What's Too Sexy in the Juniors' Market?

Footwear marketers struggle to be both exciting and age-appropriate for teens.

with contributions from Kristen Henning
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Cotton and rubber striped ballet flats.

Photo By Thomas Iannaccone

Easy access to and mass fascination with runway styles have also had an impact on the juniors’ market, ushering in more adult fashion trends, experts said.

“Brands like Jeffrey Campbell and Steve Madden take liberal inspiration from the runway,” said Christina Mannatt, an analyst at trend forecasting firm Stylesight. “As those designer shoes get higher and more sexy, the effect trickles down to the [juniors’ market].”

Indeed, the line between the juniors’ and women’s categories has become increasingly blurred as brands are forced to cater to both teenagers and their moms.

“Steve’s initial vision, when the company launched in 1990, was to give 13- to 17-year-old girls a hip way to express their individuality,” said Rob Schmertz, brand director at Steve Madden. “We launched the ‘Big Heads’ campaign, which broke away from conventional supermodel fashion images. The message was ‘You don’t have to be [a sexy supermodel] to look cool.’”

As the company looks to revive the “Big Heads” campaign in the coming seasons, it faces a changed marketplace, one where the brand’s consumers want to look older, and that’s a tricky balancing act.

“There’s a fine line between being sexy and cool, and being cheesy,” Schmertz said.

Still, sources said that in a market saturated with sleaze, there is still demand for demure footwear for teens.

“A lot of our customers have high expectations for their daughters and are not going to let them get away with wearing [overly provocative styles],” said Laurel Tate, co-owner of the Two Sole Sisters boutique in Boulder, Colo. “The daughter will say ‘I have to have these,’ and the mother will say ‘They really need to be an inch shorter.’”

Patti Cohen, marketing director of Nina brands, said eschewing innuendo is crucial to gaining her customers’ trust.

“When you try to engage the girls in a provocative way, you alienate more than you titillate. You might get her attention for a minute, but we want to be with her for the long term,” she said. “Our girl lives in Nebraska and Missouri, the real American heartland. Her sensibilities are not going to be compromised.”

At Vida Brands, Mullaney and his team strive to maintain a clear distinction between the raciness of BabyPhat and the more whimsical look of Pastry.

“We purposely monitor Pastry so it doesn’t get controversial or vulgar. Our tag line is ‘Sweet, chic and unique.’ It doesn’t mean she can’t be flirty, but [overt sexiness] is just not part of the brand’s DNA.”

And even though the sexpot look is at critical mass, a return to sweeter styles could be on the horizon — at some point.

“There are media personalities, like [MTV’s] Alexa Chung, who are known for tomboy looks,” said Stylesight’s Mannatt. “She wears kitten heels and flats, which Marc Jacobs recently sent down the runway. Sensible styles will definitely trickle down again.”

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