Luxury Babies: Crawling Down the Catwalk

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As birth rates in the West decline, children become status symbols -- and blank slates for showy, affluent parents. Marketers have jumped on the trend. Their message? When it comes to luxury, no customer is too young.

"Baby Touch," a fragrance by Burberry.

"Baby Touch," a fragrance by Burberry.

Most parents would agree that the smell of babies is rather special. Some might even call this blend of milk, baby powder and used diapers one of nature's loveliest smells. Product developers for the British luxury brand Burberry, however, disagreed. Babies, according to their notion, should smell like "citrus aromas, wind mint, a touch of Lily of the Valley, rhubarb jelly, verbena and vanilla." At least those are the ingredients in Burberry's new "Baby Touch" perfume, which retails for €43 for a 100 milliliter flask.

Business is booming for marketers of luxury products for kids. Women in the West tend to wait longer to have their first child and wind up having fewer children. This means that parents, relatives and friends are getting older and more affluent, while the number of babies to dote on shrinks.

This demographic shift has been a boon to marketers as they introduce one absurdly luxurious product after another, designed specifically for babies and toddlers. For example: Baby Dior makes tiny fur slippers for newborns, Tiffany a sterling silver, €225 rattle for baptisms. Hermès offers its own exclusively-priced version of a rocking horse. The more outlandish and expensive the product, it seems, the more successful it can be.

"Children are becoming increasingly precious and expensive, because nowadays they serve as symbols of their parents' wealth," says Hans-Georg Häusel, a psychologist and consumer researcher. "A well-dressed child is a reflection of one's own lifestyle." Häusel advises companies on how to position their products. He's convinced he knows why "demonstrative consumption" is so popular these days. "People want to set themselves apart from others. Even monkeys pass on their status to their offspring. It's deeply engrained in our behavioral biology."

The luxury segment may be tricky, says Häusel, but it is certainly one "in which there is plenty of money to be made." Sales of the Baby Dior brand alone have increased by 60 percent in the last three years. "In 2005, sales of children's clothing amounted to €2.64 billion," says Heijo Gassenmeier, the deputy director of the Federal Association of German Textile Retailers. "Premium goods make up only a small percentage of that total," says Gassenmeier, "but the fact that sales figures have remained steady despite a declining birth rate in the past few years suggests that parents are spending a lot of money on clothing for their children."

The industry owes its success to mothers like Anna Beeni, 29. Beeni strolls along Goethestraße in Frankfurt, one of Germany's most opulent shopping thoroughfares, with her six-year-old daughter in tow. She's headed for August Pfüller and its four floors of children's fashion and accessories. According to Germany's Federal Office of Statistics, parents spend an average of €549 a month on their children. Anna Beeni is no exception. She expects to spend about €3,000 for her daughter Verena's winter wardrobe. "I don't look at the price, just the brand," says Beeni.

And Beeni's daughter, Verena, knows exactly what she wants: "a new Seven." She means a US jeans brand called "Seven for all Mankind," popular among adults for its sexy tailoring. The kids' version, priced at €150, features the same low-slung style as the company's adult jeans.

"Like being a princess for a day"

The best place to catch a glimpse of what the chic kids are wearing today is "Pitti Immagine Bimbo" in Florence. It's the world's largest children's fashion convention, where fashion houses like Laura Biagiotti send their dolled-up child models onto the "Cakewalk," as the miniature runway is jokingly dubbed. The shows and designs look whimsical, but it's a market that everyone takes seriously.

Slippers by Baby Dior.

Slippers by Baby Dior.

Major designer labels like Louis Vuitton, Dior and Gucci are all cashing in on items like children's blankets and diaper bags that sport their respective logos. At "Laura Biagiotti Dolls," the eponymous designer's daughter handles clothes for the younger fashionable set. Lavinia Biagiotti says sales are strongest in Germany. "I think it's important to get kids excited about beauty," she says.

Biagiotti, 28, in charge of design, says most of her inspiration comes from the company's prêt-à-porter line for adults. At the moment the line is all about "knitwear embellished with Lurex and crystal beads. But the materials are suitable for children," says Biagiotti, "easy to care for and usually washable." Usually.

Axel Dammler of Iconkids & Youth, a market research institute, says, "The designers are filling a new niche with these products, and they are introducing children to their brands at a very early age. Of course, three-year-olds don't exactly understand the concept of luxury." But their parents do. "In our society, the gap between rich and poor is getting wider, and so is the need for people to differentiate themselves and their children from everyone else. Even if all that means is buying the right polo shirt."

Parents aren't the only ones buying. Grandparents with only one grandchild to spoil and -- especially -- friends with no children of their own have a propensity for buying high-ticket gifts. It's a phenomenon Dammler calls "compensatory consumption."

An end to the spending spree isn't in sight. This year's "Child & Youth" convention in Cologne drew a record number of visitors looking for the latest in toys, sheets and strollers. The exhibit covers more than 16 acres. "Many parents come here looking for something special, something that perfectly complements their own inner convictions," says Oliver Kuhrt, managing director of Koelnmesse, which organizes the show. "These people spend tens of thousands of euros on a kitchen -- why should they forgo style in the children's room?"

Some of the convention's highlights include the "Calla" designer highchair, at €895, or the "Route 66" car seat, covered in leather so it won't clash with daddy's pseudo-SUV. But the biggest seller in Cologne this year is called "Bugaboo," a minimalist stroller from the Netherlands. According to the company's press spokeswoman, "the white, limited edition model is now available for €1,500."

The celebrity factor is partly responsible for these extreme prices. A "Bugaboo" was featured in the television series "Sex and the City." Tom Heim of Pamperwithstyle.de, an Internet mail-order company, says, "We specialize in Fleurville diaper bags" -- but it doesn't hurt Heim's company that supermodel Heidi Klum and Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow have been spotted toting diapers and baby food in its €525 leather "Luxe Bag."

There are even glossy magazines and spa services for the current generation of pampered kids. At Munich's "Noemi & Friends," where the shampoo is chocolate-scented, boys can get temporary tattoos and girls can enjoy mini makeup sessions. Birthday parties where girls gather to have their hair done are among the salon's most popular services. With their mothers footing the bill, "the children have a great time," says salon owner and founder Diana Miller. "It's like being a princess for a day."

Only a day?

"Many children are growing up in a completely unrealistic world of brand names," warns youth expert Karin Fries of "Synovate Kids & Teens," a Bavarian research firm. "The parents don't even realize that they're asking far too much of their children." Fries is especially concerned about skin care and cosmetics products for children. "Children's skin doesn't need makeup. But perhaps that's too simplistic in a world where one can even buy dog perfume."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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