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I'm Too Sexy for My Lunchbox

How much are those kiddies in the window?: Alyssa Nelson (front) and Alexi Atencio are on display at Zutopia.
David Rehor

The girl behind the glass is wearing a form-fitting white cotton shirt, beige cargo pants and sparkling silver high-heeled shoes that lift her three inches off the ground. As people walk by the glass, she strikes a heaven-help-me pose. Her tiny arms thrust toward the sky, her straw-thin legs stand wide in triumph.

She looks like the letter X in platforms.

She freezes the pose for one minute, then regroups with two other well-fashioned girls behind the glass. When they break from the huddle, she returns for another frozen pose: hands on hips, a heel raised, a toe pointed outward. She stares out over the heads of onlookers who gather outside the window.

The vampish poses are right out of today's glossy magazines, and some of the clothes are revealing enough to be banned at school, but the models? The models are only nine years old -- or eight, or seven, or six.

As part of the marketing strategy for Zutopia, which opened in the Cherry Creek mall last spring, the store uses its own customers as live mannequins. In exchange, Zu Kids get a free T-shirt or hat and a certificate that verifies their foray into the fashion business, says store manager Angie Hamm. "They do it for free. It's just a goodwill gesture for the community. It's also a fun, empowering thing for them. We were trying to think of in-store events and new concepts in the mall. We were lucky enough that our window space allows us to do something like this."

Barbara D'Antuono, whose two daughters Kelsey, 8, and Morgan, 6, were posing behind the glass last Sunday, said her girls asked if they could model once they saw other girls doing it the previous weekend. "Now," she says, "they're begging me to buy what they wear."

Indeed. As soon as nine-year-old model Whitney Jones's mother enters Zutopia to pick up her daughter after the 12-to-2 p.m. shift, Whitney says, "Mom, everybody said stuff about my shoes." Then, pointing to her white top and cargo pants outfit, asks, "Mom, Mom, will you buy this, please?"

"We'll see," her mother says. "We'll see."

Inside the store, techno music booms from ceiling speakers, and the place is decorated in ultra-chic, futuresque, Big Brother style; lots of TV monitors blare "ZuTV," and in the back, there's a Nintendo PlayStation. And leopards, quick as they may be, can't seem to escape the grip of Zutopia's fashion designers. Faux leopard skin covers everything: coin purses, evening purses, pillows, hats, cosmetic bags, full-sized garment bags, corkboard and chalkboards.

Zutopia clothing goes for an urban, been-around-the-world look. Many T-shirts are emblazoned with what appear to be characters from Asian languages. One sweatshirt, which sells for $14.99, has the word CUBA printed across the chest, along with a five-point beveled Soviet-style star inside the A. According to the size charts located at the cashier desk, an XXL-sized girl is between twelve and thirteen years old, weighs between ninety and a hundred pounds and has a waist size of 26 1/4 inches. Anyone much bigger or older might as well start shopping at the Gap.

The chance to model for Zutopia is open to anyone who is a member of its customer base, "Generation Z," also known as "tweens" -- somewhere after toddler, yet just before teenager.

The girls -- and occasionally boys -- are allowed to roam through the clothes racks to choose their outfits, Hamm says. "We let them do whatever they want. We just let them run on in there and do their own thing. If we do tell them what to do, it will stifle their creativeness. And they're pretty inventive."

On some weekends, a group of girls appears in the window to sing "Buttercup," from the movie Something About Mary, and another group goes for laughs by holding up witty signs and trying to catch passersby off-guard. "If they get a reaction from somebody outside, they get excited, and that gets them going," Hamm says.

But what these girls do on the weekends at the mall isn't necessarily appropriate during the week. Kelsey D'Antuono says Zutopia's clothing hasn't earned a name at her school yet, partly because the line is so new and partly because some of Zutopia's fashion cuts are prohibited. Kelsey's mother explains that Denison Elementary has rules against exposed belly-buttons, oversized pants, spaghetti-strap tank tops and any other fashion statement that is deemed "distracting to another student."

But Lisa Herzlich, marketing director for the mall, says she hasn't heard any complaints. "A big part of successful retailing is entertainment, standing out in the crowd," she says. "That's a technique that helps you do just that and also helps customers identify you." Herzlich adds that use of child models "really fits into the family feel of their store and adds a dimension of family entertainment to the entire mall."

The company that owns the chain of nineteen Zutopias wouldn't answer questions about live modeling, marketing or anything else, possibly because it is struggling. Zutopia was launched in March 1999 after its parent, Gymboree Corporation, had a financially disastrous 1998. During Gymboree's high times in 1995, shares hit $37. But in October last year, shares fell to a low of $4.06. As early as April 1999 -- one month after opening the first ten Zutopias around the country -- Gymboree reported an increase in net sales of 27 percent from the same period the previous year.

Shara Korn, a spokesperson for Gymboree, said the company is currently conducting a "media blackout" regarding Zutopia. Korn refused to answer why or when the company imposed the so-called blackout or when it might consider lifting it.

Zutopia's vice president of marketing and creative services, MaryAnn McGrath, offered this: "Unfortunately, we are taking the position that we are not commenting on our marketing strategy at this point. When we are able to share any information with you, we will. But we are not doing so at this point."

Despite the company's reluctance to offer information about itself, one can visit zutopia.com to learn more about the clothing line. The site is playful and lighthearted, catering to the children who will most likely want to buy its clothes. Click on the "Who We Are" link, and a spaceship enters from the left side of the screen and hovers momentarily, then beams down an enlightening ray. When the ray dissipates, one phrase remains: "The coolest new kids' store in America is ready to invade your space...Zutopia Clothing & Accessories for Generation Z."

And the coolest new kids' store can't wait for your kids to show off behind the big plate-glass windows at the Cherry Creek mall while onlookers gawk and occasionally snap pictures.

After her stint in the window, nine-year-old Whitney Jones begs her mom to buy her outfit, despite having picked out a different one ten minutes earlier. She chooses a leopard-print skirt with blue and black spots and a few T-shirts with logos and cartoon drawings of kitten heads. Whitney's mother asks the Zutopia cashier to tell her the subtotal before deciding to add one more shirt to the list.

As the noisy cash register hammers out a receipt totaling more than $30, Whitney's mother says, "Now, you're going to wear these if I buy them for you, right?"

Whitney, sipping a soft drink from a straw, nods her head feverishly, as if her mother has suggested the outrageous.

Before she slings her bag of new clothes over her shoulder and marches off in her silver platforms, Whitney tells the cashier, "Thank you for letting me be a model for your clothes."