consumers don’t approve. “I’m all through now with L.L. Bean,” said Alex Molnar, education professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Like everyone else, L.L. Bean is transforming childhood into a commodity.”

Briefly . . .

Los Angeles-based Chief Auto Parts has placed its account, estimated at $7 million, up for review. It is now handled by Los Angeles agency Davis, Ball & Colombatto. . . . Encino-based Inter/Media will handle the estimated $15-million direct-response ad campaign for Breath Asure. . . . Los Angeles-based First Interstate Bancorp has hired Westport Consulting Group of Westport, Conn., to conduct its agency search. . . . Irvine-based Casanova Pendrill Publicidad will handle all Spanish-language advertising for Stoughton, Mass.-based Reebok International. . . . Publispana Inc., a Los Angeles Latino agency, will handle advertising for the Los Angeles Spanish-language TV station KWHY-TV (Channel 22). . . . Century City-based Moiselle Advertising & Marketing has picked up the $1.2-million account of Suitmasters, a Glendale men’s clothing chain. . . . Wisconsin Pharmacal of Jackson, Wis., is looking for an agency to handle Reality, the first condom for women, expected to be marketed this fall.

Where Kids Get Their Clothes

The $20-billion childrenswear market has seen a decline in shoppers at the “mom and pop” independent specialty stores and department stores. But there has been an increase at discount stores, specialty chains like Kids “R” Us and at specialty apparel retailers like GapKids.

1984 1989 1996* 1984 1989 sales sales sales market market Clothing source (millions) (millions) (millions) share share Specialty chains $ 350 $1,306 $3,051 2.3% 6.7% Specialty stores 2,280 1,999 1,600 15.2 10.2 Department stores 3,742 3,251 4,241 18.3 16.6 Gen. merch. chains 3,080 3,617 4,333 20.5 18.5 Discount stores 4,650 6,898 10,209 31.1 35.2 Off-price/outlets 747 1,278 2,100 5.0 8.5 Mail order 120 274 475 0.8 1.4 Other 1,023 976 1,095 6.8 5.0 Total $15,000 $19,600 $27,104 100 100

1995* market Clothing source share Specialty chains 11.3% Specialty stores 5.9 Department stores 15.6 Gen. merch. chains 16.0 Discount stores 37.7 Off-price/outlets 7.7 Mail order 1.8 Other 4.0 Total 100

* Projections

Source: Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.