While the majority of American middle-schoolers were wrapping up winter breaks consisting of endless Teen Mom marathons or family road trips, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld faced the Academy Awards press corps in a hand-embroidered Marchesa gown. The dress had been custom-made from sketches the True Grit star had sent to designer Georgina Chapman—a heady though not entirely new experience for Steinfeld, who was outfitted this awards season by a roster of fashion all-stars, including Prabal Gurung and Valentino. Then Steinfeld, who looooves Justin Bieber, was whisked off to Paris to attend the March 9 Miu Miu ready-to-wear show as a special guest of the brand’s 61-year-old head designer, Miuccia Prada.
The fashion industry and child stars are having a moment. Fourteen-year-old Chloë Moretz, the profanity-spewing little girl from Kick-Ass, has paraded down red carpets decked out in Stella McCartney and Dior, while Kiernan Shipka, the 11-year-old Mad Men star, has appeared, pouty-faced, in fashion spreads in Interview and Elle (and this magazine) wearing couture YSL and Chanel and supersize Kenneth Jay Lane cocktail rings. Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy, famously choosy when it comes to muses, have adopted Elle Fanning, dressing her for events and enlisting her for their short film The Curve of Forgotten Things, a showcase of the brand’s spring 2011 collection. “She’s not oversexed but she can wear clothing well,” Interview entertainment director Lauren Tabach-Bank said of Fanning, 12, after the magazine ran an eight-page story featuring the tween modeling the likes of 3.1 Phillip Lim, Alberta Ferretti, and Dolce & Gabbana. Vogue, meanwhile, reportedly has a Fanning-Steinfeld-Moretz portfolio in the works for an upcoming issue. It’s all a far cry from poor little Anna Paquin, who accepted her 1994 Oscar in a vaguely nerdy royal-blue beanie and matching vest.
There’s smart marketing at work here. American teens spend $50 billion—and growing—a year on consumer goods, and that doesn’t include the influence they have on their moms, who turn to their daughters (and their daughters’ copies of Teen Vogue) for sartorial inspiration. It’s one reason that the magazine—which has specifically built its brand by not talking to kids as if they were kids—has succeeded while nearly all other teen style magazines have failed: Fashion filters up. And for the labels, tween stars are also a more fail-safe PR play. Well versed in impeccable fashion and moderate makeup and free of visible tattoos, these girls represent a softer, safer side to ascendant fame that appeals to editors and designers who’ve had their fill of skanks. Catch ’em when they’re really, truly young, and they’re less likely to be busted a week later for shooting lap-dance videos or going out back to smoke salvia.
But the most interesting explanation for fashion’s newest obsession suggests that the industry’s conflicted feeling toward curves has reached its extreme, if inevitable, conclusion. Simply put, skinnier people are easier to dress. Little-girl muses, with little-girl bodies, spare designers the inconvenience. Gone is the need to justify the lack of womanly curves on the human mannequins chosen to showcase designs; the clothes themselves, meanwhile, get a break from the hassles of boobs and hips. Prepubescent-looking models being replaced by actual prepubescents: It’s genius, really.