With the new Abu Dhabi boutique Katakeet, Luxury childrenswear is having a boom - but is it really fair to involve children in fashion so early?
Childrenswear gets a boost in the UAE
When I was a child, my favourite item of clothing was a shiny gold nylon Flash Gordon T-shirt that I had inherited from my older brother. With an eye for glitz even at the age of four or five, I knew this was special and I loved it with all my heart - just as I knew that the hand-me-down brown flares were utterly horrible and very wrong.
I had no idea, though, where this stuff came from. If you had asked me to name a brand, I might have cited "Tots to Teens (And In Betweens)", the local childrenswear shop, supplier of easy-to-wash basics for the whole town. Maybe Marks & Spencer would have occurred to me for school uniforms.
So discussing the likes of Baby Dior and Rykiel Enfant with Frederica Tribuani, senior division manager at Chalhoub Group, the Dubai fashion giant that has just launched Katakeet, the first luxury multibrand childrenswear store in the UAE, I have mixed feelings. There's a touch of envy, certainly - how I would love my childhood photos to feature those vibrant Rykiel stripes and bright, Ralph Lauren polo shirts instead of 1970s sugar-bag-blue anoraks and too-big jeans. There's a sense of amazement, too, at the idea that these exclusive luxury brands have become so accessible that seven-year-olds (albeit wealthy seven-year-olds) can now routinely wear Dh1,000 items that they will grow out of within months. And there's a twinge of sadness that children, those blank slates, are being initiated into the world of fashion and image at a very young age, albeit in such an enchanting way.
During the two years of preparation for the launch of Katakeet, which opened in Abu Dhabi Mall a fortnight ago, Tribuani and her team conducted focus groups with the shop's projected clientele and discovered, she says, that children here have a strong brand awareness at an extremely early age. She tells the story of one mother with whom she was discussing her children's clothing choices.
"We asked a mum what was the favourite brand of her kids, and she just gave the phone to her child, and the child was four years old, and literally answered 'Burberry'." Tribuani articulates the word as if she is a toddler repeating her first word.
"Here a brand's culture is so strong you can literally imagine a mother saying: 'Take my Burberry coat,' or 'Here's my Chanel bag', while the kids have completely grown up with this brand orientation," she says. "In answer to the question, 'do your kids like to dress themselves and choose their own clothes?' we were expecting 'no', but actually the age where the kids are choosing their own clothes is getting younger and younger, so from five years old you do expect the kids here to be choosing their own clothes."
This is not only a UAE phenomenon. The fact that two of fashion's biggest, most prestigious international brands - Lanvin and Versace - have just announced children's ranges, following in the footsteps of many of their peers, certainly implies that the luxury conglomerates see potential in this region. The application of designer labels to mid-market children's ranges - as with the hugely successful Stella McCartney for GapKids (which was also popular among adult women svelte enough to wear items such as the boys' bandleader jacket, among them Carla Bruni-Sarkozy) - confirms that it's an area of interest right across the spectrum.
Still, there's no doubt that the Middle East is seen as one of the most promising markets, thanks as much to its consumers' love of luxury and labels as to the customs and traditions that see lavish gift offerings at births and extravagant party dresses for ceremonial occasions.
Ghalia Tohme, the buyer for Katakeet, says: "Being in the area for 10 years, I know how much mums spoil themselves here, and I know even more how much they spoil their children. I'm an auntie on an average income, but still when it comes to my niece I will sometimes spend more on her than I spend on myself."
Tribuani agrees, adding: "The gift tradition here is very, very strong when there is a birth, so you can expect a family to come in and spend Dh2,000-3,000. We expect 40 per cent of turnover will be nursery."
The fact, then, that the country has lacked a multibrand childrenswear store until now is quite amazing, and Chalhoub's market research indicated that there was a gap ready to be filled. "We've been watching what was happening in kidswear for the past two or three years; we could see that was a segment that was growing fast and was not there in the Middle East, and two years ago we decided the time was right, with designers developing and launching their own kidswear ranges," says Tribuani.
More important - and something that other brands appear to be picking up on - is the idea that the right store will not only draw in the parents but also entice the all-important children. Rather than just being a place to buy clothes, the strategy has been to create a destination that will engage kids. It's a clever way of ensuring that a whole new generation is brand-savvy and ready to spend on the same brands when they grow up.
"There were luxury stores with kids' clothes inside, but none were really done with the spirit for a kids' store, an environment you're going to bring not only to the kids but to the parents," says Tribuani. "We did a quick focus group with some of the VIP customers we know from our other stores [Chalhoub runs some of the biggest designer brands available in the UAE, and has just opened Marc by Marc Jacobs, CH Carolina Herrera, KORS Michael Kors and Lacoste in the same stretch of mall as Katakeet] and we discovered they were a bit frustrated. Nothing was very cute: you just came in the store and bought, and pow, that was it."
This is what makes Katakeet a very different experience from your average children's shop. Drawings were commissioned from a top children's illustrator, Polly Dunbar, to create an engaging narrative for the shop, including an interactive electronic book (in Arabic and English); a "secret spyhole" in the shop through which children can see the shop's characters (Beau, Belle and Bébé) playing; a colouring book given away with purchases and used to keep children happy while shopping; and a club being planned for September, when the complete collections will arrive, with the new season. It's all about enchantment, and any parent will appreciate the importance of keeping children happy during otherwise tedious shopping trips.
Chalhoub are not the only retailers to have discovered the value of this. In its flagship Dubai Mall boutique, Louis Vuitton opened the brand's first family room back in March, offering video games, books, colouring stations, and child-friendly furniture. It was a canny move, instantly making it easier for families to shop together (in a country in which, particularly during the summer, mall trips can be a family outing) and familiarising children early with the brand's visual vocabulary.
Perhaps it is churlish to regret the machinations of luxury children's fashion. After all, given the chance as a child, there is no doubt I would have revelled in the vibrant stripy knits of Rykiel Enfant, or the handmade fairytale princess frocks of the almost haute-couture Italian brand Pamilla. And my brother would no doubt have felt like a dude in the cool, simple boyswear of Dior.
Equally, while it's easy to lament the early indoctrination of children into the brand-happy land of fashion, both Katakeet and Louis Vuitton are offering child-friendly play, rather than the mini-adulthood engendered by exposure to the likes of Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber or the high-heeled Suri Cruise.
Confronted by tiny, soft onesies from the quaint French label Tartine et Chocolat or little Baby Dior shoes, it's hard to remain entirely impartial. And children will always need clothes and toys, after all. Where should they come from? Well, that's up to the parents.