Not Just for Grown-Ups

03.21.13

The Controversial Kids’ Fashion Week

The first-ever Global Kids Fashion Week in London—which featured designs by Little Marc Jacobs, Chloe, and Missoni—raises questions about marketing to children.

Watching the catwalk show of London’s first-ever kid’s fashion week, which closed in London yesterday, reminded me of my first appearance in a fashion advertising campaign, at the tender age of 6.

Yes, long before Romeo Beckham was starring in ads for Burberry, we Sykes children were flogging schmutter for our parents.

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It didn’t do any harm: the Sykes children model Valerie Goad fashions in the late 1970s. (From the author's collection)

That’s me, there, underneath the rocking horse. Although I spent most of my childhood in a sailor suit, somehow I seem to have escaped wearing any of my mom’s clothes for this particular shoot. The haircut, should any Lower East Side hipsters be interested, can be achieved by snipping carefully around the bottom of a heavy white pudding bowl placed over your head.

Left to right, wearing my mom’s dresses, are my sisters Lucy, Alice, and Plum. The other lad is my oldest mate in the world, Tom Freud, who must have been staying with us that weekend.

My aunt Angie took the picture, which was used as an advert in British Vogue for my mom’s company, Valerie Goad.

My mom has been making adults’ and children’s clothes for 50 years, and they have not changed much since that picture was taken; smocks, pinafores, Bermuda shorts, and party dresses in Liberty prints are her stock in trade, made from pure cotton, silk, and wool. Synthetic material is anathema to my mom.

She still cuts the fabric herself in her studio, which takes up most of her house near London, and then sends the pieces by post to a few dedicated outworkers who hem, sew, stitch, and smock each piece to order. She doesn't have much of a website and sells mainly to friends and friends of friends.

Her hand-made clothes are expensive—a 5-year-old’s dress might be $300, a long-sleeved boy’s shirt could be $140, a man’s shirt around $170—no doubt part of the reason she doesn’t sell through any shops anymore. I get a discount, but was still charged $150 for three pairs of short trousers in blue drill for my daughter, which arrived in the post today (the check’s in the post, Mom).

What I am trying to say is that I have never been particularly freaked out by the existence of expensive children’s clothes. I have no moral objection to them. Plus, I know how much nice clothes cost to make—especially if they are being made by hand, not in a factory, and in England, not China.

I also know that they can be worth it, if they last, which properly made clothes will. I recently had a local tailor make my 6-year-old son a gorgeous little two-piece suit, for which he charged about $500. Made to measure, hand-made, and with plenty of fabric to let out, it should last him three or four years and can then be handed on.

I think it's a bargain (my wife disagrees).

I’m not sure where the clothes shown at London's kids fashion week are made, but I am pretty sure they are not sewn together by nice ladies in English country cottages. I also doubt whether many of them would last as much as three seasons, let alone three years.

But most of all I am shocked by how reasonable my mom’s once-exorbitant prices have become in comparison to the designer clothes now being sold for kids in ever-increasing quantities by retailers like Alexa and Alexa, which organized Kids Fashion Week.

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Ian Gavan

There was a time when people would fall over when I told them the prices of my mom’s clothes, but not anymore, when people are apparently happy to shell out $250 on a Paul Smith puffa jacket for a 5-year-old. If that’s too much, how about $230 for a “branded” Boss puffa? Still not there? Then maybe you would prefer the Kenzo puffa, a steal at just $190.

There were Marni dresses for $420, Paul Smith blazers for $220, and a Galliano dress for $440.

Video screenshot

But, aside from the astronomical premiums charged for branded goods, do we “need to be worried” by the advent of Kids Fashion Week, as the writer Vanessa Friedman asked in the Financial Times this week.

Well, yes, we should, Friedman concluded, and not because the existence of Kids Fashion Week is an attack on the sanctity of childhood but because "[t]he catwalk ... delivers the total look to the viewer; like film, you receive it fully formed. Kids’ fashion, on the other hand, should be—even more than adult fashion—a place of freedom for children to start playing around with identity and perception."

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Ian Gavan / Getty Images

Friedman's argument is essentially one against the homogenizing of style. But morally, are there questions to be answered? Does the rise of mini-me kid fashion represent a threat to our kid’s innocence, too much pressure to grow up too young, or is high fashion for kids simply an aberration of interest only to a limited class of 1 percenters?

One mother who thinks so (and was at yesterday’s show) is the writer Tanith Carey, who is the author of the book Where Has My Little Girl Gone, a how-to on protecting girls from the pressures of premature adulthood. 

“When I was there, I got quite caught up in it and obviously the kids were having a lot of fun,” she commented. “It was cute to watch and the kids had a swagger to them. But no one is seeing the bigger picture on this.

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John Galliano houndstooth dress, $445 (Ian Gavan / Getty Images)

“Our kids are under a lot of pressure already in terms of how they look, and events like this are really piling on the pressure. What are we really saying to our kids here? ‘Yes, it is all about how you look.’”

And, presumably, how much mom and dad spend on you.

Carey is particularly concerned by the way very young children are being sold on big brands.

“If a couple are as rich and powerful as the Beckhams think it’s OK to put Romeo in a Burberry ad, then what’s wrong with the rest of us putting our kids in Burberry too?” she says.

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Little Bu, a new nail polish for kids that washes off with soap and water, was offering manicures. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images)

Another mother who was at the show but didn’t want to be named said: “It was completely over the top and you wouldn’t want to take it too seriously. There was a little booth where they were doing manicures with a new special nontoxic nail varnish that washes off with soap and water.

"It was like a proper fashion show, pumping music, and the production values were every bit as good as Fashion Week.

“The children on the catwalk were really brave, really working it.

“Some of the clothes were great, some were way over the top and some were way too expensive.

“Of course, when you come away from it, you think, ‘God, do I really want to expose my child to picking clothes out from a catwalk?’ Of course it’s scary when you see a child saying, ‘I only want to wear Dior or Chloe’ but I think you have to take it with a pinch of salt.”

At the end of the day, of course, it’s all about money and taste. My own opinion is that Kids Fashion Week proves that an abundance of the former is no guarrantee of the latter.

The majority of the clothes were ghastly, and even if I could afford them, I wouldn't buy them.

Sailor suits and smock dresses run deep in my DNA, but at least there was none of the aggressively sexualized kids clothing that has become steadily more available over the past few years.

I showed my mom some of the pictures on the website to see what she made of London’s first Kids Fashion Week.

Her verdict was succinct: “They are not clothes for playing in, they are clothes for showing off at the airport.”