March 15, 2013 9:54 pm

Vanessa Friedman: Is London’s Kids Fashion Week a problem?

London is about to welcome its first children’s fashion week, and the potential to accessorise with controversy is high
Romeo Beckham is seen in the window display of Burberry

So you thought the fashion weeks were over for now, and that you didn’t have to hear about catwalk shows for at least another three months or so (until June, anyway, when menswear begins again). Sucker!

In fact there’s a fashion week going on somewhere in the world almost every week of the year. Sometimes more than one. Istanbul fashion week, for example, ends on Saturday. Lakmé fashion week in India runs from March 22 to 26. And Moscow’s starts on March 29. Indeed, I’ve often thought John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” would work equally well in fashion: instead of crossing suburbia by stroking your way from one pool to another, you could spend a year crossing the globe from one fashion week to the other.

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Vanessa Friedman

But I digress. The point is, if there’s a gap, a fashion week will be created to fill it. Hence this Tuesday, squished in between Istanbul and India, London will welcome its first Kids Fashion Week. Yup, they already have womenswear; last year they introduced menswear; and now they’ve got children’s wear too. However, unlike men’s fashion week, which was widely applauded, this is bound to upset a lot of people.

The sanctity of childhood! Can we not leave some part of our world unbranded? Protect our youth from the evils of rampant consumerism! And so on. That’s the easy attack, anyway. And while I, too, have an issue with this particular development, both as a parent and as a fashion person (and not necessarily in that order) it’s not for the above reasons, which are, in truth, a lot of hooey.

Kids are already heavily exposed to brands, from Disney to McDonald’s, and they have been for years. 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.

The only thing new about this is the brands themselves; when I was a kid, back in the olden days, it was all Danskin and Laura Ashley instead of Dolce and Rachel Riley. Besides, there’s a lot of upside to a fashion week – any fashion week.

Consider it from a municipal perspective, and all the business it generates for related industries such as hotels, restaurants and taxis. No wonder London would be interested. (This is also why, despite industry disquiet, I think it will be so hard to change the ready-to-wear season – the cities don’t want to let their fashion weeks go or even truncate them; they want to keep all those visitors spending money in their town as long as possible.)

From a brand perspective, it also makes sense: creating childrenswear feeds into the fashion labels’ desire to pitch themselves as “lifestyle” (life including families). It seduces adults who are brand-addled by allowing them to buy into the idea for slightly less money (children’s clothes being cheaper than adult’s), and hooks the kids young so that when they grow up, they become brand consumers too. After all, also jumping on the kids’ bandwagon recently (though not showing at Kids Fashion Week) are Gucci, Burberry, Dior and Stella McCartney.

The “week” will last two days (Tuesday and Wednesday, with Wednesday being open to the public) and include catwalk shows from Paul Smith Junior, Chloé, Little Marc Jacobs, Diesel and more. Announcing the event, Alex Theophanous, founder of kids fashion ecommerce brand Alex and Alexa, said: “Children’s wear designers believe it deserves its own dedicated platform. With this event, we aim to put children’s fashion on the map worldwide.”

. . .

So what, really, is the problem? It’s not the sums involved in parents buying children designer clothing – I’ll let each individual exercise their own value judgment about whether children who outgrow a garment every few months and like nothing more than rolling in the dirt should ever wear anything that costs more than $25 (personally, I think not, but that’s just me). It’s not the Mini-Me aspect of kids dressing in scaled-down versions of their parents’ outfits – which says more about parents’ desire for immortality than it does with the children. It’s not even the taint of kids modelling, which involves a cosmetic and voyeurism dimension that makes many people uncomfortable.

It’s because the medium is wrong for the message. Marshall McLuhan would understand. The catwalk is hot; kids’ fashion is (or should be) cold. The catwalk, in other words, delivers the total look to the viewer; like film, you receive it fully formed. Kids’ fashion, on the other hand, should be – even more than adult fashion – a place of freedom for children to start playing around with identity and perception. It should be flexible in the extreme.

Childhood is a time for learning that clothes serve a purpose (beyond warmth and protection); that they are effective ways to telegraph who you are: jeans-and-T-shirt tomboys, tulle-skirted princesses, spotty/stripy originals – all selves that my own children have, literally, tried on. When children appear in head-to-toe pink, or clashing patterns, it’s not because they don’t know how to dress; it’s because that’s how they have chosen to dress. That said, learning that choice has an effect on those around them is a key lesson, now more than ever, as image becomes a crucial tool in communication.

Adults understand this (or ought to); for them, the catwalk simply provides different options of themselves from which to choose. Children, however, need the space to decide who they are. Fashion should be smart enough to take the long view and give it to them: in-store if necessary, but not on show.

Of course, fashion also teaches us that “should” is not the same as “will”. One pair of black trousers should be enough for anyone but we know it never will be.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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