Inside Children’s Wear Recap
Industry insiders speak about what consumers want now.
By Caletha Crawford

[Watch the panel on YouTube.]


New York-based Parsons The New School For Design recently hosted a panel discussion that focused on children’s wear and the special considerations inherent in designing, marketing and selling wares in this market. Francesca Sammaritano, Parsons assistant professor, specializing in children’s wear, and I organized the panel because we’re both passionate about this segment of the apparel industry and would like more aspiring designers to take note. Francesca, who found her way into children’s wear by chance after a career in women’s apparel, ultimately decided to teach others how to design for this pint-sized, demanding customer. I came to the children’s market through journalism. I’ve covered juvenile clothing and accessories manufacturers and retailers for more than eight years, first at Earnshaw’s magazine and now for various print and online publications.

Our panel of industry professionals represented all facets of the market, including recruiting (represented by Polo Ralph Lauren); design (Ralph Lauren, J Crew’s Crewcuts and Tawil Associates); retail (Yoyamart) and sales (Thread showroom and Playtime trade shows). Throughout the hour-long discussion, the panel provided valuable information on how to break into the industry but one of the most interesting aspects of the conversation centered around defining who today’s customer is and discussing how she ultimately determines what ends up in stores.

Of course, the elephant in the room was the economy, as it has been for the past few years. Like all industries, children’s wear certainly felt a pinch during the recession. And while it’s not the good old days when more was more and bigger was better, the panel reported noticing encouraging signs. Having just wrapped up the fall/winter markets prior to this event (and the subsequent devastating events in Japan), Sebastien de Hutten, event director for Playtime, a juvenile products trade show with editions in Paris, Tokyo and New York, reported that universally the atmosphere in the market was up—even if sales still lagged behind this new buoyancy. “Tokyo and Paris has been extremely positive,” he said, reporting a 50-percent increase in traffic at the French show. “No one is spending a lot more, but there is something there.”

A similar vibe has been noted at retail. “We’ve always had a great regular client base, but it’s getting better,” reported Joey Casey, store manager and buyer at New York’s Yoyamart. “People are tired of the doom and gloom, and they’re looking to have fun. I think children’s wear is a great escape.” In response, Yoyamart is loosening up a bit and taking a few more risks in terms of buying than it did when the market first bottomed out.

Even through the bad times, one go-to customer has been the grandmother. She continues to hold up her (considerable) end of the children’s wear market, not allowing economic turmoil to dampen her excitement over an impending new addition. Ashleigh Crawford, vice president of children’s design at Ralph Lauren, explained grandma remains the alpha customer in Ralph Lauren’s department store business. “She’s got a lot of income and a lot of time to fill,” she noted.

Though still a force at retail, grandmothers’ tastes aren’t always as easy to pin down as they used to be. While she tended to opt for cute and cuddly over edgier mini-me fare, even this customer is evolving. “Grandma has changed and the design aesthetic from the grandma’s perspective has changed so the fuzzy teddy bear market is smaller than the contemporary takedown [market],” offered Terra Fazio, owner of Thread Showroom located in New York’s Garment District.

And for more proof that contemporary looks are driving the market, just note the new consumer for tween sizes: mom. While typically it’s kids eyeing their mothers’ wardrobes—and they still do—these days, the panel affirmed that moms are scooping up looks that mirror their daughter’s. Michelle Copelman, accessories designer and brand buyer at Crewcuts, sees it in her stores all the time.

This propensity for petite women to covet girly goods helped move multiple $795 rabbit fur, double-breasted, leopard-print trench coats at Yoyamart and also proved that when it comes to style and price, there’s a closet and a wallet for every product. And that includes children’s collections from Kmart to Bergdorfs. Ultimately customers who are used to only the best for themselves say the same goes for their offspring. “If mom isn’t going to wear a rayon sweater, she has the mentality that my kid’s not going to wear it so it justifies buying $200 Loro Piana cashmere for their kid,” Copelman stated.

The panel agreed that consumers today do tons of research and know quality. For instance, Amy Pang, design director for 7 for All Mankind Kids at New York-based Tawil Associates, asserted that Seven is mom-approved despite a higher price tag because the brand sources the same Turkish, Italian and Japanese denim for children as it does for the adult collections. “[Moms] have certain brands that they live in and love, and they know how it fits, that it feels good and that it wears well and they’ll go to the brands they feel comfortable with,” Crawford stated.

And even as shoppers search out better goods in some categories, the growth of fast fashion proves that consumers won’t pledge allegiance to one brand or tier any more. “It’s like music. Anything goes,” stated Fazio. “You can mix hip hop and rock these days. You can mix California laid-back with European collections and Crewcuts accessories with your Ralph Lauren riding boots.”

This mixing and matching means that specialty or high-end stores have to search out exclusive product that’s a cut above. But beyond price and quality, even from an aesthetic standpoint, there seem to be fewer rules. Looks that were taboo in kids’ wear have become accepted and even commonplace. “Strapless works for kids and halter works for babies,” confirmed Pang. “People are a lot less conservative than they used to be, especially at the luxe level. At mid and mass, things tend to be more traditional.”

The resulting freedoms have created an all-play environment that ultimately means more opportunity for collections representing all price points and design perspectives. But the key, it seems, is execution. “In Europe, we all have the feeling that we’re working more for less so you have the feeling that you have to give more to people,” de Hutten said. “It’s a challenge to search for the new solutions, fabrics and marketing [strategies]. Everyone’s asking for more these days.”

Read the recap on the Parsons560 blog.