Here’s a perfect winter party dress. It has this season’s ruff neck, some green and red splodges, and it’s made of fine silk with a flippy hem. It is, in short, the sort of dress to have fun in. At €200, mind, the price tag is a little hefty, especially when you consider that this particular Marc Jacobs minidress is more mini than most: it’s for a two-year-old.
The childrenswear market is booming. Each week brings news of another major launch. In the last month alone, Stella McCartney has created a range for Gap Kids, with a leopard-print sweater dress for £80, French Connection has moved into babywear and online retailer Asos has launched its own childrenswear range. This year Jean Paul Gaultier sent children down his catwalk ahead of another launch and in the last 18 months Burberry has opened seven childrenswear boutiques, all oak floors, white lacquer furniture and dark chrome fittings. When did moodiness become a look that suited children?
“They all think about it at some point,” says Marie Soudré-Richard, founder of Little Fashion Gallery, the children’s equivalent of Netaporter, which has almost sold out of that splodgy Marc Jacobs dress, “except Chanel.” She should know: she has enough clout to have declined to stock Burberry (those checks are still problematic, post-Danniella Westbrook) and Jean Paul Gaultier (too bling), and to make Ralph Lauren wait until its designs were edgy enough to fit the image of her boutique. But why is childrenswear the focus of so much retail activity?
“I shop for my children relentlessly,” says Lorraine Candy, editor of Elle and mother of Sky, Gracie and Henry. She buys at least two things a week for them, and that’s twice as many items as most of her colleagues buy for themselves. “My eldest is seven, my youngest is three. Five years ago I didn’t have anywhere near the choice I have now. And every time you go [to the shops] there are new things to look at. It’s the novelty, the cuteness factor of everything. You think, ‘Look at that! It’s Stella McCartney, but it’s small. There’s something toy-like about it all.”
Shopping for childrenswear is compulsive for some – a souped-up version of fast fashion, in which not only the seasons and the quest for novelty propel us tillwards, but also our children’s rate of growth: before anything is grown tired of, it’s grown out of. In this context, shopping is not frivolous but suddenly an act of parental responsibility. You can see how this gets expensive. In this universe the news that Bonpoint, the French design house, is planning a children’s beauty line is unsurprising – after all it already sells a scent for children (£47).
It is easy to dismiss such innovations as the excesses of the top end of the market. But is perfume for babies any sillier than the pair of wet-look harem trousers for two- to eight-year-olds on sale for £12 at Asos? There are now excesses across the board. Cashmere childrenswear, conventionally seen as a folly of the pricey boutique, is now on sale at Benetton (£43 for a tank top) and even H&M.
Childrenswear has become a mature market, says Maureen Hinton, a retail analyst at Verdict Research, which puts its total value at just over £4bn. Matalan, Marks & Spencer and Mothercare are all registering year-on-year growth. Sales of John Lewis childrenswear are up 30% year-on-year. Strangely, as the market grows, the refuges for those seeking to spend sensibly are getting rarer. The places where a parent might shop themselves – Benetton, Gap, Zara, say – are comparatively more expensive when it comes to childrenswear. Thus you would need to spend £17.90 for a beautiful, crisp white shirt with ruff collar for your daughter at Benetton, but could buy a similar style for yourself for a disproportionately reasonable £32. A girl’s pleated miniskirt at Zara costs £22.99 – not exactly a scaled-down price tag.
“These retailers have gone into childrenswear because it’s a natural extension of adultwear,” Hinton points out, “especially if you’re building a lifestyle brand. If a retailer specialises in womenswear and wants to add on a range, it’s easy to do the mini-mes.”
That’s a phrase at which Soudré-Richard flinches. “It is quite negative. And I don’t think what it describes is negative,” she says. “It’s not negative to dress your kids in a similar style to the way you dress yourself. It’s just natural.”
But could there be a degree of sexism in all this talk of the mini-me? When Jarvis Cocker’s son Albert attended the premiere of Fantastic Mr Fox dressed in Cocker-esque purple shirt, blazer and black-rimmed spectacles, no one condemned his father for foisting his dress sense on his child as they did when Westbrook dressed her daughter in Burberry checks all those years ago. What the photographs of the Westbrooks and the Cockers jointly prove is that there is something in the replication and miniaturisation of adult design that tickles.
Haven’t we always been entertained by the sight of children fooling around in clothes beyond their age? My 70s family dressing-up box contained a sequined black lace cape with hood that Nan had worn in the 20s and dresses that were at least 2ft too long: the size was part of the fun. It is the miniaturisation of adult designs – and the smallness or our children when they dress up in grownups’ style clothes – that catches the eye and amuses. That is why pictures of three-year-old Suri Cruise in miniature high heels trigger the same instinct to balk or laugh as Velázquez’s 350-year-old portrait of Las Meninas.
“There have always been connections between adults’ and children’s clothes,” says Noreen Marshall, who has curated the childrenswear collection at the Victoria & Albert museum since 1978.
At the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London, where Marshall has her office, no one is stopping to look at the forlorn mannequins in stiff velvet suits and stuffy silks. Talk to parents here and it is hard to work out who is spending the money that is luring so many brands in to childrenswear.
Spinning the steering wheel in the climb-aboard police car is Eden-Lotus, nearly two. Her mother, Jade D’Cruz, says she has never bought her a dress because they are too costly, and that she principally shops among the “reduced to clears”. But her daughter, in a full skirt (snapped up in the sales for a fiver) and cornflower-blue sweater from Zara, with extra-long sleeves rolled up so that it lasts, looks expensively dressed. Olwen Coweg, whose children are playing nearby with the dress up shoes, shops for them at eBay and Gap. Kate Lethaby and Sharon Barker, each with an eight-month-old daughter, go “to Asda mainly” and Boden “at sale time”.
The only person who admits to spending sizeably on small clothes is Marcus McInerney who, despite having five daughters, says he is happy to fork out £80 on a party dress because “you get what you pay for”. Mind you, that comes after a long pause for thought and the admission that “My wife does all the shopping.”
Source: The Guardian.