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Because Sizes Aren’t Written In Stone : Clothes for Girls Who Just Can’t Wait to Grow Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s an awkward period between baby and babe called the preteen years.

For young women passing through this time zone, clothing can be a problem: They have developed the fashion taste of teen-agers--but not the bodies to wear teen sizes.

Until recently, there was little difference between what was designed for a child’s Size 4 (the Barney age group) and a girl’s Size 14 (the age of I’m- old- enough- to- date- wear- high- heels- red- lipstick- and- a- Wonderbra- but- my- parents- won’t- let- me).

Now, stores and manufacturers have begun to respond to the needs and desires of fashion-conscious preteens, and the 7-to-16 size range has taken on an older look.

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One of the most dynamic examples of sophisticated preteen style can be found in friends stores in L.A.'s Beverly Center and Sherman Oaks Fashion Square. The stores are a young girl’s godsend, delivered by Larry Hansel, who owns the $245-million Rampage Clothing Co. There are no fuzzy bunny baby clothes or athletic striped boys merchandise.

Instead the racks are filled with marabou-trimmed Ts and gloves, pink satin backpacks, tiny Chanel-inspired tweed suits complete with pearl buttons, floral-print slip dresses, delicate white lace cotton panties and black leather jackets.

Apparently this is what preteens want. They leave their thanks in a flower-covered autograph-type book next to the cash register. Some recent entries:

* This is now my fave store in the mall .--Tiffany

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* I go wild in this place .--Ariel

* I think your clothes are great. You are so non-expensive. --Ashley

(Translation of non-expensive --$14 for a long-sleeve T to $72 for an empire-waist dress in satin. Most clothes fall in the $20 to $30 range.)

Hansel says his stores fill a niche between what he saw as the only categories of children’s clothing available--"cheap and unappealing and the very expensive contemporary product.” The friends stores were projected to bring in $400 a square foot, Hansel says. “They’ve been doing $500.” Two other locations will open this spring: in Woodland Hills, at Topanga Plaza, and in Torrance, at Del Amo Fashion Center. They are to be followed by stores in Dallas and Houston later this year.

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Although Hansel doesn’t have daughters, he recognized a retailing opportunity in his four nieces. “I want to start the brand loyalty early,” he says.

He lures the young ones into the friends stores and then, when they’re older, he graduates them into his Rampage stores. What he has done in the process is provide young women with an alternative to their mothers’ tastes.

“My mom buys me little geeky things, the kind of things she wore,” says 9-year-old Shana Friedrich of Van Nuys. “I want slip dresses; she wants me to wear second-grade dresses with ruffles.”

“Eeeewwwwwwww, so does my mother, the ones with big collars,” chimes in her friend, 11-year-old Molly Campbell. “I want to wear high heels and short skirts, and tiny T-shirts--the ones that when you raise your hand your waist shows.” In the background, Molly’s mom, Barbara Campbell, groans audibly.

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This acceleration of fashion consciousness among young girls has prompted manufacturers of junior clothes to downsize their trendy lines. Meanwhile, some children’s clothing manufacturers are giving their designs a teen spin.

Jalate, a L.A.-based juniors manufacturer, entered the preteen market last year.

“I was seeing a lot of 12- and 13-year-olds who were grown up but still in a young body. We felt we needed to give them the junior look in their size range,” says co-owner Jan Grossman, whose shrunken Ts, slip dresses and denim jumpers are sold at Robinsons-May, Mervyn’s and Bullock’s.

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Even the small junior sizes don’t work for many preteens. “Until they develop, they have no shape,” Grossman says. In a junior size, there is a proportionate difference between the bust line, waistline and hips. Not so in girl’s sizes. Once a young woman’s body begins to curve, she can move from a large girl’s size--a 14 or 16--into a junior Size 3 or 5.

San Francisco-based Spumoni, a children’s clothing manufacturer that specializes in clothes with teddy bear appliques, has expanded to include juniors. Spumoni’s larger girls’ sizes have been receiving some of the junior influence.

“You would never use the word sexy to describe what we do,” says Deborah Sanz, vice president of merchandising for Spumoni. The company’s clothes are more likely to be described as cute than cool, but the items that show teen influence are garnering the largest orders, Sanz says.

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Many Los Angeles manufacturers--such as Yes, Switch, Tag Rag and Guess?--are doing the kind of clothes that fall into this hyper-preteen look. East Coast manufacturers, however, are slow on the uptake, says James Girone, editor of Earnshaw’s Infants, Girls and Boys Wear Review, a trade magazine for children’s-wear manufacturers. California is the strongest junior market in the country, Girone says, and that influence rubs off onto other apparel--such as children’s clothing and swimwear.

Even before Hansel’s friends stores, a parent could find preteen clothes in area specialty stores. A La Popcorn in Woodland Hills, Ladders in Brentwood and the Adorable Shop in Alhambra carry a selection of hard-to-come-by preteen sizes, which are a little bit curvier than a girl’s size.

A La Popcorn carries vintage denim, new denim that looks vintage and clothes by Los Angeles designers. Ladders has the trendy children’s-wear lines Monkey Wear, Maxou, Un Deux Trois and Tail Feathers. The Adorable shop lists Jessica McClintock dresses as a mainstay of its preteen selection, as well as such lines as Guess? and Esprit.

Specialty stores are the first to recognize and cater to the preteen market. Department stores and discount chains are likely to follow.

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For now, shoppers can find limited amounts of preteen clothes in the department stores, but those choices will likely be sharing racks with bow-bedecked party dresses and Size 4 pinafores.

“Department stores don’t invest time and effort into their children’s departments,” Girone says. “Even though children’s wear is a $23.2-billion annual retail business in the U.S., it still runs third behind women’s and men’s wear. They’ve neglected the kids area, even though it can be a very profitable one.”


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