SOME PUNKINS! OshKosh carves out hefty kidswear market

IT'S been hard keeping OshKosh B'Gosh bib overalls down on the farm, but no one here at the factory is crying. The popular hickory-striped denim (``tough as a mule's hide'') pants have now made it from cow barns in Boise, to boutiques in Brazil, to the little princes at Buckingham Palace.

So popular is this American classic you're apt to see it anywhere - on anything.

Johnny Carson pranced like Tina Turner on the ``Tonight'' show in a pair of gold lam'e OshKosh B'Gosh bibs. Princes William and Harry's mommy bought theirs at a posh store in downtown London.

Recently 100 yards of blue indigo denim was sent to Hollywood to construct two mother-and-daughter bib overalls for a pair of prancing pachyderms appearing in the movie ``Big Top Pee-wee.'' The largest pair has a 14-foot-by-10-inch-circumference waist.

This American success story began here when the first of these bib overalls were stitched together back in 1895.

Other companies were making bib overalls back then, but OshKosh proved longer lasting than their competition, b'gosh.

In the beginning it was a strictly hometown operation, serving farmers and railroad workers in the area.

``Business was within about a 500-mile radius. Cleveland, Ohio, was about as far east as it got,'' says Mary Carter, director of advertising and public relations.

But as railroads began to sprawl, tracks were being laid for the bib overalls as well. Ads were run in farm and railroad trade magazines, and much promotion was by word of mouth:

``Hey, Hank, whereja git them overalls?''

``OshKosh B'Gosh.''

During the '30s, a series of testimonial adds ran from those ``saved'' by wearing the overalls.

Railroad worker Jesse Gilbert of Champaign, Ill., wrote, ``I had gone out on the pilot to throw the switch to head in. As I jumped, my jacket slipped over the flagstaff. With a terrific jerk I stopped in midair, neither hands or feet touching anything. Had the coat ripped, no telling where I would have fallen, but I escaped unhurt!''

Another close call appeared in 1929 under the heading ``When death tests a fabric's strength!''

This dramatic testimony was by Dolph A. Guy from Springfield, Ill. Mr. Guy was helping a train crew unload a burial vault.

``Something gave way ... the heavy vault toppled over ... I was thrown off my feet. I stuck to the side of the car.... A projecting spike caught in my OshKosh B'Gosh overalls, they didn't rip, and I escaped uninjured.''

But it's kidswear that has the company, but not the clothes, bursting at the seams.

``We've always made bib overalls for kids,'' says Ms. Carter, pulling out a scrapbook of old, yellowed ads showing farmers and their kids in look-alike duds. She explains, ``Kids on the farm wanted to look just like dad.''

In 1968, a local mail-order house featured a line of the children's overalls in a national catalog. The response was overwhelming. It wasn't long before Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, and Lord & Taylor jumped on the wagon.

``Country-chic'' was a hit in the city. Dressing kids ``down'' was definitely upscale.

New styles in bright colors and prints followed. Now 85 percent of manufacturing is in children's clothes. And yes, bib overalls are still available to those from three months old to anyone with a 60-inch waist.

Success has forced the factory out of its downtown quarters, which are now given over to attractive, modern office space. Sales have grown from $8.5 million in 1968 to $226 million in 1987. Factories in three states employ some 5,100 workers.

The children's line is triple-stitched and made like grown-ups' clothes, and parents like the fact that ``when you put bib overalls on kids, they stay dressed. Shirts aren't flopping off, or the pants falling down,'' says Carter.

But why no OshKosh B'Gosh duds around the offices here? - except on a teddy bear sitting on top of Carter's file cabinet?

``All the clothes are casual enough so that I wouldn't be comfortable wearing them to work,'' she says.

Be that as it may, parents think their kids running around like miniature Grant Wood American Gothics are just about as cute as the Little Green Sprout.

Evidence came in 1985 when the company put tags on children's garments inviting parents to enter the first worldwide ``OshKosh B'Gosh Picture Perfect Photo Contest.''

``We expected about 50,000 entries,'' Carter remarks. ``We got over 130,000!'' Three judges included Carter and president C.F. Hyde.

Says Carter: ``We think we're about as good a judge of cute kids as anyone!''

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