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The Dean of Tween

Ilene Oren professes her passion for the market segment that makes and breaks rules as it tries on trends that will define cool in school. …

Ilene Oren professes her passion for the market segment that makes and breaks rules as it tries on trends that will define cool in school.

When it comes to young fashion, Ilene Oren is head of the class. She began her career at Glenora Juniors, but when she had children, she decided to call it quits from her daily commute to the city in order to have a more flexible schedule as a road rep for children’s brands. Oren’s sister-in-law hooked her up with a couple labels and she set up shop, she recalls, “with a telephone book, a bridge table and a bridge chair.” Today, perched on the fifteenth floor of a 39th Street high-rise, she’s aswim in frayed shorts, eye-popping denim and asymmetrical tees, and her entry wall is a paparazzi-style who’s who of young fashionistas from the Beltway to Beverly Hills dressed in her “it” brands, 75 percent of which are from California, she estimates.

Her philosophy is like an Escher painting: Tween is best done top down rather than bottom up, she says, as it’s informed by the adult fashion world and is not simply a sleeker version of toddler wear. However, she has sized-up her tweens and is venturing into the young contemporary market, something doable because her younger lines already took their finer points from big sister. In her 19 years in the business, she’s seen the tween market grow from the upper end of children’s to a department all its own, complete with separate sections, stores and buyers. “When I started, buyers would purchase two’s across, from size 2 to size 14,” she laughs. It’s a concept that’s hard to believe when you take a look at the distinct personal styles of Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, fashion plates for the younger set: They certainly wouldn’t be caught in supersized versions of little sister’s ensembles. “Tween is much more sophisticated now. Tweens study each other, and celebrities, to see what they are wearing and how they are wearing it. They educate their moms as to what goes together,” Oren says. “If you look at any 7 to 14-year department, you’ll see the tween girl leading and the mom following behind.” Some finer points for tween dressing, according to Oren: “Layering and elongating is important. Crucial to the tween wardrobe are frayed shorts, hi-top sneakers, colored jeans, crocheted T-shirts, jeggings, zip hoodies, ponchos and tanks under everything.” Her instinctual prowess over tween is the byproduct of constant studying, talking to buyers and retailers, communicating with her manufacturers, going to fabric marts and trade shows, shopping the market and key contemporary stores, and reading fashion trend forecasts. She works hard to teach and collaborate with her retailers and buyers so the styles are perfectly displayed to make maximum retail impact.

The affably at-ease Oren only stumbles when queried about her own personal style, but without skipping a beat, her right hand, Nicole Kung, manager of the showroom’s IT and administrative departments, steps in with “eloquent, hip and trendy,” adding, “She throws in a bit of bohemian, funk and rock and roll influences, pairing leggings with cool tops and skinny jeans with military jackets.” Whereas the tween market is one replete with exclamation points, Oren sees an ellipsis. “I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface in tween. The market hasn’t seen anything yet . . .”

When did the tween market change?
It happened in the mid ’90s—maybe 1996. I was on the road and I had lines for babies, as well as hats and legging sets, but my passion was always for juniors and tweens. As I went to stores, I watched the kids, and I could see they had strong personalities and strong opinions about their clothing. I thought that there was a need for cool and trendy fashion in this market and that’s want I wanted to focus on. I dropped the baby lines and kept the tween lines. A lot of professionals in the business gave me the advice that I had to be a full showroom, carrying the full range of toddler, 4 to 6x and accessories, but for me it didn’t feel right. I decided I wanted to specialize in what I knew best and was most comfortable with. I wanted the retailer to feel that this showroom would offer them everything they would want for their tween department, and I needed to make sure we were really good at it.

What’s unique about the tween consumer?
These days, kids are starting to decide what they want to wear at 3 years old. I have heard it over and over. So by the time they are tweens, they are well into their style and know what they want. They are total fashionistas. They are opinionated and not afraid to say what they like. Many times my buyers will bring their tween daughters with them to appointments and shows when they do not have school. I know when I see the daughter in tow that we will have our work cut out for us. If she doesn’t like what mom is buying, she’ll let her know. But likewise, she’s quick to say, “I can’t believe you’re not buying that—it’s so cool. You need that in your store.”

This is a very instant gratification-driven demographic. Have you seen buying patterns change over the years?
The market is not just a show anymore. It’s the first day of the show to three months later. With many buyers preferring to shop in the showroom so they have ample time, there are constant reorders and lots of phone activity. It’s a never-ending process. There is very little downtime, which is a wonderful thing.

Also, flow of goods has changed quite a bit. Whereas our big shipping periods continue to be January and February, July and August, and October and November, buyers are now proving to be interested in bringing in new product during non-traditional times. The customer is reacting to newness, and when she knows that a store will always have something new and exciting, she will want to shop more often. We are looking to be more in tune with the shipping periods of the young contemporary market. If you flow the merchandise and keep it fresh, they will come.

I noticed you had a new website for buyers. What’s been the response?
Our website is Nicole’s baby. She’s been telling me to do this for years. It has been live for about a month. We shot all 3,000 garments from our showroom, and buyers log in and can shop as they would on urbanoutfitters.com or any other site. To keep it current, we’re constantly updating inventory. These days, buyers are buying smaller amounts more often. I’m actually so happy about that. Nobody wants to be stuck with inventory, as inventory will suck up profits. They react to what is working and can buy accordingly.

The buyers are wonderful: After they get a shipment, they’ll call within a week if they had a good sell-through to reorder, and they won’t necessarily reorder exactly the same thing. Let’s say a red jean sold—they might reorder a little more of the red, but then they might try another color, too. If something’s completely gone, they can choose another item that’s similar to what they wanted to pick up, that also brings in the “newness” and keeps it fresh. We also have buyers who, because of cutbacks, can only get to New York one time a year. But they know our lines—the fit and quality—and are comfortable placing orders online. It’s a whole new world now: The consumer is going online, looking at blogs and sites. My buyer needs to be able to do the same. I will do what I can to help the retailers. Without them, I don’t exist.

Has anything surprised you in this market?
Not really. I would have been surprised if the tween market wasn’t where it is today.

Does your tween customer ever surprise you?
A couple shows ago, a young girl was sitting at my booth and she was fabulous, wearing a ballerina skirt and hi-top sneakers, a great hat and jacket. You knew she wasn’t your average 10 year old. I went over to her and said hello and asked, “Do you have a store?” She said no and I said, “I noticed you were taking notes, and by the way, you look wonderful.” She thanked me and then told me she was a blogger and she was going to blog about one of my lines, which she loved and was wearing. She asked for my card in case she needed more information. It turns out she was also an actress in the Broadway show The Lion King. I thought, “Wow, now I’ve seen it all.”

For the tween market, what sort of trends do you see coming down the pipeline for Fall 2012?
I’ll tell you what I’m seeing, but it’s only part of the pie. There will continue to be color on the bottom. Some of the drabness is over—we’ll have deep colors and deep tones instead of just black, charcoal and camel. We’ll also have more fabrications on the bottom. Jeans and denim will have color, as well as coated fabrics, snake fabrics, velvets and cords. This market is huge and we’re going to take full advantage of jeans in many different fabrics. We’ve tried flares, but skinny wins.

On top, there will be color blocking, lots of crochet and lace trims, different stripings and hints of femininity incorporated. There will be a lot of sweatering and knits and tons of cardigans and jackets—many with different trims. The ’70s influence is everywhere. I think it will be a big influence in silhouettes. The uneven hems will be around, and the high-lows that have survived for a while will be updated and reinvented. There’s also a lot of mixed media in fashion for Fall 2012. We will mix our knits with crepe, leather, sweater, prints, crochet, stripes and a broad variety of fabrics. But as I said, this is just the beginning. We’ll know more in February, as we work early but don’t stop until the shows to capture every possible trend. It’s crazy, but the designers tell me that the best pieces come out at the end. Whatever arrives the night before the show is usually among the best pieces.

Over the last year, your showroom has expanded into the young contemporary market. Why was that?
Like with tween, I saw another hole in the market. The tween customer is so fashion-forward, and she’s not going back. She’s just getting more so and will be in need of new trends and more looks. As it was, she was moving from my tween brands to a $200 jean, a $180 sweater and a $98 T-shirt. On the other hand, she’s shopping at mass stores like Forever 21 and H&M. My tweens are definitely buying from these places, and the price points are such that my specialty stores can’t compete. When you can’t compete, you just need to do it in a different way and bring something new to the plate. Buyers were telling us that they had clients who wanted to keep shopping with them, but their daughters are growing out of the sizing. To meet the market, they wanted to bring in young contemporary, but had a problem: They couldn’t go from $50 jeans to $150 jeans as they sized up—they needed something in between. So we decided to capture this market. We were doing it anyway, as we had a few brands that started in contemporary and worked down to tween, and I knew I could reach out to them for young contemporary. These days, I am focused on the young contemporary market, and Amy [Ackerman, tween division manager] handles the day-to-day tween business.

Is capturing this new market why you moved from 131 W. 33rd, near many of the children’s brands, to 260 W. 39th, closer to many of the contemporary market brands?
Yes. The young contemporary buyer is right here. The ones that already knew us bought from us on 33rd, but there’s a whole world that didn’t know us. We work with buyers that might have tween stores that carry contemporary; contemporary stores that might have a tween department; department stores; and multi-chain stores that are young contemporary to contemporary. There are so many stores where contemporary is the right fit, and it works for many different types of young adult to adult stores. We’ve hit on the right design, right trend, right time and right price. Some of our brands in young contemporary are Lovemarks, Tractor Jeans, T2Love, and Butterflies and Zebras. We’re keeping it very trim and tight for now but certainly look forward to an expansion with more of our existing lines venturing into this category. We’re already in 150 specialty stores with our young contemporary collections.

Any parting thoughts?
I am so grateful for the stores that we have and I think together we weathered the storm. And if there’s anything that’s recession-proof, it’s the tween girl. We can always count on her to want something new, and hopefully, we will have it.

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