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Fast-dry Towels and Monochrome Tepees Tempt Lifestyle Buyers

With innovation clearly turned up to the max, this year's Top Drawer creative lifestyle event showcased a range of eco-friendly umbrellas, several child-rewarding dinner plates and a pair of lovable syringe-wielding medicine dispensers.

Photo: Mounting excitement: Decapitated felt fauna from Fiona Walker England.
Mounting excitement: Decapitated felt fauna from Fiona Walker England.
Photo: Mounting excitement: Decapitated felt fauna from Fiona Walker England.
Mounting excitement: Decapitated felt fauna from Fiona Walker England.

At the Spring / Summer edition of this year's Top Drawer expo – which bills itself as 'the UK's leading retail trade event for creative lifestyle buyers' – exhibitors were, as ever, eager to demonstrate the inventiveness and ingenuity of their latest products.

Clearly offering both was London's Tinkalink, which produces protective locket cases that can be filled with charms to create unique and highly personalised smartphone covers. Explaining the origin and appeal of the product, company Founder Kathinka Foster said: "It's an idea that is really an update to traditional charm bracelets. At present, we're still having difficulty defining our target market. Our customers have ranged from 11-year-old girls to 60-year-old women, so it's definitely more of a female thing."

Despite only launching last year, Tinkalink can already be found on the shelves of a number of the UK's leading department stores, including Selfridges and Fenwick, as well as in Paris' Bon Marché. Negotiations are also said to be ongoing with Brown Thomas, one of Ireland's leading department store chains, and the Dubai branch of Harvey Nichols.

Another exhibitor looking for retail distribution on an international basis was Dock & Bay, a business that operates out of London and Sydney. The company – a veteran of Dragons' Den, a BBC TV show that sees would-be entrepreneurs trying to woo a panel of investors into backing their business ideas – specialises in microfibre towels in a range of bright, bold and colourful designs, which are said to dry almost instantly when used on the beach.

Outlining the range's particular appeal, Marketing Director Lizzie Renfrey said: "They're super-quick drying, highly-absorbent and sand doesn't stick to them. While microfibre has been around for a while, people mainly associate it with ugly grey colours.

"For our part, though, we spent a lot of time learning how to print different colours onto it, which is why we've now got such a photogenic range of towels. We also have the Active range, which is made from 30% recycled plastic bottles and, consequently, very environmentally-friendly.

"We retail via every possible outlet, including beach shops, camping shops and gift shops. We're also currently presenting at a number of American trade shows as a way of extending our global presence."

As well as selling via its dedicated website, the company's products are also stocked by more than 300 independent retailers across the UK and in the Fenwick department store chain. Internationally, it has already appointed a UAE distributor and also sells through 200 US and 100 Australian outlets. In addition to towels, it also produces microfibre ponchos for children and a selection of yoga wear.

Another Australian link came courtesy of EnviroTrend UK, the West Sussex-based subsidiary of a Queensland-headquartered manufacturer of environmentally-friendly shopping bags. Keen to emphasise the company's green credentials, Clare Kapff, Managing Director of the UK operation, said: "We're here to showcase our super-strong shopping bags, which hugely reduce the need for plastic bags.

"We have a lot different designs on offer, including shopping bags, rucksacks and our latest innovation – a swing sack. Everything we produce can be compressed down to a tiny size, so everything's light and compact and available in a range of fun colours."

A strong, lightweight bag is particularly useful in the UK, one of the many countries where retailers now charge for plastic bags. According to Kapff, though, her company's products have uses well beyond just bringing home the weekly shop.

Highlighting their ubiquity, she said: "My husband managed to get six bottles of wine into one, while my son even uses one to bring his dirty laundry back when he's away, partly because you can literally just tie the bags up and wash them."

The newest addition to the EnviroTrend range is the Inside Out Umbrella, which flips to expose its underside when closed, keeping the wet side within. As it's self-standing, it can then just be left to drain.

Drip-free brollies aside, many of the most striking products on show were clearly aimed at a more junior consumer. Wildfire, a London-based business launched in 2016, for instance, produces a range of black and white tepees said to be suitable for indoor and outdoor play.

Defining the business in a nutshell, Founder Lindsey Aitken said: "We offer monochrome tepees and accessories for the style-conscious parent. That's our tag line.

"We launched the business after I failed to find a monochrome tepee for my son. Having had no luck, I bought some fabric and checked on a few blogs as to how to do it. The finished result turned out to be amazing. All my friends wanted one, so I started producing them. Then their friends wanted one and the business really began to progress.

Photo: Phone cover customisation courtesy of Tinkalink.
Phone cover customisation courtesy of Tinkalink.
Photo: Phone cover customisation courtesy of Tinkalink.
Phone cover customisation courtesy of Tinkalink.
Photo: In-tents competition: Wildfire’s tepee range.
In-tents competition: Wildfire's tepee range.
Photo: In-tents competition: Wildfire’s tepee range.
In-tents competition: Wildfire's tepee range.

"I'd never really envisaged specifically launching a monochrome brand or anything like that. I just wanted something that was simple. So many children's things are in bright primary colours and that's just not my thing.

"There aren't many people doing children's things in black and white for some reason, but I think they're quite chic, while also good for hiding stains. Very small babies can only see in black and white, so it also helps stimulate them."

Although Wildfire is based in London, all its products are made in India and then warehoused in Manchester. In terms of international sales, the company's tepees are available throughout Europe and it has also taken warehousing facilities in the US. Alngside tepees, it also manufactures beanbags, playmats, bunting and toy storage boxes, all in simple, stylish black and white.

Another company offering eye-catching children's products – many of them utilising a more conventional colour palette – was S-C Brands, the Maidenhead-based UK distributor of several largely European brands. Previously trading as Scandi-chic, the company re-branded as the number of non-Scandinavian brands on its books increased.

It currently represents six companies, including Maileg, a Danish toy manufacturer, and Albetta, a UK-based manufacturer of children's clothing, toys and household items. Among its most recent sign-ups is Fiona Walker England, a Warwickshire-based producer of a range of colourful, mounted animal heads, including elephants, giraffes, lions and tigers.

Alex Rankin, a Sales Representative for S-C Brands, said: "They're all designed by Fiona Walker, the well-known actress, here in the UK. They're Fairtrade and handmade in India, primarily in felt.

"Initially, the business was focused on interior design for nurseries and children's bedrooms. Now, though, we also have a lot of adult customers, many of whom put our moose heads up in their living rooms. We also do reindeer heads and, at Christmas, people are always tweeting us to say that they've got their reindeer head up again.

"At present, we handle the company's sales in the UK and Europe and we have also appointed agents in Australia, New Zealand and the US. While we have a few retailers in China and one in Hong Kong, we're always looking for a broader selection of stockists."

While the appeal of a mounted felt head is undeniable, other companies in the children's sector prefer to emphasise the practical benefits of their products. Falling into this category is K-play, a northeast-England-based specialist toys and gifts distributor. The company handles a range of overseas toy brands, including Heimess, Holztiger, History Heroes, Goki and Lilliputiens, and has recently signed up two new clients – New Jersey-based Playmeal and Australia's Mighty Small.

Outlining the thinking behind the Surprise Bowl, Playmeal's début product, Scott Kenworthy, K-play's Managing Director, said: "We all know a fussy eater, a child who only wants sweet things. The idea of the Surprise Bowl, then, is that you can use it to serve healthy food, with the child promised a surprise if they clear their plates.

"There's a see-through compartment set in the base and you can put anything in there – a toy, a little dessert, a treat, a badge… There's also a reward chart and a number of collectable cut-out fruit and vegetable characters, which can be used in place of treats."

Mighty Small's inaugural products, by contrast, are two colourful silicone characters – Marvin and Molly – whose noses can house syringes when it's time to give medicine-averse youngsters their daily doses. Explaining the thinking behind these decorative dispensers, Kenworthy said: "They are designed to help parents out at what is always a difficult time. It's often very hard to get children to open their mouths for a syringe, especially if they're constantly ill and in regular need of medicine.

"Now, though, a plastic syringe can be inserted into the back of either Marvin or Molly, so that it sticks out from their mouth. So, instead of mum or dad having to struggle to deliver the prescribed medicine, the reassuring form of Marvin or Molly makes the whole process tears-free."

Photo: Top Drawer Spring / Summer 2018: Innovative, bespoke goods for creative lifestyle lovers.
Top Drawer Spring / Summer 2018: Innovative, bespoke goods for creative lifestyle lovers.
Photo: Top Drawer Spring / Summer 2018: Innovative, bespoke goods for creative lifestyle lovers.
Top Drawer Spring / Summer 2018: Innovative, bespoke goods for creative lifestyle lovers.

Top Drawer Spring / Summer 2018 took place from 13-15 January at Olympia London. The event attracted more than 14,000 visitors and 1,500 exhibitors from 60 countries and territories.

Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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