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June 11, 2000

Noticed: Dressing Up Mini-Me

By RUTH LA FERLA

ANNABELLA CACIOPPO is a creature of fashion. She wears bonnets and rustling silk onesies, spoons her Pablum from a vintage silver porringer and exudes the soapy fragrance of Bulgari Petite Maman. She is trundled down Madison Avenue in a Silver Cross, the Rolls-Royce of English perambulators.

Her mother, Jennifer Cacioppo, a freelance publicist for Ralph Lauren, can't do enough for her 7-month-old. "I bring her to the swings each day in her dressy outfits," she acknowledged cheerfully. "It's a thing of pride. You wash your car, you polish up your baby."

Six-month-old Tate Dubilier, another high-maintenance baby, lets his mother, Minnie Dubilier, buff and shine him like a pair of Prada boots. A former accessories editor at Vogue, Ms. Dubilier, who is married to an investment banker and lives in Greenwich, Conn., says she spends about $2,000 a season decking her son out in rompers and smocks and other traditional togs. "My husband complains, 'You dress him like a girl in all these little bubble outfits,' " she reported unconcernedly. "But my theory is, I'm going to dress him how I want to dress him until he has an opinion."

Like other new mothers in styleland -- a breed that includes Aerin Lauder Zinterhoffer of the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire; Cindy Crawford; Cynthia Rowley, the fashion designer; and Kate Betts, Harper's Bazaar's editor in chief -- Ms. Dubilier might be expected to turn her infant into a doll-size fashion statement.

What is surprising is that many of her contemporaries from all walks of life have lately followed suit. Women, enamored of fashion but without access to personal stylists or inflated wardrobe budgets, insist just the same on dressing their newborns like modern infantas or, likelier still, Lilliputian versions of themselves.

In the last year or two, the lust for chic luxurious infant wear has spawned a boom in designer bibs and booties, toys and toiletries, home furnishings and, in particular, fashions.

In the late 1980's, when Gay Empson went to work as the fashion editor of Child magazine, "infants wore pink and blue, and there it ended," she recalled, adding, "Now, there is such an explosion of everything."

What began with a trickle of posh merchandise from shops like Bon Point and Jacadi on Madison Avenue, has become a deluge, flooding upscale stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue and filtering into the mass market as well. In the last few months, upscale designers began offering layette, a wardrobe for first year babies. Now, new moms of means can stock up on DKNY cashmere cardigans ($60), Baby Dior jumpers ($165), Ralph Lauren velvet frocks ($110), Tommy Hilfiger khakis ($26), Jay Kos cashmere dresses ($395) and booties emblazoned with Gucci double-G's ($145).

More rarefied types can also choose from sumptuous knits designed by Stella Tennant, the patrician English model. Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece says she plans to come out with a layette collection.

Or they can buy from the Gap. The chain, which pioneered the concept of adult fashions scaled to infant proportions and then added a luxury baby line in a handful of stores, now sells cashmere twin sets and receiving blankets in all of its Baby Gap outlets.

The appetite for high-style, high-end baby wares is partly the outgrowth of a vibrant economy. "People have more disposable income, and they want to represent their wealth in full," from the baby on up, said Evan Tawil of Tawil Associates, which manufactures Baby Dior, a licensee of Christian Dior in Paris.

Last year, consumers spent $7.9 billion on infant and toddler apparel, up from $7.1 billion the previous year, according to the NPD Group, which tracks spending in the apparel industry.

The increase reflects the tastes not just of affluent consumers, but of middle income mothers. Women at all income levels have become increasingly style-conscious, thanks to the influence of marketers and the fashion media, said Tracy Mitchell, the editor of Children's Business, an industry monthly.

"Naturally, they want their children to express that," she said. "Even at the discount level, there is a sense that merchants are catering to consumers' increasing fashion awareness. Everyone wants something special for their money."

Often that something is a scaled-down version of what the mother might wear. "If she looks good in capris, she will probably reason that her baby will look just as good in a small-scale version of the same thing," Ms. Empson said.

And buy accordingly, it seems. Baby capris, featured for summer at Target, sold out well in advance of the season. The store is currently stocking tiny denim jackets and drawstring mini skirts, and chambray jumpsuits for boys.

Macy's, which recently expanded its infant and layette department to accommodate an infusion of sportswear by Nautica, Guess, Polo and Tommy Hilfiger, also sells racer-back swimsuits and terry cloth robes scaled to an infant's proportions.

E-commerce sites have pounced on the trend. Babystyle.com, a favorite site, recently weighed in with DKNY onesies in denim blue and thistle, and a snakeskin diaper bag, the latter a recommendation from Cindy Crawford, a Babystyle columnist. Online or off, some of the most-coveted goods carry a whiff of nostalgia. At Best & Company, a new incarnation for children of the classic store and which opened recently in Greenwich, Conn., Susie Hilfiger, a co-owner (she is married to Tommy Hilfiger), sells traditional English garden dresses by Anthea More Ede, alongside hand-knit booties, antique bibs and handpainted garden furniture by the socialite C. Z. Guest.

Saks, too, has tapped its heritage, reintroducing a baby staple of the 1950's and 60's, a white beribboned bassinet filled with an infant's first-year wardrobe. Priced from $150 to over $10,000 (for a basket including a $1,000 christening dress), some 1,000 of the baskets were sold within two weeks of their arrival on the sales floor.

White wicker baskets, seersucker bibs and sailor middies conjure a world so sugary and fey you expect Mary Poppins to come drifting into its midst.

Which is fine with Lillian Wang von Stauffenberg, a publicist for Verdura, the purveyor of fine jewelry, who likes to dress her 9-month-old son, Sebastian, in traditional blazers and Gap pocket T's. Abigail Daley, a Greenwich homemaker, shares Ms. von Stauffenberg's penchant for the conservative baby styles of the postwar years, insisting that her three sons, who range in age from 2 weeks to 3 years, all wear tailored shorts.

"Babies are so fair and sweet -- they belong in old-fashioned clothes," she said.

Consumers' current love affair with nostalgic products and packaging extends to toiletries, as well. One of the most popular infant items at Sephora and at Zitomer Pharmacy, the upscale destination on Madison Avenue, is Bubbe's Special Cream for Special Tushies, sold in a gingham-patterned tube on whose label a Gerber baby look-alike grins.

Such items are a hit with moms who groom their offspring to compete with the British royal family or, better yet, with the celebrity tykes exhibited in the pages of In Style. "There's a heightened level of rivalry when it comes to dressing your baby," observed Jill Sorkin, the buyer of infant and toddler styles at Bergdorf Goodman. "It's who has got the best, who has got the newest, and it's coming not just from the grandparents, as you might expect, but from the parents themselves."

At the Monogram Shop in East Hampton, N.Y., where the Lauder family buys its infant wear, Hadley Smith, a part owner, has seen it all. "If your are tracking down the jacket Aerin Lauder Zinterhoffer's child is wearing," she said huffily, "you are obsessive and you have a problem."

Noting that she had seen more than her share of overstyled, overgroomed infants on Manhattan's streets, Nancy Tuckerman, a co-author of "The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette" (Doubleday, 1999), chided: "It's really a sad commentary when people are dressing their children up to make themselves feel more important. It sounds like the parents are very insecure."

Or simply style-besotted.

There might not be much sense in spending $400 for a cashmere dress likely to be soiled or outgrown after just one wearing. But since when did sense have anything to do with fashion? "You know that if you walk around Manhattan in your Manolo pumps, the heels will get stuck in a grate," Ms. Sorkin of Bergdorf Goodman said. "But you wear them anyway."

The same law applies, for many, to dressing your tot. So what if she drooled on her designer denims? "At least you know," Ms. Sorkin said, "that she looked good while she wore them."


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