Some kids might look like they are getting dressed in the dark: crazy pattern combinations, clashing colors, and mismatched socks and shoes.
Perhaps, though, they are making enlightened fashion choices — choices that represent their personalities and budding senses of style, and encourage fun and even a wink to convention.
Eventually, children will start to notice trends, rules and peer pressure, but until then, experts say, let them wear their plaid on plaid, shocking pink with neon orange, and argyle with polka-dots. And different colored socks, of course.
They'll look great doing it, if you don't hold them back or challenge their confidence. (This is not giving license to youngsters for an inappropriate wardrobe, just a more creative one.)
"Kids are interested in high fashion, and we have to fit that with our motto, which is 'Long Live Fun,'" says Sarah Hough, vice president of design for 77 Kids, a label under the American Eagle umbrella. "Our assortment plays into that. We design not an eclectic mess, but we suggest ways kids can be more individual."
Be the sporty girl who'll wear a glittery top, floral denim jeans and canvas high-top sneakers, Hough says. "Our girl can pull off mixing so many patterns and stripes and pieces in a way that we might not be able to do as adults, and the main reason is, she doesn't care what we think."
"Everything looks good on children," agrees Cathy Carrington-Birch, Mini Boden's buying and merchandising director, who picks corduroy shorts paired with tights as a trend for girls this back-to-school season, and brushed tartan cargo pants for boys.
"As a result, they're confident enough to try combinations that adults would deem too daring. Once they reach a certain age, they have a very clear idea of what they like," Carrington-Birch says.
For now-9-year-old Ryland Doll, that day came early — back in preschool — and he's carved out his own signature look ever since. His mother, Mollie, describes a toddler who always seemed interested in his clothes, favoring "preppy" when he was very young. That soon changed to a look that beats its own drum.
"In elementary school, he never wanted socks to match — that would drive me to distraction — but they can't ever be the same color, and now it's shoelaces," says Doll, of Raleigh, N.C.
It's not that Ryland doesn't care — that better describes his 6-year-old brother, Beckton, another one who wears those mismatched socks and shoes. Beckton's real specialty is plaid-on-plaid.
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Ryland, says his mom, is "deliberate about being mishmosh, but the little one does it because he just doesn't care."
Doll has grown to love the surf-meet-punk-sort-of-clean-cut look that comes out the door each morning on the boys.
"My mom would march me back to my room to change, but I think there are bigger fights to be had, and I'm proud of them that they are doing their own thing," she says.
She laughs: It also has made doing the laundry easier. "I used to match all socks so they were paired. Now I just throw them in the drawer."
Moms often warm up to the crazy combinations once their eyes adjust, observes Lori Twomey, chief merchant of the membership flash-sale website Zulily. How can they resist their little prince or princess who is loving styles that are bright, fun and whimsical?
"They'll mix fabrics together and colors that you say, 'They don't go,' but then you see it and all of a sudden it works really well," she says.
More good news for parents paying for all this, according to Twomey, is that children have sharp opinions and deep loyalties. While an adult might buy something and then leave it in the closet for months (or years) never sure if it was worth purchasing, kids often want to wear their new items day after day and, when they've worn it out, they want a very similar thing in the size up.
On the flip side, if they don't like it on Day 1, you're probably never getting them in it.
Little Miss Matched, the 7-year-old brand that was among the first to package and market such fashion independence, encourages kids to find their voice in an arena that's safe and still respectful. "It's about allowing kids to break the rules — saying you can wear argyle and polka-dot socks — but it's all still mother-approved," says spokeswoman Kerry Brown.
And, she adds, her brand does put a lot of thought into the seemingly crazy combinations.
It's the same story at Mini Boden, which offers some "ready-mixed" combos, such as a flowered jersey dress with striped arms, and tops that mix dots and stripes, which are popular for boys as well as older girls "who develop an allergy to floral prints," says Carrington-Birch.
Meanwhile, Crocs, after seeing so many children purposely wearing two shoes of different colors, launched its Electro collection, which features three colors on each shoe. That's six different colors for those who keep up their mixed-pair ways, notes Christy Saito, the company's senior director of product.
Hough, the 77 Kids designer, gets a vicarious thrill from the greater freedom that children have to dress creatively. But she's OK with not being able to pull off the multi-pattern look herself; you grow into an adult wardrobe, she says.
"I'm hearing adults are liking our back-to-school line, but I don't know if I'd like to see all the adults wearing it," Hough says.
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