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Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

Playing Dress-Up Has Become Serious Business

Playing Dress-Up Has Become Serious Business By SHELLY GARCIA Senior Reporter It’s late in the afternoon at the Glendale Galleria and inside Club Libby Lu the air is thick with glitter. A gaggle of nine-year-old girls sits around tables in sequins and fluffy lavender boas, while their hair is curled, nails are painted and lips are glossed. The store, which opened a few weeks ago, is the first Club Libby Lu unit to roll out in California. A second L.A. unit in Northridge Fashion Center is due to open this fall, part of a plan to expand to 60 stores this year and another 40 stores next year. The growth spurt will be funded by Club Libby Lu’s new parent, Saks Inc., which bought the four-year-old chain last year. But what’s really feeding it is a sea change in the way kids are raised today. “It’s very appealing to this age group because parents are nurturing kids at a younger age to be more participatory in decisions that affect their lives,” said Greg Livingston, executive vice president at The WonderGroup, a Cincinnati-based youth and family marketing company. “So kids are growing up making choices.” While many retailers sell clothing and fashion accessories for young girls, Club Libby Lu, which targets girls age five to 13, sells the experience of creating your own style in what retailers call an interactive format. Girls can choose an outfit, get a makeover and transform themselves into rock stars, starlets or princesses. They can custom mix their own bath potions and body lotions in a self serve laboratory and they can experiment with home d & #233;cor and fashion accessories all designed to make a personal statement even if pink is almost always the color of choice. Playing dress up? Experimenting with makeup? If it sounds like an elaborate sleep-over, it is. The difference is that the times, the media, and the current crop of parents have raised the stakes on the age-old slumber party tradition. “This more grown-up behavior has moved down in age, so that now even young children are marketed to,” said Richard MacDonald, a psychotherapist and professor of family studies at California State University Northridge who is also the father of six girls. “Girls have always had the girlie stuff, except now the parents seem to be more hooked into it and worried about providing things like this for their children.” Filling a void Mary Drolet opened the first Club Libby Lu, named after her childhood imaginary friend, in Schaumburg, Ill. four years ago when she realized that marketers had largely been overlooking pre-teens, a market that is about 29 million strong. She built the company to an 11-unit chain with about $5 million in sales before selling it to Saks last year for $12 million in cash. The acquisition paved the way for an aggressive expansion from the Midwest into both coasts. Club Libby Lu chose the Glendale Galleria for its first store in California because of the demographics of the area the mall serves, heavily weighted toward families “and a ton of girls,” Drolet said. “Four or five years ago there was a lot of conversation about the teenage market and the growth of population in that market,” said Drolet. “What’s happened in the last two years is everybody seems to be recognizing the ‘tween’ market as a different target market than the teenage market. When we’re creating products, we don’t look to emulating the teenager. What’s important to them is different.” So-called ‘tweens’ are said to account for anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion in sales a year (the difference depends on how the age range is defined) and in recent years a few specialty chains have cropped up Limited Too, Build-A-Bear Workshop and Mattel Inc.-owned American Girl, among them targeting the age group exclusively. But for businesses, the real lure behind this market lies in its influence on the whole family. This generation of kids doesn’t just choose the jeans they wear. They play an active part in choosing everything from the van the family drives to the vacations it takes, influencing what studies estimate is about $260 billion in purchasing decisions each year and giving new meaning to the phrase, girls rule. “Today’s parenting styles are very participatory,” said Livingston. “They ask their kids where they want to go on vacation, where they want to shop for back-to-school. It’s not we’re having meat loaf, be home at five.” Center of things Many of the parents of these ‘tweens’ were the latchkey kids of Generation X. Unlike baby boomers, many of whom were absentee parents climbing the career ladder while their kids fended for themselves, Gen Xer’s have made their children the center of their universe. “They want very happy, caring families,” said Livingston. “They’re realizing their kids aren’t young forever, and they want everybody to have as good a time as can be played out.” To some, this latest evolution of girl power is too much too soon. “Parents have lost a lot of control because kids are marketed to as a whole separate group of people,” said MacDonald. “They are surrounded by these images, and it’s led us to a place where parents are less sure of what they should do.” Weaned on MTV and the Internet, the current generation is better informed than any that has come before it, and parents, no matter their intentions, are hard pressed to control what their kids see and learn. “I’ll see parents debating with a kid, and these are not dumb parents, but they get sucked into believing that the child should be able to determine these things,” said MacDonald. “At some point there should be a line in the sand.” But to the parents shelling out anywhere from $20 to $30 for a makeover at Club Libby Lu, that line in the sand will come only too soon. Most girls today give up their Barbie dolls by age eight, about the same time that their moms stop being their best friends and far earlier than past generations. “What we promote as a company is capturing that magical point in their lives where they can be anything,” said Drolet, who is now buyer for the stores. “And giving them the experience where they can feel like a pampered princess.” A pre-teen spends most of her time in her room with her friends, but her universe is hardly confined to those four walls. If Club Libby Lu looks like a scene out of “Legally Blonde” on steroids, it is because the Internet and television has given these kids a range of exposure no generation has had before. The makeover The nine-year-olds that came to Club Libby Lu for a birthday party on a recent afternoon chose to dress up in sequined belly shirts and low slung bell bottoms, their hair done up in flowing curls sprayed with glitter and accented with a microphone head set (think Hilary Duff on the red carpet meets Britney Spears in concert). The clothes are returned at the end of the party, but the cost, $20 a head, included the hair extensions and a goody bag each girl got to fill herself, by selecting five items from an assortment of bracelets and other jewelry and novelties. For the girls, the big draw was the dressing up and the makeover. “I like how I got to dress up and stuff and do my hair,” said Kelly J., the birthday girl. “I like how you get the hair piece with it.” For the parents, the look, however some may blanche at its sex kitten style, is still make believe, smacking of the same grown-up dreams and fantasies girls have had for centuries. And in a time when childhood has become ever more fleeting, they say, that sense of make believe is not to be discouraged. Each new danger, every nightmare headline shortens the time allotted for childhood just a little more, and these moms say they simply want to keep their children kids for as long as they can in a world that seems to spin faster at every turn. “I think kids grow up too fast today, said Lynn J., whose daughter was celebrating her birthday at Club Libby Lu, “so it’s nice that they can embrace the girliness.”

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