Top fashion designers are pushing more expensive duds for the increasingly lucrative affluent toddler demographic. This fall, Oscar de la Renta, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marni launched collections for the pint-sized. Luxury stores Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman are expanding their children's areas to make room for the newcomers, many of them with higher price tags. Late last year, Gucci, which launched a children's collection two years ago, opened its first children's store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
Some designer houses like Oscar de la Renta and Marni say they're careful to keep the clothes appropriate for kids. But there are plenty of miniature versions of the adult looks that raise eyebrows because of their eye-catching prices and sophisticated styles.
American households are expected to spend an average of $688 outfitting their children for school, says the National Retail Federation, and that includes supplies like pencils and notebooks.
That's most families. Some will spend $795 on Gucci backpacks or $1,090 on leopard print puffy coats from Lanvin.
Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director at Us Weekly, admits that some of the clothes are outrageously prices. But, she says, things like $200 Gucci sneakers make her kids happy.
"They're a walking billboard of you. They're a reflection of who you are, so if you are someone highly stylized, then you want to make sure your kids are the best-dressed kids out there," she says.
Critics say the trend promotes elitism.
"This creates a class system of the haves and have nots," says Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "It creates a culture of envy."
Only five years ago, the high-end children's wear business was dominated by just a few major designers like Ralph Lauren, Burberry and Christian Dior. But the recent influx of others is the latest sign that affluent shoppers have gone back to splurging since the recession. And as the wealthy feel more comfortable about spending again, they increasingly want their kids to reflect themselves.
It's a "mini-me" phenomenon, says Robert Burke, a New York-based fashion consultant. "It feels good. It's like one for me and one for you," he says. The trend isn't limited to Manhattan or Beverly Hills, but is occurring in other big cities like Boston and Chicago, he says. Sales of designer children's wear are also strong in resort areas where retirees who tend to dote on their grandkids live, he says.
Luxury children's sales account for just a fraction, or just over 3 percent, of the $34 billion market, but it's growing faster than the rest of the children's wear and clothing market, according to NPD Group Inc., a research firm. For the past 12 months ended in May, children's wear sales rose 4 percent, with the upscale component up 7 percent, according to NPD's most recent data. That compares with a 3 percent rise for the overall clothing market.
Designers, seeking more growth, are now looking at children's wear as another way to deepen their relationship with their customers as well as reach out to new ones.