"Gray Is the New Brown": How to Dress Your Children

There are no cream-colored garments on display at the ENK Children's Club international kids' clothing exhibition when I visit the Javits Convention Center in Hell's Kitchen Tuesday morning, except in those booths whose entire stock is made up of rompers in varying shades of eggshell, ecru, and ivory.

There are playsuits featuring very realistic drawings of tractors, floor length skirts for 8-year-olds covered in shiny, scale-like paillettes, baseball raglans with leering slogans like "Hello, Ladies" splashed across their narrow chests, onesies bearing cartoon prints of untied bow ties (for the baby who is formal yet drunk), and a small white party dress topped with what my notes sensationally describe as "[the] most sequined Peter Pan collar ever."

There's a woman from Chicago selling fabric-covered paper under the brand name "Baby Paper" (tagline: "Because babies love to play with paper!"), and two more from Dallas hawking $24 reversible fuchsia eco-friendly PVC-free faux leather snakeskin print baby bibs. There are hair clips that retail for $3 and very little party dresses that go for several hundred. There are disembodied animal faces peering out from every possible style of shirt.

I have never seen so many things in a place.

ENK has hosted Children's Club, an exhibition of children's clothing, accessories, and gifts, four times annually since 2000. Tuesday marked the final day of the convention's 54th incarnation, held in the Javits Center's massive underground exhibition hall. In theory, exhibitors are showcasing Back-To-School & Fall/Winter 2014 collections; in practice, it is a pan-seasonal orgy of swimsuits, rain boots, and Christmas dresses.

By the time I arrive on Tuesday, most vendors have already spent a full two days tucked into standard 10 x 10 booths (cost to reserve: $4,560) bounded by temporary walls on three sides. More established lines, like Ralph Lauren Childrenswear and Kenneth Cole Reaction, have sprung for airy, sprawling set-ups. They cluster their mannequins not out of spatial necessity, but because clusters of mannequins look tasteful and elegant.

A PR guy for ENK told me later there were "just over 600" brands represented in the 480 total booths. It feels more like ten thousand. I wander up and down the aisles for hours, touching miniature sweaters that are far too expensive to touch and trying to determine which of the 2,000 identical hair ribbon booths is the best (it's this one), until the stiff backs of my shoes feel permanently embedded in my Achilles tendons.

While most of the exhibitors seem to welcome the chance to take a break from their iPhones to breathlessly whisper phrases like "pima cotton!" a surprising number are straight-up rude. "You don't know [upscale children's clothing label]?" asks one incredulous madame, when I visit her in her supersized booth. "I mean...it's all there," she says flapping her hand at a trade magazine open on her table, which happens to feature a short article on the brand.

Others are just cagey: A gray-haired woman wearing a pale green fairy skirt dotted with flowers denies my request to take a photo of the tutus bursting like frozen fireworks from the racks of her booth. A polite woman manning a booth that sells brightly colored [redacted] for children ages [redacted] to [redacted] tells me I cannot quote her on anything.

Over and over again, vendors refer to their products using the feminine pronoun. "She's got a little sparkle," says one woman, of a hair bow. "She was a big winner for us," says another, smiling at a small sneaker.

I ask every single person I talk to to tell me what trends are hot in children's clothing, and what trends are fading away.

"Chevron is a big trend."

"Chevron is popular."

"The circus theme is popular."

"Ruffles are always popular."

"Fall is all about texture."

"A year and a half ago flowers were trending."

"Bows are coming back."

"Older girls are coming back to bows."

"Big bows are coming back, thanks to Zooey Deschanel."

"Big bows are coming back. Like big."

"Chevron is the most popular print."

"Mustaches are perennial."

"Flowers are on the way out."

"Flowers are popular."

"Corals are very popular."

"A popular thing is spring colors for fall. Like coral."

"Quatrefoil is coming on strong."

"That sort of Capezio '80s style is coming back."

"Lots of grays are coming back."

"Brown is totally dead, except for that taupe-y mushroom color."

"Slate gray is big."

"A couple years ago, espresso brown was the new thing. Now it's gray."

"Gray is the new brown."

"No one is asking for brown anymore."

"People like the brown."

"People love bling."

"Less is more."

"We were going to fade out lilac and yellow, but then stores started asking for them."

"People want more clean, sharp lines. Angular. Like chevron."

"Polka dots are on the way out."

"Polka dots are always popular."

"Stripes!"

"We're doing more straight silhouettes on girls' dresses."

"Sneakers can be wild and crazy."

"Kids' clothes can't be too dark."

"Black is the most popular."

"We use a lot of Liberty of London prints."

"We have some Liberty of London-inspired things for spring."

"We stopped doing Liberty of London, because they're everywhere."

"Aztec and Chevron are still going."

"Neons and stripes are stronger than [polka] dots."

"People love muted colors."

"The turq[uoise] is a big hit."

"Acid yellow is big."

"Fringe is not as big."

"We basically do adult pieces, cut down."

"Kids should look like kids."

"Food and candy are hot right now."

"Whites, ivories, and pinks are always popular."

"[Children's clothing is] getting uglier and uglier."

"Everything is getting skinnier for boys."

"Drop waist dresses are coming in for girls."

"The East Coast goes for clean and preppy."

"'80s prep is coming back."

"LA is a little more rocker glam."

"People know about milk proteins."

"Fleshy colors are very big. All champagnes, golds, blushy pinks."

"2014: A lot of sparkle and lace."

"Neutrals."

"A lot of kids have pale complexions."

"Printed canvas is huge."

"Kelly green is out."

"Chevrons are OVER."

In one corner of the vast windowless exhibition hall, a handful of child tastemakers, the eldest of whom looks barely into her double digits, play the traditional bored-kid game of lying on one's back and rolling listlessly from side to side. One thing that is not hot for Back to School 2014: ever having been at school in the first place.