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Designers expand children's wear for rich

Juliet Sandler dresses in the latest $650 dresses and $400 shoes from Parisian fashion house Lanvin. Juliet is 3.

Her mother, Dara Sandler, says she dresses her daughter in the latest fashions because Juliet is a reflection of her.

"I dress my daughter exactly the way I dress myself," says the 33-year-old Manhattan mother, who spent $10,000 for her daughter's summer wardrobe. She plans to spend a few thousand dollars more for fall.

Top fashion designers are pushing more expensive duds for the increasingly lucrative affluent toddler demographic. This fall, Oscar de la Renta, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marni launched collections for the pint-sized. Luxury stores Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman are expanding their children's areas. Late last year, Gucci opened its first children's store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

Some designer houses such as Oscar de la Renta and Marni say they're careful to keep the clothes appropriate for kids. But there are plenty that raise eyebrows because of their eye-catching prices and sophisticated styles.

American households are expected to spend an average of $688 outfitting their children for school, says the National Retail Federation, and that includes supplies such as pencils and notebooks.

That's most families. Some will spend $795 on Gucci backpacks or $1,090 on leopard-print puffy coats from Lanvin.

Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director at Us Weekly, admits that some of the clothes are outrageously priced. But, she says, things such as $200 Gucci sneakers make her kids happy.

Critics say the trend promotes elitism.

"This creates a class system of the haves and have-nots," says Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. "It creates a culture of envy."

Only five years ago, the high-end children's wear business was dominated by just a few major designers such as Ralph Lauren, Burberry and Christian Dior. But the recent influx of others is the latest sign that affluent shoppers have gone back to splurging since the recession.

It's a "mini-me" phenomenon, says Robert Burke, a New York-based fashion consultant. "It feels good. It's like one for me and one for you," he says. The trend isn't limited to Manhattan or Beverly Hills, but is occurring in other big cities such as Boston and Chicago, he says. Sales of designer children's wear are also strong in resort areas where retirees who tend to dote on their grandkids live, he says.

Luxury children's sales account for just a fraction, or just over 3 percent, of the $34 billion market, but it's growing faster than the rest of the children's wear and clothing market, according to NPD Group Inc., a research firm. For the past 12 months ended in May, children's wear sales rose 4 percent, with the upscale component up 7 percent, according to NPD's most recent data. That compares with a 3 percent rise for the overall clothing market.

Designers, seeking more growth, are now looking at children's wear as another way to deepen their relationship with their customers as well as reach out to new ones.

The designers are targeting household incomes of at least $350,000, says Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst. That's about seven times the U.S. median household income of $49,445.

Many of the new designer entries are more expensive than some of the established brands. Ralph Lauren's cotton shirts for boys are priced about $59. Dolce & Gabbana's plaid shirts for boys run $190.

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