Staff Reporter

Valeria Ahamad may only be 7 years old, but she has become pretty specific about the clothes she likes and doesn't like.

"They don't want frou-frou dresses, and if you try to put them on, they say no," said Valeria's mother Mariam, who was shopping last week for back-to-school clothes at Santa Monica Place. "She's starting to pick out her clothes, and I think she has good taste. Those Capri pants and knit dresses she likes are cute."

Apparel makers, many of them L.A.-based, are getting the message. Some of the hottest fashions for girls these days, whether it's flood pants, mini-skirts or mesh blouses, are being marketed to girls as young as 4 years of age.

"There's a huge shift in children's fashion, as kids are reflecting more sophisticated tastes," said Mitchell Quaranta, president of City of Industry-based Swat Fame, which manufactures the popular "Speechless" line. "They want to look older and they want to wear what their older siblings are wearing. There's a need out there for fashion, and not just clothes catering to children."

Of course, some experts feel that such marketing can damage a child's self-esteem.

"The whole point of advertising is to make people feel insufficient themselves, so that they need a brand to show the rest of the world that they're worth something," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist. "To take it one step further, and make children feel that way, is pure greed."

But Quaranta counters that his business is simply responding to the changing needs of the youth culture.

"We've never had a problem targeting kids and creating awareness of our product. We're a kid's company," he said. "Look at OshKosh they've targeted kids for 75 years, so we have no problem with that."

To position its line as a cool brand in youngsters' minds, Swat Fame is only selling Speechless through mainstream department stores like Macy's, Robinson's-May and Lord & Taylor. Plans also include redesigning the Speechless logo and beefing up advertising to target a younger audience.

Speechless items retail for $20 to $40 apiece, and are projected to generate $25 million in sales this year, up from $15 million in 1998.

Industry watchers say the strategy makes sense, with children growing more precocious at an ever-younger age, due to media and technological influences.

"What Swat Fame is saying to youngsters is, 'You're important,' and that's an age category where most of the world doesn't say, 'Hey there, 9-year-old, you're important to me,' " said Sandy Potter, co-owner of Directives West, a retail consulting firm.

And the pre-teen set dubbed Generation O, for optimistic and opportunistic is displaying considerable buying power.

"This is a group that's extremely brand conscious and a lot more independent than in the past," said Rita Gingras, fashion editor for Manhattan Beach-based Mxg Media, publisher of MoxieGirl. "A lot of it has to do with girl power. They feel like they can do anything they want. They're not classified in any category and can make decisions in terms of purchases, and their parents listen."

Apparel for 4- to 13-year-old girls brought in $9.6 billion in sales last year, a 24 percent increase from 1991, according to the American Apparel Manufacturer's Association.

"This has become a hot sector for us, and Speechless is an excellent resource for us," said Todd Stein, a buyer of 4- to 16-year-old girls' sportswear for Macy's West. "Their vests and their pants are popular and offer great value for parents."

Fashions that sport a Speechless label include olive and charcoal "urban dresses" with nylon patch pockets and hoods, and "scants," which are long knit pants with mini-skirts over them. Some of the styles are adaptations of Pucci-themed funky dresses and mesh blouses splattered with bold images of women's faces inspired by the Spanish designer Custo.

"It takes an educated manufacturer to translate these lines correctly, and Swat Fame has always demonstrated a consistency in reading the market correctly," says Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association.

Barbara Cambilargiu, sportswear merchandiser for Speechless, said such modifications can include color or hemline changes.

"You'll see a lot of juniors wearing black, which is not a huge color for kids, so we'll make items in navy or khaki, which is more fun and not so serious," she said. "We'll also switch fabrics. Juniors may dry clean more, (but with kids' styles) we'll use more polys (polyester) that moms can throw into the washing machine."

Other local companies that are capitalizing on the little-girls category include Wanted Clothing, Kathy of California and even Quiksilver, a surfwear company in Huntington Beach that launched its Teenie Wahine line about two years ago and is seeing quick growth.

"We were getting pressure from retailers to come up with a young brand to fill this void in the marketplace, and the reception to it is remarkable," said Adrienne Ernst, a divisional vice president of merchandising for Quicksilver.

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