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Kids Fashion Week in New York: Cute or Crass?

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The lights go down, the music cranks up and Jasmine struts down the runway, wearing nothing but a teensy shiny orange bikini and a smile. At the end of the catwalk she pauses and poses as cameras flash. It’s just like any other runway show, except Jasmine’s a little short for a model: about 3 ft.

We are at the Inca Girl runway show at New York Fashion Week. It’s one of the inaugural events of what’s being billed as the first ever Kids Fashion Week in New York City. And yes, it’s a swimsuit show: a parade of glittery or fringed bikinis, maillots, sarongs, sequined tank tops, pants and few off the shoulder peasant blouses. It’s pee wee resort wear, designed perhaps for a leisurely stroll along a bonsai-fringed Palm Beach. The girls are all shapes and colors, but just one size: pint. While it would be unprofessional to ask a model her age, none looks a day over 7.

In many ways, this is just like any other fashion show. There’s jostling over the front row, free bottles of water and a riot of last-minute pinning and steaming going on backstage. The girls don’t even hit the catwalk until 90 minutes after the show’s advertised start time — a delay Marc Jacobs himself could be proud of. There’s even a person in the audience wearing sunglasses indoors, Anna Wintour–style. Except he’s a guy, possibly a self-conscious dad.

But plenty of things take place here that would never normally happen at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park. Long before the lights dim, little girls march up and down the artificial turf runway, practicing their walks. Some of them don’t even appear to be in the show. One poor toddler-model (a toddel? a moddler?) who’s in the show after Inca Girl’s, is being ordered down the runway at least eight times by his mother, until he gets it right. At about the 45-minute mark, a couple of the audience members lose it, begin to weep and must be placated with snacks. (Usually the goodie bags have free lipsticks for when that happens.)

The air of chaos seems fine with Natalija Dedic, the organizer of the event. She’s put on kids’ fashion shows before, as part of Miami Fashion Week (which takes place right after London’s), and nothing seems to faze her, not even the presence of so many moms — mamagers is the term of art — backstage. She’s brought lots of coloring books and wears a large supply of Silly Bandz to distract little girls making a stink about wanting to wear the outfit their friend is wearing.

Kids Fashion Week so far consists of only about four shows, some showing several labels. And the Inca Girl show audience was by no means full. But Dedic thinks is an idea whose time has come. “Kids are the trendsetters now. Parents are spending so much money on kids’ clothes,” she says. “We have clients who are looking for this.”

Certainly, there has been an uptick in interest in child-age consumers among even the coolest of the fashion circles. Marc Jacob, Phillip Lim, 7 For All Mankind, Lucky Brand and Diesel are among the many unlikely labels to produce lines for little ones. One of the hottest new style bloggers is only 14 years old. And according to the Wall Street Journal more and more fashionistas are bringing their children to fashion shows.

The two girls I brought to Inca Girl (they were invited, honest!) are alternately jealous, bored, and uncertain about the whole business. “It looks a lot more glamorous on TV,” observes one, who’s 12.

“I’d still do it,” says the other, 9.

When the swimsuits appear however, they’re not so sure. “I find it kind of disturbing to see little girls in bikinis,” says the 12-year-old.

“It seems inappropriate,” says the other.

I ask them why. “Bikinis remind me of women trying to show off their bodies to men,” says the older girl. “My mom always buys me them, but I never wear them.”

More on TIME: Behind the Scenes at a New York Fashion Week Casting Call [PHOTOS]

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