Letting Kids' Passions Flourish

There are many things that I love about what I do. One of them is the moment when working on a new creation that I find the just right mix of materials and the vision clicks into my head for the perfect dress. But this is an old love of mine, from childhood days of sketching gowns and dressing up dolls in my hand-made creations. A new love of mine is getting time to watch and interact with kids during my photo shoots.

All the best pictures of my work are done by my sister-in-law, Kate Eden Renyi, who is an amazing professional photographer specializing in photos of kids and families (you check out her work here!). But often, my product photos are done here in my studio, I have a corner devoted to photos with various backdrops, lights and props.

I work with the children of my friends, real kids, who are not models but are fun and have great spirits that I know will shine through in photographs. I try to keep the mood fun and playful with music they can dance too and, if need be, the promise of balloons and treats after we’re done! I know standing in front of all those big lights and having a camera clicking in their faces can be intimidating so I show them everything I’m doing and how it all works, then we start playing around to see how to get them comfortable to open up, relax and smile.

It’s captivated me over the last few months how each child is so different in what sparks them in order to be able to move past shyness and show their special sparkle. Some kids come alive when joking around, say pretending to be a cat or a tiger. Some kids love to make silly faces or have you make silly faces at them. Or, sorry parents, some kids are delighted when I can lightly poke fun at their mom or dad!

This past Sunday I had Miss M in my studio. I could tell she was enjoying the dresses and she was very cooperative about trying different poses, but I was struggling to get her to open up and really smile. And then it happened. She had changed into a leotard and tutu and I knew she has a dance recital coming up, so I asked her to show me some of her routine. Instantly her expression changed to one of concentration and she went through her routine. And after that she let loose with dance poses and twirls, all with smiles and a light shining through from within. She clearly felt in her element and I even got some giggles from her.

That moment for me was truly uplifting. The energy and excitement that children bring to their passions is some of the strongest and purest that any of us will ever experience in our entire lives. Just being around it and observing it can uplift a grown-up’s spirit.

Thinking about working with these different children, and how the key to unlock  their excitement and happiness is so unique, made me think of my own children and their passions. My son is only 2 so what really sparks him isn’t quite so clear yet (though sneaking into my car to “drive” is the current favorite, sigh). But my five-year-old daughter has truly shown passion over the last few years, skiing.

We put her on skis twice when she was 2. It didn’t go that well. When she was 3 she did a few lessons and got interested. The year she was 4 it was clear that she had a passion. Starting that winter and continuing through this last ski season, she is now an insatiable skier. She will ski through the coldest winds. She will ask to skip lunch to go for a few more runs. She will keep skiing long after she is clearly tired. When she falls, which isn’t often, she laughs and gets up for more. At the end of the day she wants to know when she can go back out again. Needless to say this effortless approach to an activity is not the norm in our lives with a spirited and strong willed kindergartener! Skiing brings out the best of the best of her skills, behavior and character.

My husband and I are really in awe of her love for skiing and how much she will easily overcome to get as much time on the slopes as possible. Luckily we live in the Northeast, close to ski areas, and both like to ski so it’s a fun thing for us to encourage in her. But even if we didn’t, I know we would do whatever we could to make skiing happen for her. Because when you see you child so lit up about something it is electrifying. It feels like peeking into their souls and seeing there not the baby you held sweetly in your arms but all the boundless potential that this whole person contains for the span of their lifetime. And if you as their parent have the ability to foster that, then really you must.

I was speaking with a friend the other day who has been a ski buddy of ours the last few years. We may not see them on the ski hill that much next year because as much as she and her husband love to ski, her son LOVES hockey. For him that’s what he wants to do when he has a choice, that’s what he would prefer to do over any other activity. And so while his parents might prefer to be skiing most weekends, they will be bringing him to hockey rinks and helping him practice and grow in the sport he loves.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that kids’ wishes and desires should trump those of the whole family. And I’m certainly not that you spoil them or press them for it, but if sacrifices must be made in other areas to allow that passion to flourish then we do so. Within the right bounds I think it’s important that we weed out some of the unnecessary in our over-scheduled lives to give real time and devotion to what makes our kids, and ourselves, feel alive.

If you ask my daughter these days what she wants to be when she grows up she will tell you she wants to be a swim teacher in the summer and compete in the X-Games in the winter. The first part sounds great to me, the second terrifies me. But it’s also thrills me, what an amazing dream. Who knows if she’ll ever even come close, but how amazing to be five and believe with your heart and soul that you WILL do something. No self-doubt, no fear, just confidence and excitement. I’m happy just to sit close to such a small vibrant person, smell the top of her head which still has that warm “kid” smell, and marvel at what life will hold for her.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. What have you found that sparks your small children? Did it surprise you? Parents of grown children what happened to your kids’ childhood dreams? Any of them come true? Or the opposite?

One of my favorite of Kate's photos of my work

One of my favorite of Kate's photos of my work

True exuberance

True exuberance

What an expression, love it!

What an expression, love it!

Being a tiger

Being a tiger

Miss M in her element!

Miss M in her element!

My daughter's first day skiing at age 2

My daughter's first day skiing at age 2

Happiest after a long day on the trail

Happiest after a long day on the trail

In Defense of Princesses

Exploring the phenomenon of princess culture from the perspective of a parent and custom princess dress maker. Is there a point at which there is too much pink?

I’m in the midst of reading “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein in which she explores what she calls “the dark side of pink and pretty: the rise of the girlie-girl, is not that innocent”. I’m still only partway through the book, but what I understand is that she is drawing a connection from the over-commercialization of “princess” for young girls to a loss of self-esteem in tweens and teens and an ever growing emphasis on looks and an earlier sexualization of young girls.

I am not a psychologist; I am not a child development expert. And as should be pretty clear, I MAKE princess dresses, so clearly I play a small part in the growth and promotion of princess culture. But I am also a mother of a young girl and proud aunt to four young nieces and I care about the world they are living in and the forces that influence their lives and their perceptions of themselves. So I still read this kind of material to see what I can learn from it all.

Here’s my take on “princess”. Orenstein’s book confirms a theory I have long held that many girls (and boys too) just have a natural affinity for dressing up and playing princess.

Ask my mother. From my earliest days I was draping fabric, demanding to wear the same pretty dress over and over, and besieging her with requests for making me princess costumes. If princess dresses had been available at the local department store back then, you better believe I would have wanted one.

And it wasn’t just the dress I wanted. It was sparkle, glitter, and tulle and yes PINK that I wanted. My mother and I had a good laugh a few years ago, looking at a much discussed picture of me at two years old draped in green plaid cotton “dress”. This dress I was wearing was the result of a tense two-hour session in which I insisted with great emotion that she drape and re-drape the fabric, never quite to my satisfaction. Our laughter came from the realization after all those years, that my frustration probably had very little to do with draping but rather that she wasn’t able to turn that green plaid cotton into a frothy pink organza. I truly believe these predilections are just hard wired in some kids.

I was fascinated to read the story of how Disney came to launch its Princess products. As Orenstein relates in her book, back in 2000, Disney Executive Andy Mooney attended a Disney on Ice event and noticed that many of the girls filling the stands were wearing homemade princess dresses. Recognizing a gap in the marketplace, he and his team rolled out what is now a $5.5 billion a year product class for them. And in my mind it's well deserved, they make appealing products and they are very tuned in to what kids like.

Clearly there’s something going on here for young children about princesses. Orenstein, and many others, have lots of serious and scholarly theories about where these desires come from, ranging from declaring gender identity at formative years to it being reinforced by parents’ desire to preserve innocence in our children.

Honestly, my eyes glaze over when I read such serious and drawn out reasoning for why princesses are appealing. For me, at the core I think it boils down to two simple elements. One, it’s a great avenue for creative play. Playing princess allows kids to explore flights of fancy into realms that are far outside their daily lives. When they are playing “princess” there are no mundane restrictions on who they can be or what they can do, it’s an avenue to explore what might be. So much of young children’s play naturally gravitates to imitating daily life, pretending to cook food, taking care of baby dolls, “cleaning” (I put this in quotation marks because I so often have to clean up after my kids’ efforts at “cleaning”...). So putting on a glittering gown and imagining what that princess might do is a nice balance in my mind.

The second reason I think kids are drawn to dressing up in princess clothing is simply that it’s fun to dress up! Our day-to-day style is so casual these days that many of us only really dress up for weddings or funerals, not regular events. Just a generation ago putting on “your Sunday best” actually meant something. And while we may be more comfortable on a day-to-day basis, I do think we have lost some of the good feelings that can be associated with putting on nice clothing and putting our best foot forward.

Of course the children who are interested in all things princess are not the only players in this game. There are the multitudes of companies and corporations that are busy making and marketing products at our children. And of course some of them do this in ways that is not appealing to many parents. But we live in a free market economy and businesses will always target products at audiences they believe they can make a profit from. As parents we may not like this, but it is the reality of a free society. So what to do?

There are lots of opinions on this. Google “princess” and “anti-princess” and you can read for days opinions on how to handle this phenomenon as a parent. I’m not going to give you any advice here. I really try to stay away from that. But as I said, I have some professional skin in this game, so here’s what I feel about navigating the pink laden aisles of the toy and clothing stores.

My complaint as a parent is not that everything is pink and princessy out there, what feels yucky to me is how cheaply made so many things are. And the sheer VOLUME of cheaply made things out there for purchase, and let’s be honest, cluttering up my house. And as an extension of that, I dislike that with the proliferation of toy options, that is feels like so many are very specific in how they are designed that it feels like they do not encourage kids to use their imaginations as they play, but instead promote using the toys “as they were intended”.

Now the good news is, even those complaints aren’t that big a deal, and here’s why. I am in control of my own destiny in terms of what I buy my kids. I know they are suckers for certain kinds of toys, so I try not to bring them to that section of the store (or to the store at all if I can avoid it!). And to a certain extent I am resigned to allowing them a certain amount of cheap, cheesy toys. In regard to my second complaint, this really doesn’t have to be an issue either, as kids are infinitely creative and resourceful with how they play. Cabinets become dollhouses, shoe-boxes become space ships, you get the idea.

So as a parent I can exercise some choice and allow myself to mostly just “let it go” (sorry it just worked so well!).

As a businessperson, I feel I have a bit more power to tip the scales of the equation. The gowns and accessories that I am making for kids are of the highest quality and are handcrafted one at a time. Don’t sell kids short, they can feel the difference between a gown that was carefully made and one that rolled off the factory floor. They may not be able to put the difference into words, but you can tell by the way they touch and admire the garment and how they hold themselves when they put it on that they can feel the difference.

The other aspect that I work hard at is creating garments that fill all the requisite kid wish lists in terms of glitter, sparkle and magic, but I’m not tying them to any preconceived ideas of what a princess dress should look like. I think when girls put on my designs they can feel special and elegant as themselves, without taking on any of the prescribed ideas of what a certain princess is like.

And of course it happens that they do sometimes associate my gowns with a Disney princess. I’m okay with that. If a turquoise gown of mine makes a girl feel powerful and gorgeous like Elsa, great. But that’s her choice, her imagination that brought her there, not mine. And that makes me happy. Making beautiful, high quality clothing for children, that allows them to feel and play what they want, is what it’s all about for me.

Meanwhile, back in my studio, I'm still waiting to grow out of my "princess phase".

My daughter lit up with joy in her Aurora costume at Disneyland

My daughter lit up with joy in her Aurora costume at Disneyland

 
The pretty dress I would not take off as a toddler

The pretty dress I would not take off as a toddler

 
The green and white plaid dress

The green and white plaid dress

 
No homemade costumes this time, some occasions call for the real thing. My daughter dressed as Elsa for Disney on Ice

No homemade costumes this time, some occasions call for the real thing. My daughter dressed as Elsa for Disney on Ice

 
My daughter in one of my gowns, she quickly stole the helmet from her brother and ran around yelling "Protect!", that's my kind of princess!

My daughter in one of my gowns, she quickly stole the helmet from her brother and ran around yelling "Protect!", that's my kind of princess!

Creating a Custom Gown, Part 2

I love birthdays, all birthdays. Celebrations of life’s special moments bring points of light into our day in day out busy lives.

Recently I was honored to play a part in the birthday of Miss L. As you can read about in my last blog post, she had visited my studio in advance of her birthday to help in picking some of the design elements of her dress. Part of the plan was that she would help me by modeling in a photo shoot of the dress. So on her birthday she arrived with her parents and younger sister for the unveiling.

I had set up the dress in my photo area with flowers, balloons and lights illuminating the dress on the form. But nothing was as radiant as Miss L’s face as she slowly approached and observed how her choices had come to be realized in dress form.

Her expression says it all

Her expression says it all

Once she had had time to try it on and twirl a bit (a must as far as I’m concerned!) we had a great hour of taking photos. She was a terrific model with her sweet face and mix of fun and soulful expressions. We even got a few with her younger sister which was a treat to see the two sisters together, so close to each other in their bond and yet very much their own people.

The process of creating this custom gown was so satisfying. Miss L’s selection of a very delicate and refined striped silk chiffon required me to search very carefully for coordinating fabrics and trims that would enhance rather than overwhelm it. My general rule of thumb in creating princess gowns is that “more is more” when it comes to the glitter and sparkle, but this gown called for restraint.

The end result reminds me a lot of Miss L. As a newly minted six year old she is tall and willowy. Still a little girl in her play and joy for discovering the world, but at the same time developing a real sophistication and maturity. And so this dress reflects that dichotomy. It is as diaphanous as the transition from being a little girl to becoming a big girl. Floating back and forth in that space in time when you can be so many things at once.

At the end of the day you can say it’s just a dress. But I see it as a symbol representing Miss L at this moment. Hopefully she will wear and play in it for years to come. And if she happens to save it, perhaps someday in the future it can serve as a physical reminder of how it felt to be newly six years old. One that is surrounded with the love of her family and friends, who encourage and rejoice in her being just who she is. That’s something to celebrate.

Birthday girl

Birthday girl

Getting her first peak at her gown

Getting her first peak at her gown

Heading out to celebrate her day

Heading out to celebrate her day