Models walking the runway at the Global Kids Fashion Week SS13 public show in aid of Kids Company at The Freemason's Hall on March 20, 2013 in London, England. Photo: Getty Images
The first thing to note about Global Kids Fashion week (GKFW) is that the kids are alarmingly cute. It may not be the most astute observation, but an important one nonetheless – since it’s likely to account for some of the mixed emotions you’ll experience upon seeing tiny chic humans sashaying down the catwalk.
Last week, luxury designers have gathered in London’s Covent Garden to launch UK’s first Fashion Week for children. Sponsored by online kidswear retailer AlexandAlexa.com, it was a sold-out event that featured high-end labels like Paul Smith, Little Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Chloe and Oscar de la Renta. Over two days, immaculately groomed children paraded down the runway in front of a 500-strong audience consisting mostly of fashion-loving mums and their stylish offspring. There were pint sized tunics, tulles, faux fur and a “90s revival” theme that dominated the latest Autumn/ Winter 2013 junior collections.
Despite the continued growth of the $32 billion kids apparel industry (of which designer brands are a mere “garnish”), children and fashion have remained awkward bedfellows. The overwhelming feeling is that it’s wrong to taint young minds with a decidedly adult preoccupation. Of course, when it comes to the high-end goods, there is also the very valid question of, “Does any 3-year-old really need a $722 Roberto Cavalli party dress?” And if a child is too young to pronounce a designer’s name, are they too young to – say, appreciate the nuance of artisanal stitching and silk overlay?
Predictably, the children’s Fashion Week attracted its fair share of criticisms. According to a Today.com poll, 85% of people who voted thought that the Fashion Week was “inappropriate and sends the wrong message”, while over at Daily Beast, writer Tom Skyes pointed out: “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?”
But while Children’s Fashion Week was a first in London, it’s by no means a new concept. Thailand has launched its own Kids International Fashion Week back in 2011, there also was the Indian Kids Fashion Week last year and the Petit Parade in New York recently. So why are we only getting up in arms about it now?
It’s tempting to be outraged at high profile shows like these. With the tainted history of kids couture spreads, most of us are understandably cynical about high fashion and their role in the sexualisation of children. In this case, however, it appears that the ‘key looks’ are wholesome enough. As Samantha Escobar observed at The Gloss, “Fortunately, Kids Fashion Week did not include any creepy, hypersexualized garments for children, nor were any of the kids (from what I saw, at least) exceptionally made up.”
A quick look at the runway pictures reveals a colourful burst of bright, playful – if overly groomed – outfits. “We obviously understand that people have concerns,” said Tracey Manner, the PR director for show organiser Alex and Alexa . “We took everything very seriously, so that ever last detail was done in a tasteful and kid-appropriate way.” And Manner was right – there was not a Toddlers and Tiaras moment in sight.
Which leads us to the “evil of rampant consumerism” argument. Financial Times writer Vanessa Friedman believes that while valid to a certain degree, objecting to Children’s Fashion week on the basis of protecting “the sanctity of childhood” is an “easy attack”.
“Kids are already heavily exposed to brands, from Disney to McDonald’s, and they have been for years,” writes Friedman, “They are just as aware of what it means to be part of the club as anyone. My seven-year-old can lecture me quite cogently about why Apple is cooler than Nokia.”
In fact, a recent Australian study shows that even pre-schoolers are brand-aware and are more than capable of recognising various logos and products. Though the research applies mostly to toys and fast-food preferences, it’s a sobering insight into the fact that whether we like it or not, children already exist in a ‘branded world’. A more interesting question perhaps, is how they extrapolate the value of said brand. In other words, it’s one thing to recognise the ubiquitous Gucci or Louis Vuitton monogram, but surely it doesn’t magically translate into a child’s desire?
The answer, it seems, depends more on the parents’ perception of fashion than their children’s exposure to it. In a recent Business Week story, US Weekly fashion director Sasha Charnin Morrison claims that buying $200 Gucci sneakers “makes her children happy”. Morrison says: “They're a walking billboard of you. They're a reflection of who you are, so if you are someone highly stylized, then you want to make sure your kids are the best-dressed kids out there." Manhattan mother Kelly Mallon echoes a similar sentiment, stating she takes pride in her 9-year-old daughter’s fashion sensibility. "I love seeing my child well-dressed. It makes me happy. It makes her happy."
It stands to reason that while these parents might notice the ‘right’ design labels on their children’s clothes, what the stylish kids are seeing is the look of parental approval. And maybe it’s in servicing these mutually reinforcing desires that catwalk shows like GKFW exist in the first place.