The brat pack

Mini-mes, up-agers and could-be sisters: children's fashion is growing up fast
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The Independent Online

The model strikes a pose. Wearing a faux-fur gilet, turn-up cropped jeans and the merest hint of a smile, she looks every inch the queen of the catwalk. Except she's not a supermodel debuting designer collections; she's 12 years old and promoting clothes for three to 16-year-old girls on the Next Directory website. In the boys' section for the same age range, the prepubescent models in skate gear look more student bar than Milky Bar.

The model strikes a pose. Wearing a faux-fur gilet, turn-up cropped jeans and the merest hint of a smile, she looks every inch the queen of the catwalk. Except she's not a supermodel debuting designer collections; she's 12 years old and promoting clothes for three to 16-year-old girls on the Next Directory website. In the boys' section for the same age range, the prepubescent models in skate gear look more student bar than Milky Bar.

The glossy, grown-up marketing treatment afforded to modern kidswear mirrors the escalating amounts spent on dressing children. Mintel reports that, despite the dwindling birth rate, the kidswear market has blossomed, growing by 26 per cent between 1998 and 2003. There may be fewer children around, but they are better dressed than ever: Mintel estimates that the market was worth an eye-popping £4.79bn in 2003.

One reason why spending has increased is because more high-street fashion retailers and brands have developed children's ranges, so parents tend to pick up clothes for their offspring at the same time as shopping for themselves. Lilli Anderson, a spokesperson for French Connection UK, says: "It's down to convenience. So many people do kidswear now, it's easier than making a special trip. It saves time."

French Connection and Diesel are particularly popular among men, women and children, according to The Indicator, a data page that surveys 50 independent retailers across the UK in a specific week. Published in the fashion-trade title Drapers Record, the survey also reveals that Ted Baker, the third most popular clothes brand for women, is the eighth most popular brand among eight to 13-year-olds.

There's also a growing trend for parents to dress up their children as "mini-mes". H&M launched its autumnal Mother & Daughter collection in June, inviting mums and their young daughters (two to six-year-olds) to dress in matching garments. According to H&M, the most popular items have been fake-fur cream jackets, tweed skirts and T-shirts emblazoned with "I love my mum".

At Gap, which launched GapKids in 1986, everyday casual wear tends to transcend age barriers. "Gap has a great positioning that is almost ageless," says Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, the Omnicom-owned branding consultancy. Clifton, whose clients include M&S, Laura Ashley and Mothercare, thinks an important trend in fashion has been "up-ageing": seven-year-old girls who want to be 12, 14-year-old boys who yearn to be 18.

At the other end of the age spectrum, there's "down-ageing": 40 and 50-year-olds who refuse to dress like their frumpy parents. "Gap epitomises this trend," says Clifton, "because today, there's a lot of talk about 'mindset' and 'attitudinal differences', rather than 'old' or 'young'. So, mothers and daughters will sometimes go through that 'mini-me' phase and reach that 'could be sisters' stage."

Hash Ladha, New Look's marketing director, agrees: "People are living much younger lifestyles. Just because they have kids, it doesn't mean that they lose their interest in fashion. As a consequence, there has been a change in how parents dress their kids, especially when key trends like ponchos and combats become kidswear."

And some high-street stores targeting younger consumers have turned this trend on its head by introducing ranges for adults. New Look, for instance, has introduced the Boutique range for female customers in their late twenties or thirties. New Look is popular among teens, but Ladha reveals that the average age of a New Look customer is in fact 25. Younger consumers have the store's 915 range (for nine to 15-year-olds), while babies and younger children can benefit from New Look's recent partnership, in five key stores, with the retailer Adams.

New Look typifies the kidswear sector, in that it's not a big spender when it comes to traditional advertising. Despite increased consumer spending, ad-spend has declined since 1998, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Advertisers spent £4.7m in 1998, and just £2.4m in 2004, although this latest figure excludes back-to-school activity.

M&S, which heavily promotes its schoolwear range, is the biggest advertiser in the sector (£400,938), followed by Debenhams (£373,304) and Barbie's parent company Mattel (£199,470). In a push towards kidswear and away from consumables, the fourth biggest advertiser, Asda, has seen its spend balloon by 568 per cent year-on-year, from £23,475 in 2003 to £156,910 in 2004. M&S, alongside other big retailers, also uses its contract magazines to show off its children's clothes. Catalogues such as Next Directory, Argos Additions and Littlewoods' home-shopping service, Index Extra, have also attracted loyal customers.

And the internet has been a godsend for time-pushed parents, who would sooner shop from home or at the office than wheel their little darlings around a crowded shopping centre. Boden, which offers high-quality, ethically produced gear for children and adults, has a strong online presence in addition to its catalogue. Indeed, it has grown so substantially that it opened a London store in August.

There's also nothing like shamelessly roping in a few celebrities when it comes to promoting children's ranges. When H&M launched its Mother & Daughter collection, it claimed that part of the inspiration stemmed from "contemporary style icons like Madonna and Jade Jagger who like to appear with their offspring in twin-like designer outfits". And, until September, David Beckham was the face of Marks & Spencer's DB07 range for boys.

Before his reputation was tarnished, M&S reportedly paid £10m to buy into Beckham's brand value as a positive father figure. Eric Musgrave, the managing editor of Drapers Record, comments: "People want to buy into familiar brands. With kids, you go into M&S and see racks of Disney pyjamas or Bob the Builder T-shirts. These are recognised by children as brands that are acceptable to wear. Kids are media-savvy and marketing-aware, and they want to wear cool brands."

He adds: "Parents just don't want to dress their kids how I was dressed 40 years ago, when girls wore frilly dresses, and the only smart clothes for boys were your Sunday best and an overcoat. Even with formal wear now, such as confirmation dresses, girls have cool, fashionable outfits that are smart in a contemporary way."

Confirmation cropped jeans, anyone?

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