Crib chic: designer clothes for infants

The bassinet set is coming into its own in the fashion world.

Privileged babies who might once have been born with a proverbial silver spoon in their mouth are now getting a sophisticated start by sporting designer logos over their diapers. High-profile designers are tailoring clothes for the youngest customers, giving new meaning to the phrase "carriage trade."

DKNY has just introduced an infant and toddler collection and plans to add a baby line in June. Tommy Hilfiger also recently launched a collection for toddler girls. Other designers offering pint-sized togs include Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. Parents in Europe can even dress babies and toddlers in Armani.

Goodbye, terrycloth sleepers. Hello, tiny cashmere sweaters. Call it crib chic, and color it profitable.

"It's the last frontier," says Vanessa Groce, editor of Earnshaw's, a children's apparel trade magazine. With 4 million babies born last year in the United States, infant and toddler clothes represent the fastest-growing category of apparel, totaling $7 billion in sales in 1998.

Generous grandmothers and friends have always indulged babies and toddlers. But these fashion designers also appeal to parents accustomed to fine fabrics and clean lines in their own wardrobes. Many want the same look for their children.

"From a fashion perspective, it's really an extension of parents dressing themselves," says Ms. Groce. She adds, "The psychology is, children are so little for such a brief period of time that people just want to spoil them rotten. A lot of people think it's extreme, but from a marketing and merchandising perspective it's the last way to go."

Annie Abbruzzese, communications director for Oilily, a specialty retailer for children and women based in Holland, points to demographics, including smaller families and a robust economy.

"The money is there," she says. "With fewer children for parents and grandparents to dote on, they're going to buy something a little more special. There's much more focus on family."

Some retailers find that many customers buy expensive children's clothes for their quality fabrics and designs rather than for any status they confer.

"People come to us for the European labels," says Estelle Colgan, owner of Kenzie Kids in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "They like French fabrics and styling." Noting that the store also carries lines from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, and England, she explains, "They do it differently. There is a style the American designers are trying to duplicate, but can't."

Sophistication becomes evident in a description from DKNY that reads: "To start life on a luxe note, DKNY Baby presents an infant's first cashmere wardrobe - a cardigan, cap, and the ultimate pram blanket." Its "complete lifestyle collection" offers pieces "to dress everything a baby gets into: daywear, playwear, activewear and dresswear." Its toddler-girls' collection includes washed silk dresses ($68), cotton cashmere play clothes, and "essential little black dresses."

Cashmere for kids

Even at babyGap, where most clothes are moderately priced, a ribbed cashmere cardigan for newborns sells for $125, on sale for $69.99 on the Internet.

For fall, upscale infant and toddler clothes will include what Groce calls "neutral colorations" - gray and ivory. "It's something that's picked up from men's and women's clothes," she says.

Another "big trend" involves high-end fabrics, including linen and more cashmere. Some are "baby-friendly," meaning they can be washed. Other tiny garments carry tags reading "Dry clean only."

Is price an issue? "Of course," says Ms. Abbruzzese at Oilily, where a tiny cardigan sells for $93. "Some people say it's crazy to spend that much on a child's sweater. Other people don't even look at the price and buy several. They feel good putting their children in something so special."

For some shoppers, such luxury is too much. "There's definitely a backlash," Groce says. "There's a very, very traditional contingent, especially in the South and the Midwest. People want to dress their babies in all white, or pink."

Joyce Barnes, who sell children's clothes at The Specialty Shoppe in Stillwater, Okla., agrees. "We have a group of customers who don't want any logos on their children's clothes," she says.

Dressed like mom or dad?

Diane Ehrensaft, author of "Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much - But Not What They Need," observes that the issue goes beyond money. "There've always been expensive clothes for babies. But they used to be baby clothes, not replicas of adult clothes," she says.

Still, quality is fueling business at resale shops. "There's a wonderful market for high-end children's wear," says Linda Ashbaugh, owner of Children's Orchard resale shop in Brookline, Mass. A European baby dress that originally cost $60 to $80 would sell at her shop for $12 to $15.

There's no sign of designer-label diapers or Baby Vogue, yet. But whatever trends follow, a grass-is-always-greener philosophy still prevails.

"People in Europe want OshKosh, they want DKNY," says Colgan. "The Americans want French denim, and the French want American denim. You figure."

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