Young at heart

From mass-produced value clothing sold in supermarkets to luxury toys and upmarket hotels, there are plenty of opportunities for design to make a difference in the children’s sector, argues Clare Dowdy

The children’s sector seems to be taking a leaf out of a book of nursery rhymes. To paraphrase the Grand Old Duke of York’s 10 000 men, when kids’ brands are up, they are upmarket, and when they are down, they are downmarket.

At ’the bottom of the hill’, there are 25 million adults buying children’s clothes from supermarkets, according to Mintel’s 2009 Childrenswear report. ’The concept of value is well engrained in the childrenswear market,’ the report observes, with low-cost imports and the growth of low-price supermarkets and discounters.

Meanwhile, at the top of the hill, Audi has designed a limited-edition 1/2 scale model of an Auto Union Type C racing car, complete with detachable oak wood dashboard and leather-covered steering wheel, priced at £10 000.

The bottom – and mass-consumer – end of the market may be very active, particularly in these straitened times, but in design and branding terms, the interesting stuff is more likely to be luxurious, niche, or both.

For well-targeted design, the luxury hotels are a discerning infant’s destination of choice. In London, The Athenaeum, Claridge’s and The Berkeley are all making an effort to win over their younger guests. In recent months, each has introduced branded merchandise, activities and services for children. And The Athenaeum even has a children’s concierge.

This is a field that design consultancy Construct has got sewn up, having worked on the branding programmes of all three hotels. ’Among our clients in the luxury sector, it’s more than a coincidence that they’ve introduced children’s amenities packages in the past six months,’ says Construct founder Georgia Fendley.

Rather, she says, it’s a reflection of changes in society. Most working parents don’t want to be separated from their children unless they are actually working, hence the need for top-end and what were traditionally business hotels to appeal to their clientele’s offspring.

At the more sophisticated, tasteful end of the market, there is room not just for luxury, but for niche, child-focused brands that buck the usual trends. Okido is an art and science magazine aimed at three- to seven-year-olds. Unlike virtually every other kids’ title, it doesn’t tie in with a TV programme. In fact, there isn’t a single licensed character in sight. It’s the brainchild of multimedia designer Sophie Dauvois and illustrator Rachel Ortas.

Each issue – the current one is called Body Noises – features work by a host of young illustrators and designers, and the result is engaging and not at all dumbed down.

Children’s publishing is riddled with gender stereotyping, according to Fen Mason, director of multicultural, non-sexist children’s book supplier Letterbox Library, whose website was designed by one of the directors, Kerry Mason. Fen Mason describes going to Bologna for the biggest children’s book fair. He says, ’The British section is almost exclusively pink and blue printed materials. There’s a glut of pink spangly princess fairy books for girls. It feels like the 1950s. We have to search hard for books which feature three-dimensional, active girls.’

To counter this narrow view of childhood peddled by mainstream brands, the Pinkstinks website was launched.

’We think that marketers are almost solely concentrating on creating a definition of girlhood which promotes being pretty and passive above all else,’ says co-founder Emma Moore.

’Instead of celebrating girls in all their diversity, we are telling them that there is only one way to be a girl. And that is terribly sad and incredibly damaging.’ And this mainstream is proliferating, with advertising spend aimed at children up from £14bn a decade ago to £100bn now, she adds.

Of course, there is a commercial rationale for this approach. ’This cultural signposting sells more products, as the same item can be sold in different colours to families with children of both genders,’ says Moore.

Pinkstinks as a brand sees a bigger role for itself as an alternative to all this mainstream noise. In fact, the founders are looking for help in their repositioning and relaunch to take on the big guns.

_Pinkstinks

Pinkstinks was set up three years ago as an antidote to the gender stereotyping of many children’s brands. ’We have become increasingly aware of and concerned about the way that girls are targeted through marketing, and how narrow and damaging the messages girls receive are,’ says co-founder Emma Moore.

The website was originally designed cheaply by the founders’ friends. While the colour pink wasn’t banned from the site, lots of other colours were featured too. Moore and her partners are keen to redesign the site and improve the user experience as part of their rebranding exercise.

We have very ambitious ideas for the brand and we think it can really play a significant role in leading a cultural change,’ she adds.

_Claridge’s

The diminutive guest at Claridge’s hotel can enjoy toys, games and tote bags, all designed by Construct. They are part of Construct’s overall brand strategy, which is intended to position the hotel as ’the epitome of English glamour and home of intuitive service’. The branding is intended to have an Art Deco feel, and the colour palette comprises jade, gold, white and black, with architecturally inspired chevrons. These work particularly well on the children’s rocking zebra.

All pieces have ’exquisite attention to detail and a playful sense of humour’, says Georgia Fendley, creative director of Construct.

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