Time Lapse 2013:
The Year in Children’s Wear

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As the year winds down, we all begin to reflect on the previous 12 months. The best and worst lists flood in and predictions for 2014 flow in behind them. Though most of the year-end brouhaha is little more than a mash-up of the most sensational headlines, there is something to be said for really pausing to figure out what worked and why so we have a better idea of what to do and when in the future. Here, several children’s clothing industry insiders share their impressions of the year and their hopes for the future.

Unknown vs. Known

Call 2013 the year of the experienced label since the economy has put “knowns” ahead of “unknowns” on most buyers’ lists. “Being established is an enormous advantage,” agrees Isabel Garreton, whose namesake brand has been providing quality occasion wear for more than 20 years. “Buyers are afraid of putting dollars in a collection if they don’t know they’ll deliver.”

While Lynn Meyer of the Lynn & Ginger showroom in New York says some new brands are beating the odds, she concedes that buyers prefer companies that already have a track record for quality and deliveries. And brand recognition on the consumer side doesn’t hurt either. “It’s less of a tug of war to sell these brands because they have established names that people are aware of,” she says.

While the East and West Coasts often differ on many aspects of the business, this is one time when they’re on the same page, according to Rebecca Ebershoff. The biggest sales successes in Ebershoff’s Los Angeles and Dallas showrooms this year have been brands with 20-plus year histories. And she knows why. “They have good design teams so they stay updated on the new colors and styles,” she says. “And these are the companies that have the financing to move forward every season.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom for upstarts. The industry, it seems, will always welcome new ideas—as long as they’re backed by sound business practices. And that includes marketing. “New brands have to do their homework and understand the ingredients for coming to market,” Meyer says. “People underestimate the need to get that brand name out there. They need to know what they do well and be able to explain what that is.”

Value vs. Price

The label Fore!! Axel & Hudson has won over buyers and editors in just four years by creating a novel aesthetic that made golf geek chic. Once, a boys only resource, the company now offers girls under the Fore N Birdie brand as well as a PGA-licensed collection for future golf aficionados.           

Owner Paul Nguyen credits the brand’s success on staying focused on what shoppers want. “Moms are looking for value, variety, great styling and quality that last for months if not years,” he says. Positioned in the specialty tier, Fore!! Axel and Hudson is a better collection with pricing to match but Nguyen says as long as the product speaks for itself, there’s a customer. “Moms will spend on something that’s well made so each piece has its special design to justify the price.”

Laurie Snyder, owner of Flappy Happy and Kia Bean, agrees that value is a bigger factor in the market than price. Though the value-priced dress in her Spring ’14 collection sold best, she says the looks that featured a lot of embellishments and therefore higher than average prices, also performed well. “In the better market, customers are willing to pay more if they feel like they’re getting more,” she says. “I used to try to price as low as I could and make the garments simple, but customers want embellishments.”

Though she concedes that she’s in an affluent area with a strong local economy, Susan Rice Watt, owner of Houston-based Itsy Bitsy Boutique, has found that shoppers aren’t overly price conscious. “People are making a shift back to spending on quality, which is nice to see,” she says, adding moderately priced goods can’t compete on value. “Shoppers come here for special and unique. People still want to dress their kids nicely in something with a nice hand feel and good quality, and they’re willing to pay for it.” This positive mood led Watt to her best business decision yet: moving her shop into a less itsy bitsy space. The larger store allows her to bring in more variety and add on categories like gifts, books and shoes that are boosting the bottom line.

Contemporary vs. Traditional

Owing to its Houston location, shoppers at the Itsy Bitsy Boutique typically seek classic looks, but Watt enjoys introducing them to more contemporary collections like recent additions BOCK Copenhagen and the UK-based Frugi line. Though Watt’s southern shoppers might be slow to accept current trends, young moms elsewhere are demanding contemporary looks for their kids.

Garreton says this means there are two parts to her business: tradition and trend. “On the one hand, there are people who find great security in things not changing. [On the other,] there are those who want less volume and more playful silhouettes,” she says. She notes that even those buyers who have clung to tradition are loosening up, largely due to customer demand. “Some buyers have gained confidence in being more experimental with us,” she says. “They are dealing with a customer who has access to a lot and by offering something different and special, they can keep that customer happy.”

One-time traditional dress resource Kahn Lucas has taken notice of that 30-something mom and has shaken things up to cater to her. The result? The poufy picture-taking dresses we all once wore now take a backseat to soft dressing and more relaxed looks. “We’re bringing more fashion and trend into girls with inspiration from juniors,” says company president Colleen Kelly. Jacarded fabrics and simple knits are taking the lead from organza and taffeta. “Things are getting more casual, even for occasion,” Kelly notes, adding moms want multiuse dresses. Kahn Lucas’ reinvention has prompted a favorable response from some buyers who’ve labeled the new direction “cool” and “modern.”

While Flap Happy’s updates have been less dramatic, stores are appreciative of the brand’s newer designs. “We’ve held onto the heart of who we are but I have new designers who’ve brought in a fresh new look,” Snyder notes. Two key successes were the introduction of an infant romper and a dress that features lots of fabric mixing and overlays. Snyder’s new blood also delivered simpler prints, which she says fits with the trend these days. “Eight to 10 years ago, customers wanted tons of colors. Now they want simple, graphic prints like chevron and trellis patterns.”

Shows & Markets

Depending on who you talk to—and how far back you want to go for your comparison—exhibitors will tell you shows and markets are better than they have been (in the recent past) but not nearly what they where (decades ago). “Market attendance has gone down terrifically,” says Ebershoff, who’s been in the industry since the 70s. While she credits Dallas with instituting some perks for buyers, she feels Los Angeles needs more energy and an active membership to promote the floor. In the meantime, Ebershoff has been more proactive this year about chasing the business. “We try to get on the road as much as possible. Because of budget constraints and many stores having to cut back to one or no employees, they can’t get out [to shows or market] or they don’t want to, and they expect you to come to them.”

Snyder, who exhibits at quite a few shows even beyond the kids market, has noticed her sales have flip-flopped. Where she used to do the bulk of her sales at the shows and her reps filled in the season, now it’s the other way around. While she recognizes that the Internet has eaten into shows to some degree, she also feels show management could work harder. “Shows need to put the buyers first,” she says. As examples, she points to Americasmart Atlanta, which sometimes subsidizes buyers’ travel, and KidShow, which offers meals and other accommodations.

While the Lynn & Ginger showroom exhibits at shows in New York and beyond, Meyer credits craftier marketing on their part with raising the showroom’s status this year. “We focused on making people aware of us and the breadth of our collections. We got better at social media as well as direct contact and on the phone,” she says, crediting having quality brands with giving them the “ammunition” and consistency of message with giving them the desired results. “Constantly reminding people about what you have to offer is advertising, and it works.”

Plans vs. Reality

Whether brands catch them on the road, in showrooms or at shows, the way buyers buy continues to evolve. Meyer notes that the biggest change is that the calendar has shifted. “It used to be that March and October were the important shows,” she says. “Now the whole thing is earlier with January and August shows performing better.”

Complicating matters further, buyers aren’t content to make commitments like they used to. “Before, people planned and bought into that plan. Today, they’re revising that plan on a monthly basis (if not more often) and that makes it hard for manufacturers,” Meyer says, adding the last-minute nature of orders gives a slight advantage to companies that produce in the U.S.

“The kids’ market has become more like the junior market. They want to buy closer to the on-floor date to see [what’s happening],” Kelly confirms. She adds that the fashion cycle has accelerated for kids’ wear, putting more pressure on companies to focus on speed to market, which Kahn Lucas has been doing. “We’re not on the junior or California level, but we’ve made strides by becoming more process driven by eliminating steps for faster approvals.”

Today & Tomorrow

Overall our insiders are optimistic about 2014. In some cases it’s the natural hopeful mood that surrounds the start of any new year. And in others, it’s the feeling that—despite the slow recovery—there’s a positive momentum in the industry that had been lacking.

Garreton says the industry’s current vibe makes her hopeful now that the fearful energy that permeated the shows in 2008 and 2009 has subsided. “There’s more confidence now. People get excited and there’s a positive mood.” Watt thinks shoppers’ new-found social awareness will continue to help boutiques like hers. “People are pulling back from big-box stores,” she says. “And even with online shopping making it so easy to click and return, people still want that experience of coming into a store and shopping with their friends or mom.” And in general, Ebershoff is expecting wallets to open a bit more. “With the stock market performing well, people may have more discretionary spending on the high end and won’t be afraid to spend more.”

—Caletha Crawford

(Pictured above Isabel Garreton, Fore!! Axel & Hudson, Kahn Lucas and Flap Happy)