Today's made-for-outrage New York Times trend story is a doozy: Little girls are wearing fancy, expensive clothes made by fashion designers who make fancy, expensive clothes for little girls now. Little girls! First world problems, yes, but that doesn't mean people aren't mad. On several levels, too!
Stepping back, however, note that couture for kids has been around for more than half a century. Cathy Horyn writes of American couturier Charles James introducing his first kid line to a group of editors in 1956. In the old days, "it was a tough business, filled with manufacturers with names like Cute Togs and Bo-peep trying to strain a profit from a yard of seersucker." (And, perhaps, less of an overall cultural obsession with youth?) Flash forward to today:
Now, children are the new accessory, as once-snooty brands line up to please conservative-minded millennials while they use tiny garments to strengthen their brand power in regions like Asia. Last year, Burberry sold $91 million in clothing for children — from newborn, including diaper bags covered in Burberry’s beige check, to early teens — for an increase of 23 percent over the previous year. Most of Burberry’s 12 free-standing children’s stores are in Asia and the Middle East.
Seemingly overnight, brands like Oscar de la Renta, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Roberto Cavalli, Missoni, Milly and Phillip Lim moved into expanded children’s areas of stores, like the new one at Bergdorf Goodman. And while they haven’t exactly pushed aside traditional makers, like the Milwaukee-based Florence Eiseman and Rachel Riley, a British label, they are able to command attention, as well as those hefty designer prices.
Why the boom?
The most obvious reason is one of money, even as Horyn writes that "the reality is that designer wear is still a garnish for the $32 billion children’s apparel industry." (It's a tasty garnish, apparently.) But this tracks with what we know of merchandizing more generally: Children, tweens, and teens are a huge business, and if parents are willing to pay, why not expand your clothing line to take advantage of that? Even if it's a small portion of the business, we're talking a lot of money. Check the Lanvin site—note that kid's clothes are under the category of "petite"—there are ballet flats for $300 and almost $400; a dress that costs $2,000; a skirt for nearly $1,000. Grown up women who write for websites like The Atlantic Wire wouldn't pay these prices for adult lady clothes. Yet some parents, apparently, do (designers wouldn't be making these lines if they didn't sell) though others consider the prices too high and the products "dreadful": "I find $300 kids' outfits disgusting. To each their own," said one commenter on the UrbanBaby blog.
"Disgusting" brings us to the next point, that thing we hear when we talk about shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and it's two-pronged. One, should little girls be growing up so very fast? And two, when little girls are dressed in the clothes of grown-up women—whether that means in Daisy Duke short-shorts and cowboy boots or Suri Cruise's high heels and lipstick or a $1,600 Lanvin coat—are they being sexualized? Further, if we are sexualizing children by dressing them in pricey clothes that aren't even right for their actual bodies but for bodies much older (and post-pubescent, aka, sexualized), isn't that wrong? Look at the photos in the Times article of our young model. She's probably something like 4 years old, yet she's imitating the slouchy posture and "I defy you to come hither" stare of a much older woman in the fashion business. It is a bit disconcerting. At the same time, our culture has a very weird preoccupation with not only youth but also with not "aging" kids who should be youthful—there's a standard visceral horrified reaction to kids looking like grownups, and it has to do with a fear of pedophilia, and possibly, our own fears about aging, among other things. The "mutton dressed as lamb" concept, a sexist statement about a woman wearing clothes "inappropriate for her age," here gets turned on its head. We're dressing tiny baby lambs like the proverbial mutton. People are not OK with that.
Rachel Riley, who makes a line of more traditional (i.e., not adultwear sized small for kids but clothes designed for kid's bodies), told Horyn, "Children have big tummies and stand in funny ways,” in response to learning that Lanvin's line was simply miniaturized versions of adult clothes. Writes Hornyn, "She remains fixed in her view that children should be children and not little brand ambassadors or, in the current parlance, 'prostitots.' She said: 'I can’t bear advertising on children. And why would a child need to have anything remotely sexy? To me, it’s unethical.'" Probably everyone in the world, including designers, would not embrace the word "prostitots." Another designer, Andrew Rosen, founder of Theory, noted that the clothes aren't particularly great, either. When Horyn asks him if a Gucci dress is worth the price, he points out a side seam where the print doesn't match and says Gucci never would have let that go on their adult line. So it's possible parents are paying more for less here, though of course they are: They're shopping at Gucci and Lanvin and Burberry, not Target. (And these are probably the places they shop for themselves.)
Finally, there's the insidious "brainwashing" aspect to high-fashion kids clothes. By selling these brands to little girls, designers appear to be cashing in early and also setting the stage for a lifetime customer relationship. Which is smart marketing, if not benevolent. But then since when has the fashion industry, or anyone selling anything, really, been lauded for kindness or benevolence?
As for the people buying this stuff, they probably don't care much what you or I think about it, and if they're buying it, designers probably don't care what we think, either:
Holding a $375 silk-print girl’s dress by Gucci, Andrew Rosen, the respected founder of Theory and a catalyst behind several other brands, said, “This is talking to the 1 percent, or the less than 1 percent, of the population.”
Get it? They're the 1 percenters. They're used to having people scream and yell about them for spending their money in ways the rest of us find ridiculous and repellent. But just as they'll buy whatever we want, we'll continue to be outraged about it. Remember? That's how it works. Pass the babyccino, please.