Clothing fit for a tween: Stylish apparel, without being too grown up

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VANCOUVER - Elena Grant knows her young daughter has the smarts and talent to be more than a princess, diva, heartbreaker or flirt when she grows up.
But that's not what the clothing available for her tween would have the pair believe.
Too big to fit children's sizes anymore, too young to wear the booty-bearing, midriff-revealing, sexy-sloganed T-shirts and dresses draped over sales racks for older teens, 12-year-old Sofia was in fashion limbo.
Her mother, having spent another evening commiserating with her North Vancouver-area friends about the lack of age-appropriate options for their daughters, decided it was up to her to bridge the gap.
Sofiabella.ca - a one-stop destination for stylish apparel mom and daughter can both agree on - was born.
"It's a really untapped market in terms of the retailers and designers," said Grant, who launched her web-boutique in September. "They seem to want the girls to go from size 4 to 6x to dressing like they're on the way to the club."
It's a trend that's been a part of growing up for decades.
"Girls aspire older, always," said David Gray, a trend-watcher with Vancouver-based DIG360 Consulting. "A 12-year-old doesn't want to look 22, but a 12-year-old wants to look 16 or 17."
Problem is, it can send the wrong message.
"When we as a society think it's perfectly fine for a nine-year-old to wear thong underwear, what does that tell the nine-year-old? What does that tell the 15-year-old young man? What does that tell the 40-year-old pedophile?" said University of British Columbia professor Elizabeth Saewyc, who holds the national chair in applied public health research focused on youth health.
Youngsters don't understand the attention they might be inviting, she said, they just want to fit in with their peers. Yet this sexualized focus during puberty can set the stage for eating disorders, depression and earlier sexual activity.
It's also the peak incidence age of sexual abuse by strangers, Saewyc said.
"It's important for young people, as they're developing their bodies and their sexual identity, to have safety and let that opportunity unfold so they can make their own choices."
Pop singers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera popularized the racy look among tweens several years ago, Gray said, but stars like Miley Cyrus, of Hannah Montana fame, and Hilary Duff began reversing the trend somewhat. However, the significantly smaller Canadian as opposed to American market means there's fewer options that filter here.
Several clothing stores that offered designs for pre-teens have also folded in recent years. Adolescent lines by Le Chateau and Jacob no longer exist. La Senza Girl will shut the majority of its stores by the end of this month.
West Coast retailer Lululemon has picked up some of that slack, launching Ivivva, a brightly-coloured, dance-inspired line for girls aged six to 12 last fall.
Grant, who worked as a professional personal shopper for 10 years, thoroughly researches each label she offers, selecting quality clothing in reasonable price ranges. Having the target market living under her roof helps too.
"It has to be trendy," she said. "But the cuts have to be cut higher in the neckline so they're not showing a lot of cleavage, they're cut appropriately in the arms, the shirts aren't crop-tops, they're clothes that actually clothe children."
And daughter Sofia, who once considered the situation "unfair, because I fit those clothes and I was ready to wear them, I thought," has been convinced.
"Boys will look at you the wrong way."
Instead of provocative sayings across the chest, Grant stocks T-shirts that read "Most likely to change the world" and "I'm beautiful and so are you."
There's definitely demand for that niche market, said Nargas Khabazha, a fashion instructor at LaSalle College International's Vancouver campus. But there's a key to its success: "It has to be mother and daughter approved," she said.
Something mom Shannon Elliot, whose two daughters are 12 and 15, can appreciate.
"As long as it's modest, I usually go along with what she wants, because at this age they're really trying to assert their individuality."

Organizations: LaSalle College International, DIG360 Consulting, University of British Columbia Le Chateau La Senza

Geographic location: VANCOUVER, North Vancouver, West Coast

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