There is no fool like a fool with children. Parenthood makes pinheads of us all. I considered myself perfectly sane until I became pregnant and found myself importing a specific model of buggy from New York on the basis that it was no longer manufactured in the UK, as though London was some sort of buggy desert and 943 different types didn’t already exist in John Lewis. I know parents with tutors for their five-year-olds and others who queued all night (or paid the nanny to) for their offspring to gain entry to a gymnastics course. When it comes to our children, nothing but the best will do. It isn’t exclusively a London thing. It isn’t just a late-motherhood thing. It’s everywhere spare money flows. If children are the white-hot focus of our aspirations, it stands to reason that they won’t be dressed in Primark. The UK childrenswear market is worth £5.6bn, according to Euromonitor, with a retail value estimated to rise to £5.9bn by 2017. Social factors such as a rapidly increasing birth rate, parents having children later in life and a glut of baby-boomer grandparents with more disposable income at their fingertips than at any point in history have combined to make childrenswear a highly lucrative business. And nowhere more so than at the designer end of the spectrum. Caramel Baby & Child (where a party dress can cost up to £250) has seen sales increase by 20% for the past three years, while luxury online retailers, such as Alex and Alexa (which sells more than 9,000 items by labels including Dior, Fendi, Burberry and Ralph Lauren), are thriving. Little wonder that Net-a-Porter has registered the domain name Petite-a-Porter or that Harrods recently expanded its childrenswear department to 66,000 sq ft.
Without question it is the internet, with its endless pap shots of celebrity offspring, which is fuelling demand for a designer childhood. Screwed up, perhaps, but since nobody is going to stop papping them any time soon, you can’t blame the fames for wanting to use the situation to their advantage. Celebrities latched on long ago to the idea of child as brand extension: cute kid + cool clothes + famous parents = good PR. Never mind how sweaty and uncomfortable one-year-old North West might be in her scaled-down Givenchy biker jacket and matching leather drainpipes: being tricked out as her mother’s mini-me ensures the flashbulbs keep popping, a state of affairs which is essential to the Kardashian brand.
Ditto Harper Beckham, who, while she has yet to clone Victoria by wearing a pencil skirt, will still prove a useful ally when the time comes for her mother to branch into childrenswear. Harper already has her own dedicated Voguepedia page, while on parenting websites eager mothers swap tips on how to recreate her nonchalant topknot. And it is hardly Prince George’s fault that parents (OK, mothers) all over the world are scrutinising his every style move. Everything he has worn – the Start-Rite shoes, the Cath Kidston tank top, the Petit Bateau dungarees and the Rachel Riley shorts – sold out within 48 hours, prompting Forbes to dub him “the world’s most influential toddler”. Does the world need a most influential toddler? Apparently so.
With North, Harper, Suri, Blue Ivy and Prince George foisted on us from every angle, it would be easy to imagine that an appetite for immaculately turned-out children didn’t exist before Google. Taking pride in your progeny’s appearance is as old as parenthood itself, though it was only after the Second World War that British parents began to aspire to anything more than “cleanliness” for their offspring, since the childrenswear market didn’t exist on a mass scale before then. In the 60s and 70s, brands such as Adams and Ladybird (both launched in the 30s) were as aspirational as Mini Boden is now, even if looking respectable was more of a concern for parents. “It’s not a new phenomenon for women to want their kids to look well turned-out,” agrees Estelle Lee, editor in chief of parenting magazine Smallish. “But the fashion industry has adapted to make children a prime area for growth as our attitudes adapt and society becomes more child-centric. Whether it’s clothes, parties, after-school activities or education, it’s vital for parents to invest in their kids. Lives are busy, and there’s an expectation of return on investment with our children.” Some might argue that the fashion industry was actually quite slow to adapt. In launching Baby Dior in 1967, the house of Dior was way ahead of the curve: it took until 1978 for Ralph Lauren to launch childrenswear, and even then he was something of a lone wolf.
It was only in the 2000s that other fashion designers who showed their collections on the international catwalks decided to expand their reach, presumably reasoning that it was never too early to cultivate brand loyalty. Little Marc Jacobs launched in 2005; Stella McCartney Kids in 2010; Lanvin, Marni, Gucci and Fendi Kids all arrived in 2011, and Dolce & Gabbana brought up the rear in 2012. But the biggest player is Burberry, which reported £79m in revenue from childrenswear for the fiscal year 2013/14 – around 4% of the company’s total. For London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic, a favourite of Samantha Cameron, the decision to launch Blossom in 2012 was less about building brand loyalty than answering her customers’ needs – and her own, since the birth of her daughter in 2011 changed her perspective. “I wanted to move into an area that fit with my and my friends’ lifestyle,” says Ilincic, whose prices start at £135 and who caters for two- to eight-year-olds. Creating an army of “mini-mes” was not her prime intention. “Blossom complements my ready-to-wear collection because it evolves from the same mood and inspiration. My sole aim is to design beautiful, well-made, comfortable clothing for all ages. It’s up to my customers how they fit that into their lifestyle.”
And while some of the fancier “occasionwear” is dryclean only, Ilincic tries to keep things low maintenance. “Practicality is a major consideration – not least because I have the experience of motherhood. Simple, everyday items are easily handwashed.” Not all designers are as sympathetic to the time-pressed mother’s cause – perhaps because their customers are only time-pressed in the sense that they need to fit in a mani, a yoga class and a juice cleanse before school pick-up. A Google search for “luxury childrenswear” quickly reveals a £400 pink sequin Dolce & Gabbana dress (specialist dryclean only), a £999 “spiral fur and cashmere cape” by Harrods and a Christian Dior party dress with “sophisticated layers of ravishing red silk organza, and gemstone embellishment. The price? £2,700. Butler not included. While there is a market for this craziness, or else it wouldn’t exist, it is a niche one, largely comprising the cash-rich, time-rich wives of oligarchs and footballers, with the occasional Kardashian thrown in.
“There are people who will splurge hundreds on frothy designer ‘pieces’ without batting an eyelid,” says Estelle Lee. “But most mothers are not idiots, no matter what their disposable incomes. That means spending as much as they can afford when the cost reflects sustainable manufacture, natural fabrics and good-quality cuts which will wear well and can be handed down. I’ve got two boys, so always try to buy ‘best’ quality. Ralph Lauren jackets – in the sale – will last years.” Besides, if you really want your children to look cool, draping them in designer labels is not the way. There is a growing swell of style-conscious parent for whom trumpeting your wealth and status through an obvious label is anathema. It is far more imaginative – and tasteful – to pander to a certain aesthetic than a certain brand. The accidental poster woman for this movement is Courtney Adamo, the 33-year-old founder of online shopping portal Babyccino Kids. Her curation of an international mix of independent kids’ brands receives over 100,000 unique visitors a month. “It’s not that I have super-strong feelings against designer childrenswear, but I would prefer to support independent designers,” says Adamo. “While Babyccino Kids is style focused, we also believe in letting your kids climb trees and play freely.
Most of the brands we work with are created by other mothers who pour so much love into their products, often making them by hand from natural and organic materials. I’d rather invest in products like this than shell out a bunch of money on a status symbol.” As Adamo’s 85,000 Instagram followers will attest, there is a demand for quality childrenswear, most of which adheres to an aesthetic best described as “nostalgic”, though it could equally be labelled “north London”. Roughly translated, this means corduroy pinafores, pin-tuck blouses and ribbed tights for girls, and button-through shirts, suede desert boots and colourful shorts or trousers for boys. Fuchsia, diamanté and logos are verboten, be they Dolce, Disney, Gucci or Gap. It’s a look which Estelle Lee sees as part of a backlash against the cult of the celebrity mini-me.
“Designers like Elfie or Rachel Riley are paying homage to a childhood from yesteryear. Enid Blyton would be delighted with Caramel Baby & Child’s schoolgirl knitwear or La Coqueta’s Peter Pan collars. With increasingly complex lives, the middle classes are trying to fetishise the childhoods of their youth with mary janes, long socks and smocking.” This might explain why Prince George shifts so many products – his pantaloons might charm people as much as his pedigree. Perhaps it’s not so much nostalgia as an attempt to halt time, to preserve our children’s childhood in an aspic of handstitched jumpers and T-bar shoes. In the UK in 2015 every child is royal, dressed just so and perched atop a throne concocted from its parents’ golden aspirations. “Here is the receptor of our dreams,” we cry in a manner that would make our ancestors weep for not having lived in an era when all anyone has to worry about is the provenance of their offspring’s PJs. ( By Laura Craik from Theguardian.com )