Little Devils Wear Prada: How is Adult Fashion Infiltrating the Childrenswear Market?

Children are becoming spoilt for choice when it comes to clothing. An increasing number of traditionally adult-focused apparel brands are entering the childrenswear category, and rightly so given its strong growth forecasts and attractive margins.

Traditionally, consumers have sought out low-priced clothing for their children due to the speed at which they grow. However, the recent shift in consumer attitudes is increasingly benefiting the premium and luxury childrenswear segments. This is most evident in the BRIC nations where rising disposable incomes and vast improvements in quality of life have led parents to devote more funds to their children. At the same time, increased fashion-consciousness among women has spurred a “mini-me” phenomenon as they begin to view their children as a reflection of their own personal style. The BRIC nations are set to drive growth in the global childrenswear market, with sales forecast to rise by US$26 billion by 2016. China, India and Russia are expected to register CAGRs of 8%, 11.5% and 9.5%, respectively.

Western luxury and high street brands alike have been keen to ride this shifting wave of consumer culture. Inditex opened its first stand-alone Zara Kids store in China in 2006 while Baby Dior entered the market in 2010, followed by Burberry and Armani in 2011. Their success has been evident. Affluent Chinese parents proved reluctant to reduce their spending on childrenswear in 2011 despite the economic slowdown. The perception of luxury products as status symbols and high prices as a sign of quality continued to keep luxury childrenswear afloat.

This trend is echoed in Russia. As Russian women have become the new darlings of street style photographers, it comes as no surprise that their sartorial sensibilities are reflected in their children. As the concept of fashionable childrenswear blossoms in Russia, not only are price and durability taken into account by consumers, but brand, design, comfort and other characteristics are also considered. The range of clothing available for children, from economy to luxury, is now almost equal to that for adults.

Fast fashion titans have been particularly successful in making the transition from dressing adults to children. H&M has maintained a steady fourth place in the global childrenswear rankings since 2006, whilst rival Inditex rose from ninth place in 2006 to sixth in 2011.

The move is more challenging in the uppermost echelons of the market due to branding issues. Luxury has traditionally been perceived as an adult realm due to its heavy promotion of sexual fantasy and over-indulgence. In fact, designers which have tended to do well in the childrenswear category, such as Ralph Lauren and Baby Dior, have been those with a classic brand image and conservative product offering.

Success may be more difficult for designers such as Roberto Cavalli, whose brand has been built around slinky evening gowns which adorn starlets from the red carpet to the Riviera. Whilst the extension into childrenswear may be a means of deepening its relationship with existing loyalists, it is likely to cater only for a fractional part of the market. Replicating adult styles or even trying to distil the essence of the Cavalli brand for babies and toddlers is unlikely to draw in new consumers. This is because the wide majority of consumers find it in bad taste to impose sophisticated styles on children, even in mature Western markets. For example, in 2011 in the UK, major retailers launched new initiatives to address the increased sexualisation of childrenswear following the government-commissioned Bailey Review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

Shifting consumer attitudes have created bountiful opportunities in the fashionable childrenswear market. Aside from the BRICs, even mature markets will contribute to growth. Childrenswear in the US is forecast a CAGR of 7.1% compared to just 3.6% for overall apparel. However, success, regardless of price point, lies in the ability to sensitively translate and not simply minimise prevalent style trends into suitable clothing for the young. For example, whilst the Zara Kids promotional video, shot in moody greyscale, bears an uncanny resemblance to its adult lines, its children’s clothing is very traditional – full-sleeves, soft colours and not a slinky dress in sight.

At the luxury end, brands wishing to turn their childrenswear lines from simple brand embellishments to real profit-making endeavours must look beyond their existing fans to a much broader consumer base, attracting those who are willing to invest in the best for their little ones but remain conservative in their views on how children should be dressed.