Consumer Products

Diversification makes a strong fashion statement for licensees

In the up-and-down world of kids licensing, covering your bases with a more diverse range of product is essential to survival. Children's apparel is certainly no exception, and in the ramp-up to MAGIC Kids in August, some companies seem to be eyeballing the Hispanic youth market, up-scale adult brands and a high-fashion approach to product styling to make their safety nets even more cushy.
August 1, 2003

In the up-and-down world of kids licensing, covering your bases with a more diverse range of product is essential to survival. Children’s apparel is certainly no exception, and in the ramp-up to MAGIC Kids in August, some companies seem to be eyeballing the Hispanic youth market, up-scale adult brands and a high-fashion approach to product styling to make their safety nets even more cushy.

‘I think the important thing is to be well-rounded,’ says Fred Irvin, director of marketing for Happy Kids in New York. Already laying claim to the popular Bratz line, a higher-end Betsey Johnson girls label and the graphically-strong basketball line And 1 for boys, the company is looking to further round out its portfolio by hitting what Irvin sees as the next big market – Hispanic youth.

The numbers are definitely impressive: According to U.S. census data, a full 65% of all babies born in the U.S. are of Hispanic descent. And in terms of spending on clothes, Hispanic households spend 44% more than the average household on boys apparel and 71% more on girls apparel. (Source: Marketing to American Latinos: A Guide to the In-Culture Approach, Part II by Isabel Valdés)

While he’s not usually a fan of toy licenses, Irvin hints that he wouldn’t mind partnering with a brand like Homies, a novelty line of gumball machine toys created by artist David Gonzales that has developed a cult following inside and outside the Latino community since launching in 1998. Cartoonish caricatures of real Chicanos Gonzales grew up with, the 1.75-inch figurines sold four million units in their first year at market alone.

New York-based manufacturer Lollytogs is also hoping to tap into the Hispanic market with the introduction of a boys version of the popular Perry Ellis Latin men’s lines Havanera and Cubavera. Lollytogs marketing director Stacy Bobroff says the Latino community may be well-served with urban and athletic wear, but there is a gaping hole when it comes to casual dress wear for boys.

‘It’s a natural extension of the brand,’ agrees Armando Rios, marketing manager for the two Latin men’s lines at Perry Ellis International in Miami. ‘In Latin backgrounds, you dress like your father.’ The clothing – featuring lightweight fabrics in bright, eye-catching colors – has its roots in a traditional Cuban four-pocket embroidered shirt called the guayabera, an apparel essential for Hispanic men and boys. Havanera is exclusive to JCPenney, while Cubavera, with its higher price point and quality level, is sold at department stores like Burdine’s and Macy’s.

Happy Kids’ Irvin agrees that up-market and well-known brands are a good hedge against an unstable retail environment, and he has just landed licenses for Izod baby layettes and Calvin Klein apparel for girls and boys.

As far as style goes, the days of label-slapping appear to be well and truly over, and manufacturers are offering consumers serious fashion – even with straightforward character apparel.

In the U.K., Cartoon Network has been developing a high-fashion strategy targeting tweens and teens, introducing an upscale range this past February at Selfridges. An equally hip but more affordable line launched at Topshop stores in May, featuring cotton sweat tops with modern graffiti-style spray paint prints; monochrome cotton vests and tees featuring the Girls and subtle Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup graphics on silk and chiffon.

Band-inspired fashion is also currently en vogue across the pond, with top pop group Atomic Kitten bringing its clothing line (launched in February at select Bhs stores) to all of the retailer’s 160 outlets. Bucks, England-based manufacturer Thumbprint Enterprises has produced two ranges for the line aimed at girls ages six to 13. The first includes a ’60s swirl print wrap vest in mousse mesh with a stretch denim miniskirt, a ’70s-inspired tie-dye floral print top with butterfly sleeves and an ’80s disco-style one-shoulder glitter and diamante pink top with cropped denim jeans. The second range, reflecting modern music fashion, consists of essential items like khaki combat pants highlighted and softened by pink hues.

Back in the U.S., New York’s Millennium Apparel Group has produced a Powerpuff Girls range for the past five years and plans to launch more knit dresses and some new terrycloth dresses featuring the effervescent brand at MAGIC. Millennium also boasts the mid-tier and fashion-forward Princess Collection for tween girls, this year featuring more denim, printed cords and plaids. These lines account for about 70% of Millennium’s business.

New York-based C-Life Group is busting out of the nothing-but-tees confines of traditional boys lines with its superhero licenses. With Spider-Man, Superman and Dragonball Z in its cache, C-Life went beyond basic T-shirts with Spider-Man this past year, and its line of shimmer, club, baseball, fleece and polo shirts did exceptionally well. Swimsuits also enjoyed solid sales.

SpongeBob SquarePants and Samurai Jack licensee Balzout is working on taking its licensed lines beyond the basics too. The New York-based company tries to cover off almost every sub-category of apparel these days, says licensing assistant Jessica Young. Form-fitting tees, heathered collars and zip-up hoodies are all works-in-progress, particularly for the company’s junior line.

Balzout is also trying to push the envelope with its printing styles, adding gel print and glitters to the mix, along with a special transfer method that makes the icon feel like felt, adding a higher-end, fashionable feel to the clothing. Young notes that a more sophisticated consumer demands not only the hot licenses, but the popular styles as well.

One new license for which Balzout has high hopes is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Wild Things is expected to be popular with young kids, but the company also plans on issuing junior and adult wear to tap into the nostalgia factor of the 40-year-old children’s book. The Nitro, West Virginia-based company expects to feature the brand at MAGIC on a full range of apparel, from hoodies to baby dolls.

New York’s Haddad Apparel Group is also working with a full portfolio, with the recent addition of most apparel categories for Nickelodeon’s stable of properties. ‘It has allowed us to dive in and really make the most out of the terrific art by bringing a full collection to market,’ says marketing director Colleen Whitcombe.

On the brand side of things, Haddad is keeping its focus on vintage with portfolio property Lucky Brand, mixing in some fashion-forward ‘masculine meets feminine’ looks such as army pants paired with feminine tops, says Whitcombe. Haddad’s FILA line will also feature old-school looks with retro color combinations for boys and girls.

As for Dockers, the company is going after a more cleaned-up, yet comfortable look with pigment dying on the boy’s side and oxford stripes over prints or flower-embroidered shirts for girls, she says. ‘Fashion is really selling,’ says Whitcombe, adding that whether it’s sports or entertainment, the fashion flair is what makes the products stand out.

Whitcombe expects sports to continue to enjoy the momentum it has gained with kids, tweens and teens in the coming year, while entertainment will remain hot for the four to seven set.

It’s possible that nobody understands fickle fashion trends better than tween retailer Limited Too, which lays claim to the ultra-hot My Scene Barbie apparel line. Lece Lohr, the chain’s senior VP and general merchandising manager for casual and active, says her company’s two back-to-school lines for 2003 reflect current activity in the fashion world.

The retro look is being driven off the street and into the mall, with Limited Too’s Vintage Girl line. ‘You’ll see a lot of cargos and utility paired with things like satin and beaded camisoles,’ says Lohr. Washing and pigment dyes are becoming essential processes for achieving a distressed or vintage look.

Sheer has also been very popular for the retailer, though Lece notes that these items are sold with layered camisoles because the typical Limited Too consumer is around 10 or 11. Graphics are also very important, and destination names like Tokyo and New York, encrusted with sequins or beads and done up in vintage style, are very hot.

Limited Too’s other BTS line will tap into the retro prep trend. Using classic colors like burgundy, hunter green and gold, the ultimate look is Adidas-esque and includes track suits, knit jackets and pants. Trend-driven fabrics include vintage-weight jersey, mesh, velour and tipping (stripes), knit waistbands and sweatbands.

For holiday, the retailer will move into pale colors and winter themes, but all tied to retro looks like vintage ski gear. Next spring, fashion will turn crisp once more, and Limited Too will introduce mod-inspired color blocking, graphic prints and polka dots.

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