Break out your books, sharpen your pencils and pay close attention: Keeping up with the diverse, modish and mercurial whims of today's tweens is no easy feat. Thanks to respected teenage fashion bloggers like Tavi Gevinson and TV shows featuring tween idols decked out in designer duds, it's easier than ever for kids to keep up with current fads—which means retailers looking to appease this tricky demographic must be prepared to do their homework.
"Fashion is so much more accessible than it used to be," confirms Amy Ackerman, tween division manager at the Ilene Oren & Company showroom, which represents more than a dozen tween and young contemporary brands. "These girls are texting on their cell phones; they're whizzes on their iPads," she adds. "They are hip." Khalym Schell, children's editor for fashion forecasting firm Stylesight agrees, noting that the uber confident members of Generation Z look to fellow fashionistas among their peers for style inspiration. "Natives to the Internet, they are constantly sharing through a community of curated music and fashion blogs created by other tweens," she explains. "Yesterday it was Teen Beat, but now micro-blogs like Tumblr inform tweens' tastes, influence their style and expose their fashion idols."
For an age group infamous for its ambivalence, technology makes marketing to pre-teen girls an even bigger challenge, but savvy retailers may find the risk is worth the reward, Ackerman says. "From what retailers tell me, tween is the bulk of their business," she adds. "Tweens see something and they say, ‘Mom I need to wear this.' They want new stuff all the time. The tween demographic is the demographic that spends money."
But what about the boys? While the boys' side of the category is seeing a similar expansion with the launch of fashion-forward brands like La Miniatura, the bulk of the market remains with the girls. Stylesight's associate children's editor, Nicole Yee, notes that the difference in the girls' market versus the boys' echoes the difference in women's and men's apparel—the women's market is simply more saturated. "Female tweenagers and their moms are more into finding items that mimic women's yet fit a pre-teen's lifestyle and figure. Boys, on the other hand, can move more seamlessly into juniors' and eventually into men's. Their silhouettes are often less fussy so it makes it easier for tween boys to find a proper fit in juniors' or men's," Yee reports.
Now, with tween girls shopping for an ever-expanding range of apparel and accessories and more brands jumping into the market (pop star siblings Jessica and Ashley Simpson recently announced a joint tween line), it's an ideal time to tackle the pre-teen category. Interested in bulking up your tween offerings for spring? Go ahead and brush up with these basics.
Make Mom Happy, Too
"The most important thing about the tween market is you have two buyers: the girl and the mom," says Gayatri Bhalla, a former DC-area tween retailer and writer who covers tween issues as MsTwixt at www.mstwixt.com. Jennifer Mazuelos, owner of Austin-based children's boutique Izzy and Ash, agrees: "Tweens are looking to be more grown up, but the moms still want them to be their kids, their babies," she explains. "It's about finding the lines that meet the sophistication that the tween needs, while making it appropriate for their age." The balance is especially important for boutique buyers, since parents often go to local shops to escape the "mall mentality," says Hillary Francis, owner of Bella-Mi, a children's shop based in Austin, TX. With stores like Abercrombie & Fitch stoking controversy in recent years by offering thongs and padded bikinis for younger girls, boutiques have an opportunity to step into the void and entice both daughter and mom by offering stylish yet age-appropriate items. "Know your customer," Francis advises. "If you have a huge conservative following, find something that's both trendy and conservative. Our customers know we're not going to put their daughters in anything that's not appropriate for them."
Increasingly, however, retailers note that tween girls are driving parents' purchases. "Ultimately, in our society now, parents are letting kids make decisions about what they're wearing because it gives them a sense of freedom," Mazuelos notes. "Parents aren't going to buy it unless they know their kids like it, because if not, they aren't going to wear it. It's got to be something the tween feels is trendy and a little more sophisticated than anything a kids store is going to carry." To that end, Francis at Bella-Mi keeps her tween selection separate from the smaller sizes in the store. "A lot of kids come in and they feel like they don't want to be shopping with the baby stuff, so it's important that it has its own area," she explains. In fact, Francis often colludes with parents to ensure tweens select age-appropriate items but leave the store satisfied. "We will have moms come in and pick things out before they bring their daughters in so we can steer the girls in a certain direction—because if their moms approve, they won't," she says. "We've actually done that quite often."
Retailers note that maintaining a wide selection of styles and silhouettes will not only ensure that no young shopper leaves empty handed, but it also helps bolster tween girls' burgeoning but fragile self-esteem, especially at an age when body concerns are beginning to take root. "Girls are at all different stages of development at this age, so you have to accommodate a range of body types," suggests Bhalla. "You need a blend of silhouettes, some that are thinner cut and some that are more accommodating, and you need to have a mix of brands in addition to a mix of sizes." Bhalla notes that jeans are especially challenging and suggests retailers offer the uber-popular skinny fit as well as wider cuts and comfortable leggings. "I don't want any child to walk in here and not find anything that fits her body, because that can be really frustrating," Francis agrees. "I try to offer a lot of styles that can be very flattering for every body type."
Increasingly, Ackerman says, children's retailers are scouting the young contemporary and junior markets to find items to fit tweens. At the Ilene Oren & Company showroom, retailers struggling to find age-appropriate items for growing tweens flock to Kiddo's young contemporary brand Lovemarks and jeans from Tractor in sizes 24 to 32. "We've had to tap into the junior market, because a lot of the kids that come in are growing out of size 14/16, so a lot of what I search for are junior lines that are age appropriate," Francis at Bella-Mi confirms, pointing to Splendid and Ella Moss as brands that successfully bridge the tween to teen gap. At Frankie's on the Park, a Chicago-based boutique for tweens, teens and women, owner Rae Lisenby reports that "most of our tweens are shopping in the women's section when they are 12 or 13."
And while '80s era crop-tops and mini skirts may be all the rage, experts suggest retailers pair the revealing styles with tank tops and leggings. "Tweens are very self-conscious so they may be wary of anything that fits too tightly or shows a bit of skin," notes Yee at Stylesight. Ackerman says that bandeau and tank tops are big sellers at her showroom, where retailers report that girls layer the tops under almost everything.
Stay on Trend
Keeping apace with the constantly evolving tastes of pre-teens can be a tough assignment, but tuning in to the tween market is easier than ever, thanks to TV shows and celebrities that instantly inspire fads among their followers. "Looking at the media and pop culture is so huge, especially looking at Disney shows like iCarly," Bhalla advises. "Look at how Taylor Swift single handedly brought back the ballerina dress." Bhalla also suggests retailers look to designers in Europe and Australia, who she notes often have a more creative eye. "Their designs aren't as cutesy and juvenile and work well for tweens," she says.
Teddi Moskovitz, co-owner of online children's boutique Little Miss Hipster, recommends good old-fashioned detective work when it comes to spotting trends. "Really keep on top of what's in by talking to your customers, neighbors and friends," she suggests. "When you're at the mall, watch what tweens are picking up. Look at what they are going for, and what their parents are steering them towards and find the happy medium," she adds. And look to your own closet, experts suggest, since nowadays many tween trends are filtering immediately down from the women's market. "What I try to do is pay more attention to women's trends and then translate them down," confirms Hollie Watman, design coordinator for children's apparel and accessory brand Peace of Cake. "Rather than going to what's already out there, I find it more inspiring and think it's a little more fresh to take what I see on the runways and, for example, pop it with neon for tweens." However, Lisenby at Frankie's on the Park cautions that tween girls may be slightly slower to embrace trends than their older counterparts, noting that last summer she didn't sell a single maxi dress, while this summer the style is one of her most popular items. "You have to wait a season for them to see it's happening," she points out.
Attitude is Everything
Keeping tweens coming back for more is often a matter of making them feel like rock stars and offering an experience they can't find at the mall. Frankie's on the Park features a stage and three-way mirror where girls can model their ensembles for their friends, and the shop's website features a "Girl of the Week" sporting her selected duds. Also contributing to the all-star environment, Bhalla says, is keeping kid-friendly tunes on at all time. "You can't just turn on the local radio station," she advises. "Make sure you have music that the parents aren't going to cringe at that is still upbeat and trendy."
And don't forget to stock your store with trinkets that girls can buy with their allowance. "One of the most popular items at the boutique was our specialty candy that you couldn't get widely elsewhere, and the girls loved it. It was a place for them to spend their own pocket money," Bhalla says, noting it's a good idea to keep this merchandise at the eye-level of little shoppers. Mazuelos says tween girls love to gift their friends hand-painted Momiji message dolls at Izzy and Ash, as well as jewelry, hair clips and room accessories. And don't be afraid to branch beyond apparel, Bhalla adds. "Think about accessories not just as clothing accessories but anything that accessorizes a space for a tween—whether it's a bedroom, locker, desk or binder." —Audrey Goodson