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Ethical Manufacturing Goes Mainstream in European Children's Market

Environmental concern and ethical sourcing now seen as vital by European parents, according to buyers and exhibitors at Bubble London, while innovation and quality childrenswear imports also woo consumers at this twice-yearly event.

Photo: Cozyglo: A bright idea for children’s bedrooms,
Cozyglo: A bright idea for children's bedrooms,
Photo: Cozyglo: A bright idea for children’s bedrooms,
Cozyglo: A bright idea for children's bedrooms,

The latest in children's fashion came to the heart of London when Bubble made the first of its twice-yearly visits to the city. With the event taking place in a chilly early February, it seemed more than appropriate that many exhibitors were highlighting their cosy winter collections, though plenty of gift ideas were also in evidence.

As a kids-themed show, there was, inevitably, a certain lightness and sense of fun in the air, attributes not normally associated with trade fairs. Despite this, there was also something of an urgency to get down to business – perhaps a reflection of the comparative brevity of this two-day event and the fact that more than 280 exhibitors were taking part.

First launched in New York, Bubble made London its home in 2008 and hasn't really looked back. It now attracts buyers and sellers from all around the world, including many the more established brands – Animal, Bench and Replay – as well as a fair smattering of smaller, family-run businesses.

Bench, one of the UK's leading fashion retailers, made a return to the first event of 2015 after a four-year hiatus. Explaining the thinking behind its change of heart, the company said: "We are keen to refocus our younger range, and Bubble is a great opportunity to showcase our latest line, while building our reputation in this market."

The childrenswear market is notoriously crowded, with new brands springing up and disappearing on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. As such a mercurial sector, it is particularly well-serviced on the tradeshow front, with a number of shows, notably the internationally roaming Playtime and Italy's Pitti Bimbo, now fixtures on the industry's calendar.

Bubble, though, does not seem to be trying to tackle its rivals head on. Instead, it is carving out its own high-end niche within the industry. A number of those within the sector have conceded a preference for Bubbles' "more intimate atmosphere". This intimacy is partly down to the fact that its chosen setting – the Business Design Centre – is not a particularly large venue, requiring a degree of ingenuity to accommodate the 280-plus participants and the series of accompanying events and happenings.

This does, however, bequeath the proceedings a degree of vibrancy, something that is helped by the presence of a number of innovative start-ups. Though it is primarily a clothes and fashion show, there is room for a number of more peripheral business concepts – such as the Cozyglo, the brainchild of Tom and Katherine Homfray, two new parents who are looking to capitalise on their own experience.

Cozyglo is multi-functional night-light and comes in three different models – Papa Penguin, Beatrice the Rescue Dog and Colonel Comfort. After being "disappointed by the quality of night-lights" in the market, the Homfrays, working in collaboration with inventor Richard Chapman, set out to turn their own idea into reality. According to Katherine, the fair proved a good opportunity "to secure relationships in the long-term and make interesting leads for the future".

Photo: Footwear from Project Jelly.
Footwear from Project Jelly.
Photo: Footwear from Project Jelly.
Footwear from Project Jelly.
Photo: Knitwear from KusiKusi.
Knitwear from KusiKusi.
Photo: Knitwear from KusiKusi.
Knitwear from KusiKusi.

Indeed, in the digital age where innovation is becoming a norm, the Homfrays have taken a route favoured by more and more start-ups. Katherine said: "We are crowdfunding the cost of the production of the lights in order to develop and market the product. This will also open us up to potential investors from around the globe.

Project Jelly is another forward-thinking organisation, combining business nous with a pledge to donate 20% of its annual profits to charitable causes. Working in conjunction with JuJu, a UK footwear manufacturer, Jelly Shoes are now available in 12 countries. Reflecting on her own experience at Bubble, Natalie Collier, the founder of Project Jelly, said: "It was an amazing show. We received serious interest from potential new distributors in Turkey, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. All have followed up and we have also secured exciting new orders from garden centres and several cool new independents."

Ever keen to provide a platform for emerging companies, Bubble's 'Rising Stars' awards has long been popular aspect of the show. This year's winner was Oh… My!, a new company specialising in fashion for girls aged between 3-11. In their summing up, the award judges said they were particularly impressed by Oh…My!'s "elegant pieces, premium fabrics and attention to detail".

Highlighting the benefit of winning such an award, Jonathan Swead, the founder of Oh… My!, said: "We're absolutely delighted to have won the award and have been blown away by all the attention. It was just so encouraging. We can now go to retailers and say that we are Bubble's Rising Star."

Perfect Pitch is another initiative launched by Bubble, again as way of showcasing up-and-coming brands. The programme gives promising designers the opportunity to pitch their labels to an audience of industry veterans, canvassing views on their products and future plans. This year, one of the participants was a particularly enterprising 11-year-old.

The reach of the Bubble brand is also drawing in international exhibitors. One such company was KusiKusi, a Peruvian brand keen to promote Andean fashion in the heart of the British capital. As with many in the sector, the company prides itself on taking an 'ethical' approach to business, supporting women in vulnerable communities in Peru. Explaining the brand's presence in London, Director Pilar Bustamante, said: "We are taking the opportunity to take the brand directly to European buyers, this follow a deal with Norwegian financiers back in 2010."

In terms of its USP, KusiKusi uses cotton, and more tantalisingly, alpaca wool to produce childrenswear. Regarded as one of the best quality soft fibres on the market, this cosy alpaca wool is said to be ideal for European winters. Overall, Bustamante remains enthusiastic, yet realistic, about prospects at the fair, saying: "We have invested a lot of time and money in bringing these products to Europe as we see potential expansion here. The aim is to build relationships, rather than make money straight away."

Money, though, is clearly there to be made in this sector. Globally, the childrenswear market was worth US$216 billion in 2013, representing an annual growth rate of 5.5% between 2009 and 2013. Unsurprisingly, the biggest increase came in the Asia-Pacific region, where annual growth was some 9.9% over the same period, a 40% rise in just four years.

The necessity to regularly buy clothes for growing kids is indisputably one of the driving factors of this lucrative market. Combined with a fast emerging middle class with disposable incomes and, frankly, an increasing desire for kids to look as good as their fashion-conscious parents, high quality children's brands look only set to thrive.

Because of essentially caring and future-minded nature of the sector, the idea of ethical brands has made considerable inroads, with European consumers prepared to pay a premium for products supporting local communities and demonstrating a degree of environmental responsibility. At Bubble many of these brands are now more the norm than the exception.

Photo: Bubble London 2015: A growing children’s show.
Bubble London 2015: A growing children's show.
Photo: Bubble London 2015: A growing children’s show.
Bubble London 2015: A growing children's show.

Overall, the future for Bubble – as for the wider industry – certainly seems bright. Reflecting on this, Event Director Lindsay Hoyes said: "It was great to showcase so many exciting new brands and returning favourites, many of which re-booked immediately for the Spring/Summer edition in July".

Bubble London took place at the Business Design Centre from 1-2 February, 2015.

George Schooling, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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