Designers open up haute retail doors for licensed apparel lines

Licensors with blockbuster kids brands may sometimes have trouble boosting their apparel lines above a mass-market glass ceiling in the quality- and style-sensitive world of fashion retail. But some property owners are finding that using the cachet of a well-known fashion designer helps move their clothing lines from mass to class.
August 1, 2004

Licensors with blockbuster kids brands may sometimes have trouble boosting their apparel lines above a mass-market glass ceiling in the quality- and style-sensitive world of fashion retail. But some property owners are finding that using the cachet of a well-known fashion designer helps move their clothing lines from mass to class.

Since Sesame Workshop called Nicole Miller in Q1 2003 in search of a partner familiar with up-market channels, the top designer has experienced success in JC Penney and on-line at with a line of fabric prints for Even Flo’s infant Snuglies. The brisk sales of these celeb-embraced baby carriers, which launched in March 2004, has Miller revved up to take a more aggressive dip into youth apparel.

Miller and the Workshop have hooked up to co-produce a line of designer Sesame Street togs that will be designed by Miller and manufactured by New York-based Children’s Apparel Network. The line will feature exclusive patterns that incorporate character stills of Elmo, Zoe, Grover and Cookie Monster. Sesame and Miller are also hoping to expand their partnership into other fabric-led product categories such as bedding, room décor and plush (possibly via a deal with Gund).

For Miller, the partnership with Sesame serves as a springboard into the lucrative under-12 apparel market, which grew by 4.1% last year to finish at US$29.1 billion, according to retail sales tracker the NPD Group. So what made Sesame Street the right lead-off property? Christine Bell, Nicole Miller’s director of licensing, says the Sesame Street name – whether mentioned in the context of its myriad global TV formats or the many products in its international merchandise program – is synonymous with quality.

On the flip-side of the relationship, ‘We were essentially looking for a designer who could firmly entrench us in the department store channel of distribution,’ says Heather Hanssen, director of marketing at Sesame Workshop. The brand has had multiple clothing lines in the market for many years, but they have traditionally been limited to mass and mid-tier outlets such as Wal-Mart and Hot Topic.

Miller and the Workshop are in talks right now to secure an exclusive top-tier retailer for a spring 2005 launch, but Sesame director of licensing Margaret Pepe admits that there has been such an unexpected level of interest in the designer fashion line that the team is re-evaluating whether an exclusive route is the way to go. Representatives from Nicole Miller, Sesame Workshop and Children’s Apparel Network will explore these options, and Miller will take a share of the revenues generated by the line once it hits stores.

Mattel has also used its business relationship with a designer to expand the retail reach of its high-fashion Barbie program for girls six to 10 into upscale department store outlets. Designed by Welsh couturist Julien MacDonald, the line launched exclusively this summer in London, England’s Selfridges, a deal that was much easier for Mattel’s sales team to forge by using the lure of the designer’s name. Richard Dickson, senior VP of Mattel consumer products, confirms that plans are underway to expand into other high-end retailers around the world this fall.

The top-tier initiative, says Dickson, was intended to appeal to mothers who shop aspirationally. Little girls don’t care where they get their Barbie fix, but co-branding with couture designers and Selfridges should help propel the doll brand’s expanding lines of clothing and accessories into retailers with the kind of class that parents would like their kids to be associated with.

Higher-end retail, however, usually deals in higher prices. Designer clothes naturally carry steeper tags due to higher-quality materials and workmanship, and Dickson admits the Julien MacDonald/Barbie clothes command prices well above the mainline, with SKUs ranging from US$150 to US$250. Mattel also had to use a wide variety of manufacturers because Julien’s design applications and materials vary significantly, from knits to sequins. This meant padding the business plan with a little extra investment lining, which must be recouped with higher price-points.

Whereas Mattel and Sesame are sharing retail sell-in duties with their designer partners, Cartoon Network is letting London-based fashion house Maharishi completely loose with a new Samurai Jack apparel line that’s set to launch this fall. Simon George, VP of Cartoon Network Enterprises, says it makes sense for the designer to sell the kids line to its existing up-market retail accounts because Maharishi’s established consumer base will initially be driving sales. George adds that Samurai Jack kids clothes with a fashion label won’t seem out of place amongst the designer’s fall ’04 line of samurai-inspired adult gear. So far, Maharishi has deals in place with Harrods and Selfridges in the U.K. and Estelle in New York.

Chalk it up to trickle-down or to the more sophisticated demands of today’s tween market, but licensors are also tapping fashion consultants to make sure their mass apparel lines fall on the right side of both fashion trends and the parental veto. DIC Entertainment has hired Estevan Ramos, the clothing designer for Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ music video, to jazz up its Trollz line of Q3 2004 apparel. Going for a look that’s more feminine than skin-baring, Ramos is targeting the Hilary Duffs and Lindsay Lohans of the tween set with preppy looks and sophisticated choices. ‘It’s the new nice girl era,’ he says.

In addition to designing the gear, Ramos will help steer the aesthetic of the property in general, weighing in on elements such as the look of the Trollz’ bedrooms and the property style guide. He will be on staff at DIC during the development stage of the property, and will move to a work-for-hire role once the line launches.

Getting even more designer bang for its buck, Crayola recently turned to New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology for some next-to-free expertise. In January 2004, Diane Baldovsky, Crayola’s associate manager of global licensing, commissioned a contest involving 15 students from FIT’s children’s wear design department. The challenge? To come up with a marketable line of apparel for kids three to seven that incorporates the creative customizability of the Crayola brand. The three winning designs featured funky detachable sleeves, pockets and pantlegs that turn dressing oneself into a game. ‘They were able to give us a fresh approach,’ says Baldovsky. ‘They’re not jaded by what can and can’t be done in the marketplace.’

The winners received prize money ranging from US$1,000 to US$2,500 in exchange for handing over the design rights to Crayola. In the meantime, execs at Binney & Smith are courting licensees to manufacture the clothing line and hope to have the interchangeable duds on the racks by fall 2005.

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