I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Duchess of Cambridge has had her baby. I’m not much fussed about the royal kid, as it happens, but I expect to be on very familiar terms with him. Information about the youngest Windsor is pervading the atmosphere, like the ashes of that Icelandic volcano that filled up the sky a few summers ago, grounding flights worldwide. Resistance is futile. We’re all experiencing the birth of this child, the way we experience the weather.
And so it came to pass that I found myself in the expansive kids’ department of Harrods, thinking about Kate Middleton. The girlfriend I was shopping for is tres chic – as in, she’s French, and stylish in that aggravatingly effortless French way – and the last time I’d seen her, seven months pregnant, she was in a silk sundress and five inch heels. I suspected she would come to motherhood with a similar panache, and shopped accordingly. A monogrammed Fendi changing bag, perhaps? Too bling. A ruffled baby onesie by Ralph Lauren? Definitely too twee. Burberry’s infant-sized trench dress with peplum, belt and epaulets? No! I was about to buy a lace floral baby dress from Chloé, until I looked at the price tag, saw ‘£250,’ and heard my American mother’s voice in my head yelling: “Are you crazy What is that, three hundred and thirty dollars? And that kid’s just going to grow…”
I looked around the Harrods childrenswear floor. Where had all this stuff come from? Who was it all for? When I was growing up, I wore hand-me-downs. My mom liked to sew, so when we had a special event to go to, she would make me a dress. On occasion, I’d get something nice from the local department store – if it was on sale, and if it was big enough on me that I’d be able to use it for, say, half a year. I’m talking about my young childhood here, before I’d developed my own strong tastes. But even then, I am pretty sure that the first garment I owned that cost north of $300 was the suit I bought for my first big job interview at Vogue. My family wasn’t poor, and I don’t think we were exceptionally frugal. As far as I can recall, all my friends wore god-knows-what. Kids were kids, and fashion was fashion, and that was that – back then.
Things have changed. Kids are fashion icons now: Suri Cruise, for instance, was mooted to be starting her own label, according to a debunked yet entirely believable story in The Sun newspaper; that Beckham kid who starred in the Burberry adverts; various of the Jolie-Pitts. Just celebrities being celebrities, you say? Consider the case of Alonso Mateo, the rakish five year-old who’s become an Instagram sensation. New York magazine ran a story about him last month, detailing outfits comprised of, say, a mini Dior button-down, leather Gucci jacket, and Ray-Bans. My mom’s voice-in-my-head had a lot to say about that kid. More accurately, she had a lot to say about his mother, a Mexican fashion stylist who recently moved to California with her private- equity CEO husband.
So that’s who the designer kids’ clothes are for: the children of women who have a taste for fashion and the substantial financial resources to buy lots of expensive clothes. Luxury fashion for children is yet another sign of the times: The global .001% need to spend their money on something, right?. And if that something is a pair of £150 trainers for a three-month-old, Gucci is happy to oblige.
Mother knows best
There’s a trickle-down effect, of course. Not every mother can afford to give her daughter a £370 ($567) leopard-patterned jacquard skirt from Lanvin, but many of the luxury houses that have launched children’s collections of late have chosen to keep their price points low. Stella McCartney, for instance, is doing brisk business with her kidswear, not only because it’s adorable, but also because you can buy a chambray overall dress with rainbow buttons and contrast trim for the relatively reasonable price of £75 ($114). (“Reasonable!?!” shouts my mom, in my head.) At AlexandAlexa.com – heralded as the Net a Porter for kids – the average purchase rings up at £80.
That’s according to Alex Theophanous, the co-founder and CEO of AlexandAlexa.com. He’s witnessed the massive expansion of the market for premium kids’ fashion in the past five years, and has profited from it; his take is that the expansion is due to luxury brands pushing a product that simply didn’t exist before.
“I think these brands were seeing some maturity in their core business,” Theophanous told me, “as in, their women’s wear, their accessories, and so on, and so they started making fashion for kids. And if you’re a woman who’s interested in fashion, and you find out that Marni has got childrenswear, and you look into it, and find out it’s not that expensive, well…”
Theophanous’ take strikes me as diplomatic. It’s plain to me that brands like Gucci and Stella McCartney would not have launched children’s ranges if they hadn’t taken the measure of their clientele, and understood that, these days, kids are a kind of fashion accessory. Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise look so polished, stepping out together; what young mother wouldn’t fantasise about making such picture-perfect school runs, especially when the reality is typically so messy and disorganised? I can identify with that. In fact – mom’s voice-in-my-head aside – I can easily imagine myself snapping up Stella togs for my kids, and maybe even splurging on the odd piece from Bonpoint. And I would know I wasn’t doing it for them, I was doing it for me.
Accessory or extension?
And why not? I think it’s too easy to judge women for treating their kids as accessories. I know there’s a cycle of aspiration at work; I know, too, that children shouldn’t be inculcated from birth in rampant consumerism. But I suspect that a lot of women who submit to the accessorising impulse are making a tricky transition into motherhood, and looking for ways to integrate their kids into the identities they worked so hard to forge in all those years before they got pregnant.
“I’m very considered in how I dress; why wouldn’t I be considered in how I dress my son?” asked Pippa Vosper, founder of the popular blog The Wedding Editor, when I raised the matter with her. I see sense in that. Pippa’s son Astor is ten months old; she was working as a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar UK when she became pregnant with him, and did her utmost to make the pregnancy a stylish affair. (Indeed, her efforts were chronicled on a previous blog, Maternally Chic.) Pippa bristled at the word “accessory,” when I used it, but she acknowledged that she sees Astor as an “extension” of herself.
“I mean, he’s so young right now, it’s not like he’s got another opinion about how he wants to look,” she pointed out. “And in the meantime, I’m taking him to appointments, I’m seeing friends, and I like for him to look nice. Because that’s who I am. And why should I drop my identity, just because I’ve had a baby?”
“At some point,” Pippa continued, “I guess he’ll get to an age where he wants to wear, I don’t know, sports jerseys and shirts with trucks on them. And I’ll have to let him, because I want him to develop his own sense of who he is. But,” she adds, “I do sometimes hope that day never comes.”
Which brings me back to the Duchess and her baby. Because the royal baby is like the weather – because everyone is paying attention, like it or not – she’s got an opportunity to change the conversation about mothers, clothes, and kids. I suspect she’ll take a view of kids’ fashion that’s a bit more circumspect. But the conversation is bigger than that, and about more than £150 baby trainers, or five year-old boys with a wardrobe of sunglasses, tailored denim and shoes.