Tween Queen

Exclusively focused on sizes 7 to 14, New York-based sales rep Ilene Oren is the ultimate career specialist for the kid who’s between little and big.

Tractr Jeans

Tractr Jeans

More than 30 years ago, Ilene Oren was working in the junior market and recognized an issue in childrenswear. Lines were sized from 2 to 14, but she thought to herself, “What 10 year old wants to dress like her 4 year old sister?” Oren went directly to some of the manufacturers with whom she had relationships and asked them to design for 7 to 14; her direction was specific—she wanted them to “take down” from Young Contemporary rather than “take up” from little girl. Oren was one of the first—if not the first—to recognize the void in the styles for this age range and serve as a catalyst in the creation of the category.

Oren runs her eponymous sales rep business, Ilene Oren & Company, and has a staff of five professionals who are as equally passionate and committed to the selling of all things tween. The company carries denim, sportwear, special occasion, separates, athleisure, graphic tees, and novel accessories. In 2012, Oren was named “The Dean of Tween” in this magazine and frankly, she still is. Please enjoy this conversation with my colleague, friend and industry veteran.

Earnshaw’s: What’s your background and how exactly did you get into the tween market?

Ilene Oren: My tween background actually started with my first job in the Junior market, which we now call the Young Contemporary market. I was privileged to work for a talented designer and outstanding merchandiser, Jean Wallrapp, who took me under her wing and taught me everything from merchandising to sales. This formative experience provided a critical foundation in my career. Jean taught me so much, including how to work with accounts such as The Limited, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Ann Taylor, and Bloomingdales. My experience under Jean gave me the confidence I needed to go out on my own. More than 30 years later, I am still going strong!

Earnshaw’s: What initially inspired you to get into this segment?

Oren: I saw a need that wasn’t being filled. There was the ‘children’s

market’ and the junior market, but there was nothing in between. I know the 7-14 girl didn’t want to dress like her little sister, but lines were sized 2-14. It didn’t seem right. So I started asking vendors to design lines just for that size range. When I started as a rep, the word tween really exist. It evolved and truly took on a life of its own and soon, all the stores were asking for ‘tween lines.’

Earnshaw’s: What were some challenges you encountered while trying to sell the tween category when it was new?

Oren: Stores were hesitant because they were afraid it was too fast or sexy for their customer. They have since learned tween is taking the look down from Young Contemporary and making sure it is age-appropriate and mother-approved—you can do both! It is also a category that continues to grow unlike other segments of the market, and that is all good news.

Suzette Collection

Suzette Collection

Earnshaw’s: To what do you attribute your staying power?

Oren:  I believe staying true to who you are, what you are good at and hard work will always pay off. Loving what you do will get you through the rough times. Once you find your niche, stick with it. There might be highs and lows, but you will still be known for ‘that something’ that you do better than anyone else.

I believe we have assembled the best group of tween lines that a store could want—cool, trendy and happening! We pride ourselves on customer service. We strive to make sure that the stores feel valued and appreciated. They look to us for direction and advice and we take that role very seriously.

Earnshaw’s: How many accounts do you work with?

Oren: Not all are active at one time–but we have approximately 2,000 stores on the books.

Earnshaw’s: Who are your team members and what are their roles?

Oren: Naomi Orenstein is our Senior Account Executive who works with majors and specialty stores in our Tween Division, she heads up the Dallas Markets, is our social media wiz, and handles the forecasting and merchandising of many of our lines. Judy Casado is our Tween Account Executive working with the specialty stores throughout the country and internationally, she also heads up the Atlanta showroom during markets, and is a master at coordinating all of our shows.

Becca Claassen heads our Young Contemporary Division, working with all of our specialty stores throughout the country, running all shows, handling media blasts, and cementing great relationships with her buyers. Meghan O’Clare is our graphic designer and website and office manager, taking care of just about everything that doesn’t fall under ‘salesperson. Finally, Anna Donnelly will be joining us as Junior Account Executive, assisting Naomi and Judy.

Earnshaw’s:  What economic trends have you seen in this segment?

Oren: Our segment continues to be driven by our shoppers, the 7-14 girls. Our shopper knows what she wants to wear and will not settle for less. She is very savvy and keeps us on our toes. With social media playing such a large role, she knows exactly what she wants and where to find it. I don’t think we have felt the same economic impact as other segments, though our customer is not immune from macro changes and our price point may remain competitive.

Earnshaw’s: What’s the oldest brand you still represent?

Oren: I am proud to have represented Tractr for 26 years. It was one of my first lines. The owner of Tractr, Howard Mensch, took a chance on me, and I guess it worked out! The brand continues to move with the times. Diane Kuczer, co-owner and head designer, along with Man Chung has kept us on trend, and we are always ahead of the curve. Tractr also has a Women’s Contemporary line and we take many styles down from that line. The fabrics are beautiful, and the fit has always been consistent.

Tractr is known for denim, but it offers many other fabrics as well as outerwear, which was was very successful this year. The line has been so successful for so long. The mothers who originally wore Tractr when they were tweens are now buying it for their tween daughters. That’s longevity!

Earnshaw’s:  What does a brand need to stay relevant and sell well in this market?

Oren: Keep up with the trends and take your cues from the contemporary market. Keep evolving but stay in your lane. Showcase your line in the right stores with the customers you want to reach. Stay in touch with your stores—you can get invaluable feedback from your stores because they are with your customers every day. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on something new that you believe in—it could be the next big thing. Take care of your stores. Make sure you are someone they can count on. They have entrusted you with their business, and they are counting on you to deliver. Build relationships! We have been selling many of the same stores for years and have made so many dear friends that we cherish—I call them our ‘lifelines.’

 Cozii Baby

Cozii Baby

Earnshaw’s:  What are the specific challenges of being a sales rep for tweens?

Oren: I think I stuck with tweens because I find it the most fun, but it’s definitely the most challenging. With other size ranges, the mom makes the decision. The tween girl knows what she wants, and she’s the one who says yay or nay. She is your best audience or your worst critic. It’s

important to know what is selling in the stores. We are also challenged to get all the information we have out to all of our customers. Prior to Covid, the stores would come into New York City on a regular basis. There is no substitute for in-person presentations. But since Covid, we are more dependent on Zoom, Facetimes, and phone appointments. The stores are so busy with their customers that it’s hard for them to put aside a ton of time for that. Stores might be more dependent on shows and out-of-town markets to shop lines, but there is only so much they can cover in a few days. We look forward to the day when we can get back to in-person showroom appointments.

Earnshaw’s: What’s the best professional and personal advice you’ve received?

Oren: Since I’ve been at this for so long, I have many pieces of advice! Work hard, stay focused and believe in yourself. Don’t worry so much about what others think and don’t take anything personally—the idea that ‘It’s not personal—It’s business.’ What I call ‘pity parties,’ when things haven’t gone well and you’re upset, shouldn’t last more than five minutes–move on and figure it out! I saw this saying in a journal once and I loved the message: ‘Your smile is your logo. Your personality is your business card And the way you make others feel is your trademark.’

I hope we have made our family of manufacturers and retailers feel as special as they are. We love them all and are so grateful for their support over the years.

Earnshaw’s: What are you looking forward to for the I Love Playtime/Kid’s Hub show?

Oren: Starting a new season, it’s always exciting to showcase new lines. We look forward to seeing and catching up with all of our stores in person. We get invaluable feedback on what they are looking for. We love the shows!

Earnshaw’s: What do you love most about the tween market?

Oren: We work with amazing manufacturers and merchandise product that will be showcased in the best stores throughout the country. When we see a tween girl wearing one of our labels, we love it. We carry the most sought-after tween brands in the market, and we take great pride in knowing how hard we all worked to get there.


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