The brutal economics of celebrity culture is turning children into marketing mannequins

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The events of this week provoke much introspection about hereditary privilege, inherited power and our culture’s strange default to aristocracy. By which I mean, there appeared a stunning article in the Wall Street Journal announcing that the young children of pop celebrities are acquiring their own fashion stylists.

The 10-year-old daughter of Kourtney Kardashian; her nine-year-old cousin, the daughter of Kim Kardashian and rapper Kanye West; Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s 10-year-old girl and the five-year-old daughter of tennis champion Serena Williams are named in the article.

There are also the children of NBA and NFL stars, pop stars, movie actors and a mysterious father who fronted a stylist with a “lookbook” he wanted his daughter to emulate, even though she hadn’t yet been born.

Related: Kim Kardashian launches private equity firm

Fees are charged by the stylists, but not revealed by those interviewed. They’re also happy to list – if not discuss – their famous junior clients on their websites, citing “client confidentiality”. Discretion is the better part of market appeal, one presumes – especially if one’s livelihood is to preemptively clothe … a foetus.

Those of us who remember our childhood years making mud pies and cubby houses may question the rationale of letting a four-year-old loose with a $3,300 handbag – yes, this is an actual thing – even if her dad did co-design it for Dior. Poorly sized hand-me-downs and the rough polyester of Best & Less couture don’t compete in any way with Ralph-Lauren-for-tinytots, but if you’re climbing trees, covering your best friend in paint or redecorating a room with cake mix, they’re economical clothing choices.

No doubt, if you’re worth near a quarter-of-a-billion dollars, like Serena Williams is, budgeting for post-food fight replacement pants for your child is not an onerous concern.

But to imagine these kids are being clothed by fashion professionals just to soak their designer trouser-cuffs exploring a creek or fill their mini Louboutins with play-doh is to miss the vital clue of why any client, anywhere, might be compiling lookbooks for their unborn.

Stylists may justify their work with kids as convenience for the parents, but the article shies away from answering why such convenience is necessary. That is, in a society of unprecedented decadence and unimaginable wealth, much of the power and currency of modern celebrity is based on their capacity to merchandise. You may sneer “What do the Kardashians actually do?” and the simple answer is “they market brands that they’re invested in”. Does last week’s announcement that Kim Kardashian is going into private equity surprise anyone?

Little people are the fresh real estate enabling diversified marketing strategy for those brands. Four-year-olds aren’t being clad in “mini-me” Olivier Rousteing outfits to get mud on them. They’re to get the eyeballs of media. From birth – or before – these kids are working in adult spaces for the family business, whether the parents admit it or not.

The WSJ scoop isn’t even a new story. Eight years ago, The Times of India listed not only the Kardashian and Carter clans but the Rossdale/Stefani offspring, at least one Jolie-Pitt child, Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp’s daughter and Heidi Klum and Seal’s kids as receiving professional styling services.

Where this leads us isn’t just with an entire generation of kids who are marketing mannequins for mum and dad, but a generational cohort of massively overcapitalised assets.

If you’ve wondered just why so many modern celebrity children seem to be not only copying their parents’ clothes but – as much as they can – their career trajectories, this just might be the answer. The celebrity child who grows up to prefer a comfortable pair of tracksuit pants and a quiet career in construction is quite the risk to an investment in extending their parents’ celebrity that began before they were born.

What’s being engineered by the brutal economics of current celebrity culture aren’t clans of Barrymores or Fondas sharing a traditional craft. It’s the aristocratisation of cultural power that often concentrates opportunities not around talent, but brand inheritance.

Will this denude the output quality of what a monetised culture industry can produce? Should every princeling get to be a king?

Related: Timothée Chalamet makes history as British Vogue’s first solo male cover star

In the photo accompanying the Wall Street Journal’s piece, a young North West appears next to her famous mother in a matching outfit that replicates its pinstripe tailoring, and nose jewellery.

Where it diverges is in the mother’s accessorising with a BDSM “submissive collar” round her neck.

It might be fetish fashion as a playful choice. The established cultural brand of rich and powerful mother Kardashian is that she need only ever be submissive on her own terms.

Wearing it standing next to her little girl, though, the collar doesn’t look so playful. It reads as bondage to an intergenerational marketing strategy that may be impossible to escape.