Celebrity designers tap into spending power

Move over, baby boomers. Tweens are where it’s at.

According to industry sources, there are approximately 25 million tweens — kids between the ages of 7 and 14 — in the United States who spend $50 billion a year. Other estimates report these kids influence another $200 billion in purchases.

That’s a lot of T-shirts and lip gloss.

The phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed by fashion companies and celebrities looking to tap into the buying power of the grammar- and middle-school set.

“The tween market explosion coincides with an explosion of edgier celebrity-driven fashion,” says David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a New York-based trend forecasting agency. “Because of the amount of coverage given to celebrity style in the magazines and on the Internet, tweens are following the trends like never before.”

For years, there were relatively few stores like Limited Too catering to these fledgling fashionistas. These days, an increasing number of celebrity-driven tween lines are popping up to fuel the fashion frenzy.

However, it’s hard to imagine any newcomer to the game coming close to the success Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have had with their megabrand.

Their company, Dualstar Entertainment Group, licenses a slew of products that includes books, straight-to-video movies and dolls. In 2001, the Olsens inked an exclusive deal to sell their clothing line, the Mary-kateandashley brand for girls 5-12 at Wal-Mart.

“They were doing it long before the word ‘tween’ even existed,” says Dualstar’s CEO Diane Reichenberger.

While Reichenberger declines to reveal earnings, reports estimate Wal-Mart rang up more than $700 million in Mary-kateandashley brand sales last year, netting the Olsens a whopping $40 million, which landed them the top spot on Forbes’ first Richest Stars Under 21 list.

Next up for the twins: a partnership with 13-year-old actors Cole and Dylan Sprouse (“The Suite Life of Zack & Cody”) to launch a lifestyle brand and clothing line for tween boys.

The secret of their success? “Everything on the line is good quality, age appropriate and a great price,” Reichenberger says.

A recent collection featured $12.99 denim and a brocade coat for $20. And, Reichenberger says, the Olsens are intimately involved in the brand “down to the level of styling a photo shoot.”

Most industry experts agree that it’s the celebrity’s image that can make or break the brand.

“There has to be an emotional connection to a star,” Wolfe says. “Tweens need to identify with them.”

Not enough girls wanted to look like Jenny from the block, so Jennifer Lopez’s JLO Girls line failed.

On the other hand, Hilary Duff, whose breakthrough role as the star of Disney Television’s “Lizzie Maguire” made her a tween heroine, has built an international business that includes fashion, beauty and home products marketing her wholesome image to her fans.

Buoyed by the success of her tween label, Stuff by Hilary Duff, and eager to hold on to that customer as she matures, the 20-year-old actress-singer has plans to introduce a junior line this fall. “I’ve grown up with my customer, so I understand her,” Duff says.

In the case of Sean John Boys, from music mogul Sean Combs, the customer connection is most often with the mother who buys the clothes for her tween son, says Sheri Rosenfeld, director of licensing for Fishman & Tobin Apparel Group.

“The mom is all about image and logos, and Sean Jean means something in her life,” she says. “Sean John is a designer brand that the dad might wear, and the mom wants the son to look like the dad.”

Most tween girls are looking to emulate their favorite stars who are older and whose tastes run toward sophisticated and expensive styles, says Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition in West Hollywood. Hersh says the young shopper is a “huge part of my demographic.”

While some tweens idolize “nice girls” like Amanda Bynes and Ashley Tisdale, others, observes Hersh, obsess over the wardrobes of party princesses like Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan.

“There’s a bracelet Nicole has been wearing — 10-year-olds want that bracelet,” she says.

The Tibetan mala prayer bead bracelets run $65-$95. Primp’s line of thermal leggings and T-shirts ($68-$100), seen on Mischa Barton, have been bestsellers at the store due in large part to tween customers. When Mary-Kate Olsen was photographed wearing Dita’s brand sunglasses, Hersh says she sold 500 pairs of the $165 eyewear: “A lot of them were bought by 10- and 11-year-olds.”

Jeff Rudes, president of J Brand jeans, says the company (which already has a Baby J line for infants and toddlers) is launching a yet-to-be-named tween line this fall that will feature $130 jeans.

“Kids will go into debt to get the clothes they want,” Rudes says. “They’re bombarded with images of their favorite star wearing something. Hollywood has turned it into a ‘What are you wearing?’ world.”

Other designer brands like Marc Jacobs (whose spring advertising campaign features 13-year-old Dakota Fanning) and Coach are becoming increasingly popular with tweens even though they don’t direct any marketing specifically at them.

“They don’t have to,” says Wolfe. “Tweens are much more receptive to all kinds of fashion advertising because the pressure is so great to buy confidence that comes from having the right designer bag. That’s nothing new — except today the bag can cost between $400 and $1,400.”

How do these kids pay for their fashion fix? “A lot of times they come in with their moms or they send ‘wish lists’ to their relatives for birthdays and bat mitzvah,” Hersh says. “Shows like ‘My Super Sweet Sixteen’ and others on MTV showing so much excess: Where do we go from here?”

While retailers are reaping the benefit of a burgeoning market, Wolfe says the rampant acquisitiveness among kids too young to hold down even a part-time job is a troubling cultural phenomenon that will have seismic effects.

“Our society has dumbed down tremendously in the last decade in the things we value,” he says. “I shudder to think what’s going to happen when these girls become parents. (Tween consumerism) is out of control but it’s unstoppable and, I’m afraid, here to stay.”

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