Kids in outdoor gear pulling a sled
Namuk is one of several brands expanding the U.S. market for technical kids' apparel. (Photo: Namuk)
Outside Business Journal

The Rise of Expensive Kids’ Gear

A new wave of outdoor brands aimed at youngsters are busting the myth that parents won’t pay for premium goods

Kids in outdoor gear pulling a sled

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In mid-September, Robin Hall spent a week driving around the Rockies visiting 30 specialty retailers to see if they’d pick up Town Hall, the kids-only outdoor apparel brand she co-founded in 2021. The amount of positive reception shocked her.

“Retailers are making room for multiple kids’ brands now,” she said. “They’re still stocking some key, usual-suspect items, but they’re also looking for more variety.”

That’s good news for a startup like Town Hall, the passion project Hall developed after working as director of sustainability for Smartwool. But the marketplace for kids’ technical apparel has never been easy for brands or retailers. Margins are typically poor because children’s gear isn’t much cheaper to produce than adult gear, yet parents have generally been unwilling to spend much on clothing that tykes are likely to outgrow in a matter of months. When it comes to retailers’ seasonal buying decisions, children’s product are typically an afterthought.

A big change may be afoot, though. The past two years have seen a surge in boutique brands bringing premium children’s apparel to market with unusual success.

“We are doubling our sales every year,” said Franz Bittmann of Switzerland-based Namuk, a kids’ brand of sustainable apparel that entered the U.S. market in December 2021 and set new records for price in the sector (its flagship Ultralight Jacket One costs $299).

Other newcomers include the Finnish company Reima (available in the U.S. since 2019), U.S.-based Hootie Hoo, and Picture Organic Clothing, which was founded in France but has seen a recent spike in kids’ apparel sales in the States after many years of sluggish performance. “We’re now seeing 100 percent year-over-year growth in our U.S. market,” said Picture CEO Julien Durant, who credits such retailers as Christy Sports and Backcountry for adding Picture to its lineup of mainstays like Obermeyer and Patagonia.

From the retailer perspective, that’s not an isolated incident. Evo—which has brick-and-mortar locations in Seattle, Portland, and Denver, plus a robust online sales presence—is strategically upping its investment across all categories of kids’ gear, including technical apparel.

“Up until the last two years, we dabbled in kids’ products,” said Kevin Palmer, merchandise manager for Evo. “But we’re seeing a recent rise in parents being willing to pay higher prices and understanding the value of keeping kids happy and giving them a better experience outside.”

All of this anecdotal evidence is supported by the data. According to The NPD Group, a market research firm, kids’ apparel sales in the categories of outdoor specialty and sport specialty e-commerce totaled $304.4 million over the past 12 months, up from $295.1 million in 2019. It’s a small change, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The question on everyone’s minds is whether the trend will last.

A Market Poised for Expansion?

Despite the demand surge, there are still plenty of parents concerned with the price of performance gear. Mike Donohue, co-owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont, said that although he’s seen some growth in kids’ clothing overall, price concerns still come up frequently. “People here are pretty frugal, and not really status focused,” he said.

Another Vermonter, Claire Zhu, who founded the kids’ brand Hootie Hoo after working at Burton and high-fashion New York labels, agrees that prices need to remain accessible for the sector to thrive in the long run. With her debut line hitting the market this winter, she expects to meet her pricing target (above Columbia but below Patagonia and Burton) by selling direct-to-consumer and leveraging her connections in China, where she used to live. With her Chinese factory partners on-site to implement cost-saving measures wherever possible, Zhu can offer a three-layer kids’ shell for $185 and a Primaloft-insulated ski jacket for $165.

For those markets highly concerned with cost, it may be possible to offset the sticker shock with other selling points. A major part of Town Hall’s pitch is its emphasis on sustainability. The brand uses 98 percent recycled materials to make its products, all of which are assembled in a factory certified for ethical and responsible business standards. It’s a value-add shared by others like Reima and Namuk. Reima is on track to use mono-material construction (which improves recyclability) across 20 percent of its line by next year. And Namuk’s fleece jackets use Primaloft Bio, which is biodegradable and doesn’t shed microplastics when washed.

Yes, Patagonia already makes sustainable outdoor apparel for babies and kids, said Namuk’s Bittmann, but there’s room for improvement—and competition.

Sarah Ziffer, Evo’s outerwear buyer for women and kids, agrees. “Sustainability is a huge talking point for those smaller kids’ brands,” she said. “More and more of our consumers are demanding sustainability stories.”

Ziffer added that parents also love the longer lifespans of sustainable kids’ garments, which tend to include higher durability as part of the sustainability pitch. At the end of the day, kids do outgrow clothes quickly, and the possibility of gear being handed down from one child to the next is a big sell for parents. “Feedback from consumers is that they are willing to spend more on gear, knowing they can pass it on because it’s still a great piece,” Ziffer said.

As the outdoor economy continues to grow, these changes are likely to crop up in all kinds of secondary markets where new users are clamoring for quality. After all, it’s hard for anyone—kids or adults—to accept cheap outdoor clothing after they’ve grown accustomed to wearing the good stuff.

Lead Photo: Namuk

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