The girl stands tall and erect as the deep purple velvet-and-satin gown slides over her body. Several women reach over her head and up from the floor to zip, tug and measure. A seamstress whips out straight pins, and Betty Walters, the young lady's personal shopper from Neiman Marcus, steps back to get a better view.
"Ooh," she croons. "You look beautiful. Now what shoes are you going to wear? Patent leather? Maybe a little heel?"
Walters's client, Dakota Bradley, shrugs slightly. She could tell Walters in an instant which Pokemon character she prefers. But whether to wear patent with purple? Flats or a half-inch heel? She hasn't a clue. After all, she is only 8 years old.
Nothing is too good for kids like Dakota these days. Americans, flush with money, are finding numerous ways to spend it on their young heirs, from personal shoppers to private schools, programmable telescopes to custom-painted bedroom armoires. The question, for many, is not what can they afford but whether they're giving their kids too much. The answer, even in their eyes, is often yes. But they do it anyway.
"Parents who have a lot of money are doting more than ever on their children," says Jeffrey P. Klinefelter, senior retail analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, an investment firm. Terri Bartlett, spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, concurs: "People don't have a problem splurging."
Wretched excess? Not to retailers such as Mario Anvari, owner of two Bellini stores selling customized children's furniture, bedding and accessories. Anvari says sales have gone up more than 20 percent in each of the last two years. His clients (when you drop $1,650 for a baby armoire, you're a client, not a customer) travel to his Rockville and Baltimore stores from as far away as Norfolk and Pittsburgh, he says. They include lobbyists, computer engineers and athletes who "don't care about the price. They just want to know when they can get it."
Those who clothe these same children, such as Sherry Kavyani of Les Enfants in Bethesda, report similar sales growth. Kavyani, who recently sold five $400 cashmere coats by designer Sonia Rykiel "right out of the box" in two days, says her business has doubled in the last couple of years.
One of the lines she offers is Simonetta, a collection of fine fabrics hand-embroidered and designed in Italy. Simonetta importer Peter Patinella says the line is selling well not only in the Northeast but also in "places that normally would be considered desert for us, like South Carolina."
Let's not forget the toys for these babes: Drivable, battery-powered Jaguar XK8s for $500 ("We sell every one we get," says a Neiman Marcus saleswoman at Tysons II); Madame Alexander dolls dressed in designer Dana Buchman clothes at $450; Steiff stuffed bears for $625.
Many of the affluent prefer toys and other items that teach. Seven-year-old Olivia Janney, who lives in Fredericksburg, has had her own Gateway computer since she was 5, courtesy of her grandparents. The Neiman Marcus at Tysons II sold out of its $120 talking globe in three days in mid-December. A $400, 60mm telescope, which allows a child to key in his or her favorite star and wait for the 'scope to find it, is selling well at Zany Brainy, a 103-store chain founded in 1991 to provide well-made educational toys.
Zany Brainy stores posted sales of $131 million for the first nine months of 1999, a 50 percent increase over the same period last year, according to company President Tom Vellios. "We've definitely seen a shift in spending, especially this year," Vellios says, "and it's consistent across the country."
Fathers as well as mothers take part in the spending, in their own way, according to these retailers. One recent Saturday, a dad settled into a chair at Les Enfants with his briefcase and laptop and worked for four hours while his daughter tried on clothes, according to Kavyani. Mom was on hand, but it was Dad's final approval she sought on item after item.
But there was nothing casual about the way divorce lawyer Brian Pearlstein looked for bedroom furniture for his first child. He and his wife, Mia, also an attorney, traveled the Beltway and beyond looking in "about a dozen places" before settling on Bellini. "I may be an A-type personality, but I wanted to be fully informed. It was a lot of fun," says Pearlstein, who returned to Bellini recently after their second child was born.
Such spending raises the bar for everyone. Should we be surprised that, according to U.S. Bancorp, lower-income purchasers are buying more for their children? Or that SuperKids, a Baltimore-based mid-priced chain, cannot keep its $200 limited-edition Eddie Bauer stroller in stock? Or that there's a warehouse-type store in Rockville called, of all things, Buy Buy Baby?
"Being frugal is not what everyone talks about when you go out," sighs Kim Osborne, a McLean mother of two young children. "It's what did you buy, how much did you pay, and do they have any left?"
Osborne was working as a special-events coordinator for Marymount College when she quit to stay home and take care of first one child and now two. Her husband, Wade, who recently joined the Quest communications company, makes enough money that she can do that, but they still live on a budget, as he reminds her when she wants to buy one more toy for 3-year-old Cole.
"It's my biggest fear, that I'm spending too much," Osborne says. "Sometimes I pray, 'Lord, help me not want so much.' "
William Damon, a child psychologist at Stanford University, suggests that some parents are motivated by guilt. "They are trying to use money for time," he says. A child may want more than anything else to be a baseball pitcher, he says, "but it takes time to build up his pitching arm. It takes an afternoon--in fact, several afternoons." So Mom and Dad go for a $750 pitching mound or a pitching cage instead.
Some retailers play right into this, like the saleswoman at the Lapin infants' and children's wear store at Tysons I who tells customers, "If your child is wearing Moschino, you're taking good care of her."
Or maybe you're taking good care of yourself. For there's another reason that parents spend a lot on their kids, Damon says: It gives them pleasure, and unlike many of their parents, they have the income to satisfy their desires.
Cassandra Bradley Fitzpatrick, 48-year-old mother of Dakota and son Mackie, also 8, was picking cotton and chopping firewood in east Texas when she was the age her children are now. She hated it and vowed to get out and get out big, which she did when she and her ex-husband Ralph Bradley struck oil in Pennsylvania in the late 1980s and she became rich almost overnight. But by 1989, she was feeling she "had no purpose. I was tired of traveling and didn't want to go to one more cocktail party."
"I need a family," she decided, and two years later she adopted Mackie at birth. Dakota arrived from El Salvador eight months later.
Twenty years after peeking into the windows of the original Neiman Marcus on her lunch breaks, sighing over baubles she couldn't afford, she was calling her personal shopper at Neiman's asking for a tuxedo for Mackie, then 2. "I loved showing off the children," she says.
"We were having a big Christmas party, and I thought even Mackie should be in black tie." The tuxedo wouldn't mean a thing to Mackie, but to Mackie's mom it would signal that she had really arrived. When her shopper, Barbara Barnett, found a company in California that would actually make one to her specifications, well, that was the icing on the cake.
Originality is important to these spenders, retailers say. At Bellini, for $599 to several thousand dollars, expectant parents can order a linen package--consisting of a crib comforter, crib bumpers, one crib sheet and a crib dust ruffle--sewn from any of hundreds of fabrics they choose.
The fact that an infant is not supposed to sleep with a comforter and will inevitably soil the sheet is not a problem, says co-owner Ellen Anvari. You simply remove the comforter at bedtime and use regular crib sheets. The designer sheet "is just for company," she says. For additional money, parents can order clocks, armoires, coat racks and other items hand-painted to match the linens.
At Les Enfants, Kavyani says she has clients who, before they buy a dress for their daughter, will ask, "Who else has bought this?" For that reason, she carries only one piece in each size in her collections. She also employs a local seamstress for major make-overs as well as minor alterations. "A client might say, 'I love this dress, but I'd like it in peach with a jacket.' I say, 'No problem.' "
Affluent parents buy designer fashions less for the label than for the desire "to be different," says Tracy Mitchell, editor of Children's Business, a retailers magazine. "If they bought at the Gap, their kids would look like everyone else's."
Of course, their kids probably want to look like everyone else. But remember, this buying isn't about the kids, Kavyani says. "Ninety-nine percent of it is for the parents."
And these parents want the same quality product for their children that they buy for themselves. In days gone by, parents settled for clothes and toys they knew would wear out or break. Spending lots of money on individual items made no sense because kids grow fast and play rough. Today's parents frequently ignore that rationale, retailers say. For preteen girls, Kavyani sells suits by David Charles, which advertises that the clothes are manufactured from the same fabric that designer Prada uses. Her Magil pants for boys made of fresco di lana, a "fresh wool" found in pricey Italian men's suits, move especially quickly.
"I have mothers who walk in, look at an outfit and say, 'Oh, my Armani looks like that,' " says Kavyani. Importer Patinella puts it another way: "Kids can manage with the Gap. But when you buy high-quality items, you have the satisfaction of dressing them impeccably. What's the difference spending $200 on a child's dress for one or two occasions or buying a $200,000 Ferrari that you take out once a year?"
Some parents see the $200 dress as a way of introducing their children to the differences between fine and tacky. "My son is very particular about the feel of certain fabrics," says Jacqueline London as she browses through Les Enfants.
She herself is "the kind of person who prefers a few very good quality clothes to a lot of mediocre clothing. I want my children to learn that there are some things that are worth spending money on and some things that are not. There is mediocre food and great food, mediocre music and great music. If you're not in a position to have these things, life is fine. It's just enriched if you do have them."
"I feel like I'm losing my child to television, and I want to pass on to them something more eternal," says Elizabeth Ballantine, a lawyer also shopping at Les Enfants.
On this Saturday morning, Ballantine has agreed to buy her 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, a $360 pale blue wool coat by Magil. "We're going to London. It will look great in London," Ballantine says. But she is tempted to purchase a long traditional navy coat for $389 as well, partly because "I had one like that, and I wore it to everything. It lasted forever."
High-end shopping also buys expertise. Brian Pearlstein, overwhelmed when searching at Nordstrom for shoes for Noah, now 3, welcomes help from the salesclerk, who knows something about fit and quality. In a matter of months, Noah will outgrow anything Pearlstein buys, and Pearlstein knows it. But he doesn't want to take a chance on pinching Noah's piggies even for a few weeks, even if it means shelling out $50. "We're fortunate that we can have someone there fit the shoes, rather than listen to some high school kid [at another store] saying, 'Well, this looks good,' " Pearlstein says.
Big bucks also buy the peace of mind that comes with paying someone to take over the task of shopping with an unpredictable 2-year-old or an uninterested 12-year-old. Neiman's Betty Walters keeps a timer in her jacket in case toddlers start screaming as she works with them in their bedrooms or, God forbid, in a Neiman Marcus dressing room. "Let's set it for 15 minutes," she'll say, "and see if we can get everything done before it goes off." Sherry Kavyani takes pride in coaxing distrustful preteens into buying something other than jeans and T-shirts, as their moms observe discreetly from a corner.
These young customers also may receive little lectures on poise and grace that delight the parents' ears. "Dakota, when you walk in this dress, you'll have to play like a princess and hold your dress up, like this," Walters advises her young charge one week after the fitting when she returns with finished clothes and black patent leather shoes. Cassandra Fitzpatrick nods appreciatively. "It's like the old adage, 'To be good, you've got to look good,' " she says.
Pearlstein mowed lawns, made pizza and washed dishes through high school, college and law school. He's still paying off his law school debt. He doesn't want his children to have to work as hard as he did. But how will his habits of the present, so affluent by comparison, affect them? He and Fitzpatrick both wonder about that.
They are right to wonder, according to scholars and clergy who are paid to think about such things. "For our generation, getting our first used bike was a pretty big thrill. Now kids get 20-speed mountain bikes," Damon says. "It's very bizarre and not so great."
"It can ruin a lot of pleasure kids might find later in life," he says. "After the 37th gift, they become jaded, and nothing is good enough, ever."
Once kids are on their own, they may be quite happy living without all the stuff they grew up with and the expectations that were frequently attached.
Or they may not be. They may harbor desires for things as grown-ups that they cannot afford.
"I'm thinking of friends who have a grown child," says Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda. "They spent a lot on their child, and now she is married and living on a modest income. She expects fine things even though she can't afford them, and this is causing problems in her marriage."
Maltzman says he drives into Potomac sometimes and just stares at the "castles" being built there. "How anyone can grow up in that environment and not be jaded? . . . That may be the thing I worry about most in this area, the amount of wealth our children see and that they're used to."
But wealth by itself won't damage a child, says the Rev. George Caldwell, assistant to the rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Alexandria. What is important are the parents' attitudes about it. They must teach that giving is more important than having, which can be done in a variety of ways, from serving food at a community dinner to simple sharing at the dinner table.
A seminary professor of his once wrote, "The sin of gluttony is not in the dark, rich chocolate cake in front of you but in the impulse to have it all for yourself."
"The kid who gets an expensive gift, that may be an act of grace if he takes it and shares it with someone else," he says.
Robert Billingham, professor of human development and human studies at Indiana University, has been teaching for more than 20 years. "One of the things I have noticed is that it's not how much money a student has that's the problem," he says.
"Sure, some students from wealthy families have already started thinking their life is being taken care of, that they don't have to worry about their own skills. But others are the most sensitive, wonderful, tender and caring people you can imagine. Those parents seem to have been able to balance affording things with the obligation to volunteer and to acknowledge that other people aren't as fortunate as they."
Damon admits that there is a place for the expensive gift bestowed with forethought. "You really want to get to know your kid and give things that have personal meaning to them," he says. Parents should take a developmental approach, he says, asking what their child is ready for and really interested in, whether he or she has earned something special and whether there is a good reason to purchase the gift at this time.
"You don't need to buy him a great set of clubs when he's first learning to play golf," Damon says, "but if he's playing for the golf team, working hard at it and the clubs will help him shave a couple of points off his game . . ."
One important thing to look for afterward, he adds, is gratitude. "What you really want is that 'Wow' reaction."
That's exactly the reaction Cassandra Fitzpatrick was looking for when she and her family celebrated Christmas two days early, on Dec. 23. One week before, she and her husband, John, had picked out a golden retriever puppy for Dakota and Mackie. The family already has two dogs, but the kids had been asking for a puppy for months.
On the night of the 23rd, there was a knock at their front door, and who should be standing there to greet the kids but a man with a long white beard, wearing a red suit and bearing a retriever. He was, for a half-hour, anyway, their very own Santa Claus.
CAPTION: Neiman Marcus's Betty Walters fits Dakota Bradley as her mother, Cassandra Bradley Fitzpatrick, holds a matching coat at their Alexandria home.
CAPTION: Mario Anvari, who sells $1,650 armoires at his Bellini furniture store for children, chats with shoppers Cheryl and Stephen Taylor of Rockville.
CAPTION: Betty Walters helps Dakota Bradley try on a coat. "To be good, you've got to look good," says mom Cassandra Bradley Fitzpatrick, left.
CAPTION: Some customers "don't care about the price," says furniture store owner Mario Anvari. "They just want to know when they can get it."