What's the appropriate age for a girl to begin wearing thong underwear?" a perplexed father in Utah inquired. As a panelist on an NPR call-in show and an "expert" on young people's customs and tastes, I wasn't sure exactly how to respond. I stalled, asking first the caller his daughter's age, then replied with something about how the 16-year-old deserves respectful latitude on issues like underwear, diaries, clothing, and crushes. Maybe I was a little rough on the guy.
The reality is that thong underwear—along with low-rise jeans, pointy high-heel fur-lined boots, vinyl minis, studded motorcycle jackets, and sequined anything—is now widely available for children as soon as they outgrow diapers. Step into any designer-clothing boutique with newly added kids' lines to witness the sartorial MiniMe phenomenon. The crisp, matching mother-daughter dotted-Swiss dresses of my youth seem a world away.
But are they? The image of my two young sons dressed identically in Barbour jackets, gray flannel button-fly trousers, leather Sperry Top-Sider boat shoes, finely woven wool socks, orange Patagonia baseball caps, and navy blazers bearing their school insignia is probably more important to me and my husband than it should be. Our five- and six-year-old sons don't wear characters, not even the rather elegant elephant king Babar. They don't wear black. They don't wear logos (aside from Polo horses, Fred Perry garlands, and Lacoste crocodiles). They don't wear polyester. Their sneakers don't feature lights, bells, or superheroes. (Velcro, however, we happily embrace.) And since the boys spend some 12 hours daily in their nightclothes, their Egyptian-cotton pajamas with hand-embroidered monograms, Austrian boiled-wool slippers with velvet trim, and Italian-cashmere robes seem perfectly justified. At least to us.
How do we enforce our slightly dogmatic vision of the well-dressed child? Through careful, almost military-style editing of our sons' closets and by purchasing the perfect pieces in multiple sizes to fit them for the next four (sometimes more) years, preparing far in advance for almost any event and situation. There are also, admittedly, our own personal fixations: My northern Italian husband is inspired by memories of his own custom-made childhood wardrobe to re-create the same elegance for his sons. (This Italian clothing thing carries nostalgic and nationalistic undertones too crazy and complex for words.) And this American mother, while neither prudish nor reactionary, hates the sexed-up, dressed-down direction of today's American youth fashion.
Our mission as parents is more than superficial: In attiring our children in a way we deem to be elegant and appropriate, we are honoring and respecting them. Though we make all the choices, we strive to let their personalities shine. They will have entire decades to rebel, so let's give them something clear (and nice) to stage their uprisings against, to return to after the obligatory years of ripped jeans and untied shoelaces. But, alas, my husband and I are willing to put far more time and energy into this search for simplicity than is standard.
Since the way of the world today seems to be to dress one's child in trendy and revealing getups à la Britney Spears, the challenge of finding simple, appropriate clothing is daunting. My mission for DEPARTURES has been to track down little-known sources of tasteful children's lines that have yet to become multinational branding machines. My method was to interrogate dozens of like-minded, well-traveled, far-flung mothers for their secrets. The result? Some rich and inspired European shops (and a few favorites a bit closer to home).
London offers the finest in traditional children's clothing. That you don't need to leave Knightsbridge to find them is quite convenient and charming. Shops like Young England (47 Elizabeth St.; 44-20/7259-9003; www.youngengland.com), Rachel Riley (14 Pont St.; 44-20/7935-7007; www.rachelriley.com), and Patricia Wigan (19 Walton St.; 44-20/7823-7080) exist within steps of one another, all claiming dedicated local and international clientele for their rompers, smock dresses, pageboy outfits, and cashmere sweater coats.
For a radically different experience, head around the corner to Caramel Baby & Child (291 Brompton Rd.; 44-20/7589-7001), a beautifully edited little shop that has quickly climbed the ranks to become the chic international mommy's favorite. What you find here—be they baby oils, postcards, chocolates, shearling baby carriers—is always unpredictable and of excellent quality. All can be traced back to the personal touch of store owner Eva Karayiannis, mother of two girls and a former lawyer. The clothes she selects are never mini adult versions; they are age appropriate and made with a child's lifestyle in mind, combining hipness with comfort and practicality. There's an indescribable coolness to the fit, fabric, and cut that isn't trendy but is classic and modern. The collection's production is overseen by Simone Faby, who has worked at both Hermès and Chanel, ensuring a finely tuned delicacy of design.
Locals may turn up their noses at Harrods (87-135 Brompton Rd.; 44-20/7730-1234; www.harrods.com) when it comes to children's products, but as an American visitor, I love finding English-made Gloverall toggle coats, sturdy and classic private-school uniform pieces, wool socks, Shetland sweaters (shockingly hard to find in the United States), and Barbour jackets, beginning with a version for three-year-olds—all under one roof.
We do not wish to slight fine French offerings like Le BonMarché's kids' apparel, Petit Bateau's cozy cottons, Jacadi's cheerful, dependable play clothes, Agnès B. Enfant's striped fleece onesies and signature snap-up fleece sweaters, or the exquisite, highly exported Bonpoint party dresses, double-breasted coats, and gray flannel trousers. But Bois de Rose (30 Rue Dauphine; 33-1/40-46-04-24; limited styles available via the store's U.S. Web site, www.emilylacey.com) has its own special magic.
Smack in the center of the Sixth Arrondissement, the shop feels like a treasure-filled and well-used dollhouse. The proprietress, Madame Darennes, an accountant by training, began her retail life in Deauville selling handmade items from Madagascar (her French military family was once stationed there). When she came to Paris in the seventies, she pared down her wares to just children's clothes. Among locals, she is known for creating the most elegant procession of robes de cortège, or ceremonial gowns ($50-$100), for the young mignons participating in traditional French wedding services. Her matching mom-and-daughter nightdresses and Madagascar-linen smock dresses are enough for this mother of males to consider the idea of daughter-producing centrifugal sperm spinning. The sweetest surprise? Doll-size smock dresses that match your little girl's. While this is clearly a female domain, there are boys' things, too, like the adorable knee-length "short anglais."
For a trendier, more bohemian-chic alternative—think brightly printed caftan blouses and gypsy skirts—drop by Papillon (1 Rue St.-Simon; 33-1/42-22-33-60).
Who dresses children better than the Italians? And where do all Italian fashion quests lead? To Milan, of course, the best place to wander around and stumble upon gorgeous little independent clothing stores for children. While this is the city to blame for designer-baby mania (it's the birthplace of children's lines by Marni, Prada, and Versace, to name a few), you'd be hard-pressed to find a Milanese child dressed in Mommy's favorite labels. In Italy, babies are babies—they are actually dressed in children's clothing for much longer than our American youngsters. Those logo-branded studded and sequined goods? They're for export.
Milanese parents have their favorites. Meroni Sì (10 Via Madonnina, off Piazza del Carmine; 39-02/805-7406) produces its own line of baby cashmere sweaters and crib linens. Five to Nine (42 Corso Garibaldi; 39-02/805-2284) creates delightful cotton Brooks Brothers-style children's pajamas in various colors and stripes and packages them in a cute matching fabric envelope.
Of all the local shops, Baby Motta (2 Via Soresina Giovanni Battista; 39-02/498-6394) does classic Milanese children's clothes best. It gets crazy here, so make sure you come early to avoid crowds. (The environment reminds me of the feeding-frenzy atmosphere at the Via della Spiga Prada store during fashion week back in the late nineties, when the dollar was strong and all editors wanted was Miuccia's Lucite-wedge heel.) Baby Motta is where entire wardrobes are built, providing one-stop shopping for the most tasteful Milanese children or their lucky American cugini and friends. I admit to serious envy of the Baby Motta wardrobe that our three-year-old friend Marta wore while visiting us in the Hamptons this summer: delicate Peter Pan cotton blouses, colorful cotton-knit sweaters and matching capri pants, and sweet sun- and party dresses, one after another.
The store takes its name from the small Piazza Motta, an upscale residential neighborhood off the Corso Magenta near Corso Vercelli. There is a lovely teahouse just across the street where shoppers can stop and refuel.
Sottoilmelo ("Under the Apple Tree") is my favorite children's clothing shop on earth (30 Piazzotto Montevecchio; 39-0424/228-791). It is located on the ground floor of a 16th-century palazzo in the beautiful walled city of Bassano del Grappa, one hour north of Venice. A favorite in the Veneto, the store is filled with classics from Il Gufo, Burberry, Fred Perry, Pappa & Ciccia, and Mariella Ferrari. But what makes Sottoilmelo truly worth the detour are its unimaginably soft, made-to-order cashmere sweaters. ("Do we want pale blue with camel trim? Or camel with pale blue trim?" I asked my husband. Impossible to decide—so we bought both.) Thanks to the store's custom workroom, sailor suits and dresses, as well as the most plush pajamas, can be made in your child's size and specifications. This is the rare shop catering equally to boys and girls. Make a day of it: Enjoy a mezzo aperitif at the nearby bar on the city's fabled covered bridge over the Brenta river, have lunch around the corner at Il Cardellino, then visit the ancient town of Asolo or return to Venice. Trust me, if there are children in your life, it's worth the trip.
If you recall the manner in which The Sound of Music's Baron von Trapp dressed his brood pre-Maria days, you'll have a sense of what's in store at Tostmann-Trachten (3A Schottengasse; 43-1/5335-3310; www.tostmann.at): a singular Von Trappish look, high quality, and a clear sense of local pride and craftsmanship.
Don't let the national costume thing turn you off. Lose the apron from over the dirndl and you get a lovely classic pinafore and blouse cleverly designed to be let out for a full two years of growth. The quality is sublime. Choose your own prints and it takes three to four weeks (sometimes less) from order to completion.
The lederhosen, though not Tostmann-made, are classics and the very definition of child-friendly clothing: indestructible, nonitchy, and nonbinding. Local moms regularly toss their kids' lederhosen into the washing machine, but I firmly believe that they get better with less cleaning and lots of wear. Perhaps lederhosen won't translate into every aspect of your child's life, but it's a fun item for both boys and girls to own. Tostmann's own linen shorts for boys are a cute dress-up option for guys six and younger. Also on the boys' side of things are handsome tattersall shirts with horn buttons.
Looking at the very traditional, somewhat fussy clothing at Tostmann, I wonder how Vienna managed to also produce one of my favorite contemporary designers, Helmut Lang, who is known for an almost militant minimalism. While I'd guess that most traditional Tostmann ensembles might generate bad associations for him (he left Vienna at the age of 18 and has lived in New York and Paris ever since), I see in its aesthetic his same dedication to clean lines, quality, and a near-obsessive attention to detail.
Flamenco dresses and toreador costumes can be found all around town, but you'd need to visit a local tailor for the proper look, fit, and fabrics. I personally hate the ubiquitous, gaudily decorated vacation-trophy T-shirt, but Piel de Toro (near the Paseo del Prado) does a rather cute job with bulls.
However, to witness the most stylish Madrileño children, venture into La Oca Loca, which in Spanish means "the silly goose" (61 Calle de Lagasca; 34-9/435-6468; www.laocaloca.com). Founded 20 years ago, this is the real thing, an institution that captures its clients from birth. Its faldón de bautizo, or baptismal gowns ($245-$1,220), are as beautiful and delicate as any you'll find in the world. These spectacular confections are crafted from layers of feather-light organza in a shade resembling the burnt sugar on a perfect crème brûlée. The satin-ribbon trim is a shimmering ivory. Matching bonnets are so delicate they make you want to cry. In my book, godparents clever enough to present a La Oca Loca christening gown should earn at least a decade reprieve on future gifts. Not a bad start. (Since fit is rarely an issue with christening gowns, log on to the shop's user-friendly Web site to view the selection—orders can be placed by phone.)
Throughout La Oca Loca's collection for infants to 14-year-olds, magic comes in a bold mix of fabrics and colors. The pink and blue shades of the baby clothes are candy-wrapper vibrant. The party look for boys includes fitted brown velvet breeches and a toile de Jouy shirt. For girls, it's a toile dress with a layer of cream organza over the skirt. The store's jaunty, bright yellow goose-and-gander logo conveys a sense of humor that carries through to the clothes. It's true, these outfits will inevitably be worn only a handful of times, but they are also destined for a future surrounded by tissue paper, before being bequeathed to a lucky cousin, sibling, or progeny to enjoy all over again.
When you're in this chic shopping neighborhood, stop by Papo d'Anjo (the name of a sugary Portuguese dessert, which translates to "the tummy of an angel") for simple, elegant classics (75 Calle Velázquez; 34-91/577-2060; www.papodanjo.com). Despite its name and use of European materials, there's U.S. ingenuity behind this brand, which also has two stores in Portugal's Lisbon and Porto. American and former CNN whiz Catherine Connor launched it after marrying a Portuguese man, having four children, then twiddling her thumbs in Lisbon trying to find nice simple things for her brood to wear. Papo d'Anjo offers a consistent style (rare in this market), so that your three-month-old and seven-year-old will definitely look like members of the same family.
Although the Europeans really do have the children's market mastered, there are national standbys that I love almost as much. Polo Ralph Lauren (www.polo.com) is a sure thing for Americans and Europeans—its herringbone jackets, gray flannel trousers, oxford cloth shirts, and cable sweaters are timeless favorites. Brooks Brothers (www.brooksbrothers.com), now owned by an Italian concern, has begun a promising makeover of its boys' department. Gant (www.gant.com), Lacoste (www.lacoste.com), and Fred Perry (www.fredperry.com), all quite developed in the boys' arena in Europe, have started making retail inroads in the States. And let's not forget Gap Kids (www.gapkids.com) for flat-front, button-fly khakis, or J.C. Penney (www.jcpenney.com) for the all-important child-size Levi's.