The lesson the fashion world is teaching parents during the back-to-school shopping season is: If you can't beat them, join them.
Children are going to wear their stripes with their dots and their florals with their plaids and they really don't care if mom says they don't match.
That doesn't mean they have to look like clowns, however, especially this year with many manufacturers offering coordinated mismatched looks.
Coordinated mismatched looks? Think a purple, two-tone dot turtleneck with a multicolored zigzag poncho and purple-and-aqua plaid skirt for girls, or red-white-and-blue plaid flannel shirt over a blue-and-white striped rugby shirt for boys.
"Parents should get on board and let kids express themselves," says Pilar Guzman, editor-in-chief of Cookie magazine, "but at the same time you want them to look put together and not be embarrassed. I'm happy to see this looser sensibility right now. Letting them express themselves is the prevailing parenting wisdom right now and it's nice to see it echoed in fashion."
Andrea Harmon, director of color and concept for The Children's Place, says that prints and patterns can even help some children, especially little ones who don't have a huge vocabulary, put their emotions into something visual. They can choose something vibrant when they're feeling energetic, something darker when they're tired, for example.
"Prints are bright and cheerful and I say, `The more the merrier,'" says Old Navy's vice president of design and trend Jose Abellar. "It's like there are no rules and that's what kids love and parents would do it, too, if they could."
Being the father of a 6-year-old girl and seeing how she wears things that she truly likes instead of whatever is ripped from the runway has helped adjust his own eye, says Abellar. "You have tartan plaid and a bold rugby — I didn't always think of them together, but now I think it's a great combination."
He does caution, though, that it takes a very strong personality to wear several bold prints and patterns in bold colors. It can be done — and done well — but it's easier to use one neutral-colored garment, perhaps jeans or khaki pants, as a grounding point.
But there's also the trick to use a small multicolored pattern such as a check or a windowpane, which, from far away can almost look like a solid.
The key to a busy outfit is the color combination, says Harmon. The Children's Place is offering two color stories; the warm is reds, oranges and pinks and the cool is blues, greens and grays. Pick one of those palettes and stick with it throughout the outfit.
"The clothes are coordinated from a color perspective and that's a really important distinction," she says. "They're not 100 percent matchy-matchy — that would be interesting enough for kids — but they're coordinated."
Scale of the prints is another way to ramp up or tone down an outfit.
While Harmon says there are no rules, there is a certain taste level when it comes to scale. "If you have a large-scale stripe, you probably don't want to see it paired with something the same scale. It's just too busy."
Her suggestion would be the large stripe with a smaller dot or floral for girls, or a sports motif for boys.
Harmon says she can't help but smile when she sees a child in a burst of patterns and prints. The florals, stripes, dots, geometrics, plaids and color-blocking that she expects to be popular this fall are many of the same trends anticipated for adults. The difference, she says, is that the children's prints are less sophisticated — just the way they should be.
"They'll have time for subtlety later," she says. "Right now, they want a point of distinction."
"The mixing of patterns has been going on in adult fashion for a long time. For them, it's the tweeds with the plaid ... and the mixing of texture," adds Cookie's Guzman.
People have gotten used to seeing things that don't "match" in the traditional sense, which plays right into kids' sensibility, she says.
"Kids like to be crazy, but when our parents were raising kids they couldn't allow it," she says. "The previous generation of today's grandparents wore Peter Pan collars and kids were meant to be seen not heard. Our generation was allowed to break a few rules and kids now are all about expression."
There seems consensus among fashion insiders that there are no "rules" when it comes to mixing patterns and prints, yet while you can wear that pink-and-orange floral with that red-and-orange stripe, the green stripe clearly is a bad idea. Be guided by good taste, not rules, says Andrea Harmon, director of color and concept at The Children's Place, which has based its back-to-school collection on an explosion of prints — all in gumball colors. Some advice:
- Work in color schemes — perhaps blues and greens, or oranges and yellows — advises Pilar Guzman, editor in chief for Cookie magazine. "It's the way we style stuff for photo shoots. You mix crazy things but, if you get it in the same general color scheme, it's a little easier to take."
- The other option is to choose only one patterned item and mix it with pieces in solid colors that wouldn't normally seem complementary. For example, she says, a pink floral-pattern skirt is OK with a solid blue T-shirt.
- Allow one large-scale pattern per outfit, Harmon says. A small dot or floral, or a thin stripe can almost be treated like a solid, though.
- Don't just mix patterns, mix styles, too, says Jose Abellar, vice president of design and trend at Old Navy. Try an argyle sweater with rugged denim or a letterman sweater with a graphic T under it.
- Your daughter will get more use out of a crazy pattern skirt with a lot of colors in it than one with just one or two colors, says Guzman, because there will be so many solid-colored tops it can be paired with.
- Choose patterned socks or even a patterned backpack if you want to be stylish but not draw too much attention to yourself.
- For girls, printed leggings could be a compromise for cool mornings, says Harmon. "It's much easier to girls into leggings than tights. It's a finishing touch."