The Secret World of Petite Couture

Cupcakes, cashmere, and catfights, oh my! A look inside the children's trunk-show circuit, where playing dress-up is serious business.

Come on, Olympia, just slip it on for Mommy," pled a six-foot-tall Southampton-to-Manhattan mother chasing her four-year-old daughter, who was not at all interested in modeling a sage-green tweed reefer coat. (It was, in the child's defense, one of the hottest days in August.) They were but one pair in a room full of mother-daughter duos who braved Southampton traffic to guarantee they would get the velvet smock dress of the season. Papo d'Anjo, a children's clothing line based in Lisbon, Portugal, hosted this "beach" sale at a lovely cedar-shingle home near town for its devoted Stateside clientele. The crowd featured many of the same faces seen at Papo's twice-yearly events at New York's Mark hotel.

The trunk show—that private shopping experience developed by luxury retailers to offer clients preseason ordering opportunities, exclusive showings, and direct contact with the designer—has come to the world of children's fashion. These by-invitation-only sales are held in hotel suites and private homes. Invitations to the hotel events tend to be easier to come by (in most cases all you have to do is get your name on the mailing list). But the home events are much more exclusive (in other words, it depends on who your friends are). The schedule follows the same timeline as the grown-up designer world: Spring clothes are available at fall and winter sales; winter wools and velvets are sold during the dog days of summer.

Attending children's trunk shows has become something of a ritual for mothers looking for international kids' clothing not sold in the States and for pieces by burgeoning designers not yet available anywhere. From The Mark hotel in Manhattan—the unofficial mother lode of children's society fashion—to The Berkeley in London, the Peninsula Beverly Hills, and the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown to private homes throughout the country, busy mothers welcome the luxury of one-stop shopping for their kids while chatting and catching up with friends. The result is part Tupperware party, part cutthroat sample sale for little people.

Typically, one room at the party buzzes with discounted items from the current season; the serious thinking takes place over the racks in a second room, where orders for next season are paid for in full. (Delivery time is usually six months.) The atmosphere is generally, well, let's say electric. It can be hard for some to quell their competitive natures. "There's no pushing," says one mother after her first sale at The Mark, "but there are some sharp elbows. I had the last remaining girl's size six linen shift in my hands. Then it was gone." Nikki Kule, the owner of Kule (a tailored, intentionally nonchildish line that is popular on this circuit), says it's not unusual for clients to ask for the exact same order as someone they know who's just left the room. "Some want to own exactly the same things because they like the other mother's style," Kule says. "Some want the exact opposite."

For designers and clothing companies, trunk shows are a highly targeted sales machine that attracts an ideal customer base. "It is rare that anyone leaves without buying anything," says Blandy Coty, trunk show coordinator for Papo d'Anjo. "If a woman makes the effort to attend, she's there for the specific reason of ordering next season's wardrobe." Of the 400 or so women who typically show up at the Papo New York sales (held each September and again in March), 400 orders are written. Prices range from $150 for a cotton dress to several hundred for more formal attire. The normal take at a private home show is about $10,000; vendors report that sales run upwards of $180,000 at a New York or Los Angeles hotel. The three or four most exclusive lines do up to 70 shows each season. You do the math.

While such numbers are attracting newcomers, trunk-show pioneers like Kule and Papo d'Anjo continue to draw a faithful following. Papo remains the most timelessly classic label, with perennials like gray flannel jumpers and gingham taffeta or Black Watch tartan party dresses. Kule, however, likes to keep on-trend. Lightly embroidered flair skirts are matched with cashmere cardigans; flannel camel shirtdresses shown with fur-trimmed chocolate-brown velvet vests. Papo and Kule's dominance is certainly aided by their social and celebrity connections. Last spring Vogue writer Marina Rust hosted a Papo sale in her Upper East Side apartment (Rust is married to Ian Connor, brother of Papo founder Catherine Montiero de Barros). In London, ex-pat-moms-about-town like Vanity Fair fashion editor Elizabeth Saltzman Walker and former Bergdorf Goodman fashion director Lillian von Stauffenberg invited friends to the first Kule trunk show at The Berkeley hotel. "Gwyneth Paltrow came," Kule reports.

The year-old Clayton Steele Designs is a decidedly more low-key operation, with items sold at Upper East Side prep school fairs and private homes. Begun by Steele, a former corporate lawyer, it imports from South America and its cuts and colors have the charm of a long-gone century. Delicate embroideries are a signature: pink flowers on a gray flannel jumper, multicolored curlicues on a yellow corduroy dress.

Rachel Riley, who founded the increasingly adored London-based namesake label, encourages clients to go the couture route, choosing fabric and dress details as they wish. After several successful New York trunk shows, Riley decided to open a store on Madison Avenue this winter, but she will continue her private sales throughout the country. The flavor of the Pears & Bears collection, started by Kayce Reagan Hughes, a mother of seven, is a tad nostalgic. These clothes look like hand-me-downs from the slightly eccentric but coolest family in town. One of the most coveted items at last season's shows was a flair-skirted polka-dot shirtdress that could have walked straight off the set of I Love Lucy. Mercedes Sanchez-Elia brings the flair of her native Argentina to Manhattan's Surrey Hotel twice a year with her Frances Wood line of colorful corduroy pants and jumpers and violet and magenta hooded coats.

Each season brings a new list of names to the BlackBerrys of in-the-know mothers. Just the other day, a printed invitation illustrated with Ludwig Bemelman's whimsical drawings of the French schoolgirl Madeline arrived: Magazine editor turned children's clothing designer Lucy Sykes was making her entrée into the world of the VIP trunk show with tea at The Carlyle hotel. The pitch went straight for the target audience. It read: "Calling all fashionistas. Aged three months to ten years."

For full trunk-show schedules, consult these designer's Web sites. Papo d'Anjo, 888-660-6111; www.papodanjo.com. Kule, 212-813-9182; www.kuleshop.com. Clayton Steele, 917-620-9287; www.tinticodesigns.com. Rachel Riley, 212-534-7477; www.rachelriley.com. Pears & Bears, 615-298-1130; www.pearsandbears.com. Frances Wood, 917-376-5365; www.frances-wood.com. Lucy Sykes, 646-221-6082; www.lucysykesbaby.com.