It’s a regular work day at Preeti Jatia’s studio. As she shows me around, I run my hands over a diminutive pure georgette skirt attached to a cowl-neck, sleeveless blouse with a burst of maternal longing. A young mother with cropped hair walks in, wearing Juicy Couture jeans, a Louis Vuitton bag on her arm, her infant daughter in the arms of a maid behind her. The lady is annoyed—it took her a while to locate this place. But now that she’s here, she attacks with gusto the racks lined with baby clothes—a mélange of lace, net, satin, silk, flowers, bows, gowns, lehengas, embroideries. She will not leave till she has bought out everything that fits her little angel, matching accessories included.
Her desperation is understandable. Pune-born Jatia, 36, is one of Noida’s best- kept secrets. In business since 2008, Jatia’s clientele includes the baby scions of some of India’s most affluent families— from Samajwadi Party bigwigs in the north to DMK insiders in the south, from Bollywood celebrities to owners of large educational institutions. Supported by her husband Akhilesh, the Fayon Kids team of 15 create a limited quantity of children’s garments every month (300 to be precise), all of which are sold out within days of production. Orders need to be placed for elaborate pieces such as the ‘matching’ Rs 25,000 lehenga she created for a six-year-old who wanted to look like the bride at her masi’s (aunt’s) wedding. Jatia’s garments—fluffy clouds lined with seamless baby-soft cotton—don’t come cheap (from Rs 2,000 to Rs 40,000), but when you have the cash, why would you compromise on something as significant as your darling’s smile?
“It’s not about the expense; it’s about looking exclusive and different,” says Chandigarh- based businesswoman Monica Bansal, a regular buyer of designer garments from Delhi for her three-year-old daughter and six-month-old son. “Parents want their children to look special and children need to be comfortable, so quality is important,” she says. She often asks Jatia to customise a pair of mother-daughter clothes for special occasions, never mind the cost: “We get lots of compliments when we’re coordinated.”
Little Indian kids went luxe in a big way about half a decade ago, when attracted by the 20 per cent growth in the Rs 35,000 crore apparel market (estimated to touch Rs 80,000 crore by 2016) Indian fashion couturiers did a Benjamin Button and began designing for younger and younger audiences. Retailing from multi-brand stores like Mal in Mumbai and Kidology in Delhi, both set up in 2010, fashion stalwarts such as Raghavendra Rathore, Ritu Kumar, Namrata Joshipura, Siddharth Tytler, Malini Ramani, Nandita Basu, and Gauri & Nainika catered to fashion- forward mothers keen on equally natty kids. The younger crop of Indian designers was quick to follow: Aneeth Arora, Gaurav Gupta, Masaba Gupta and Zubair Kirmani (fondly, ‘Kashmir’s Armani’) all joined in with adorable mini-sized creations no mother could resist.
A sartorial baby boom ensued, with prices for little lehengas, miniature kurtas, sherwanis and mermaid gowns ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 12,000, considered fashionably wasteful at the time.
Kidology grew 40 per cent, year on year. The kids’ wear collection of Nishka Lulla, daughter of one of Bollywood’s most famous costume designers Neeta Lulla, grew 50 per cent in the first two years alone, and she says she now focuses as much on her kids’ range as the adult one.
Then came the global luxury majors. And the game changed again.
In October 2011, Swati Saraf launched Les Petits, which retailed among other European brands, Fendi Kids, Miss Blumarine, Young Versace, Baby Dior and the ridiculously popular Italian label, I Pinco Pallino, best described as ‘haute cuteness’. Prices for luxury kids’ garments soared, touching six figures. Soon other global majors began showcasing children’s wear at their existing showrooms in luxury malls such as Baby Gucci and Burberry Kids at DLF Emporio in Delhi and Palladium in Mumbai. Armani Junior and Roberto Cavalli set yet another benchmark in 2012—incidentally, Armani’s Fall- Winter 2014 range for 0-24 month boys includes an ‘awwww’-inspiring, super-cute single-breasted jacket in cotton blend. Around the same time, Saraf also launched Cherubs, another multi- brand kids’ store with upmarket labels such as Paul Smith and Ferrari. The children’s garments often reflect the sensibilities, fabrics and silhouettes of the grown-up versions. There exist little woollen ponchos, fur-trimmed parkas and patent brogues, especially for kids above four to six years of age—a trend that has persisted throughout history across most continents. In India as well, children wore, and still do, teeny versions of vests,kurtas , dhotis, lungis and ghagra-cholis worn by their parents. Here, however, fabrics tended to be weather-compatible and there was room for movement.
In the 18th century, Western clothing for children became less restrictive and more child-friendly and, with colonialism, became ‘fashionable’ in the Third World as well. Reflecting their parents’ tastes and priorities, children of the rich and famous had updated wardrobes; so much so that Suri Cruise, daughter of Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, reportedly had a wardrobe of $3 million, one that was flooded with designer freebies until her mother clamped down on them around the time of their divorce two years ago. Valentina Paloma Pinault, the little daughter of actress Salma Hayek and luxury mogul Francois- Henri Pinault, is regularly seen about town in wonder weaves. So too are the children of Madonna; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt; Beyonce and Jay-Z; Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick; and the Beckhams, whose three-year-old daughter Harper wore Chloé to the New York Fashion Week.
Now catching up with global children’s trends and labels available in their own cities, 21st-century Indians are keen to flex their fashion muscles as well. American president Franklin D Roosevelt had said, “We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for the future.” Wealthy Indian parents took it to mean wearing a Burberry bib or a Versace romper.
You’d think that in a budget-conscious land, mothers (no matter how rich) would be wary of spending large sums on baby clothing that would outlive its purpose in just a few months. But Indian mothers from all kinds of high-income backgrounds— from the socialite in Kolkata to the businessman’s homemaker wife in Indore—show as much valour in splurging on their kids as their contemporaries around the world. “Our price points are the cheapest in Asia. But they are higher than in Europe because we pay hefty taxes,” says Saraf, managing director of Prive Luxury, which owns Les Petits and Cherubs in Delhi, both of which cater to ‘closet consumers’, HNIs and a large expat community. The metros aren’t the only places to serve customers. “We have witnessed a surge in demand from buyers from cities like Kanpur, Amritsar, and so on,” says Saraf, adding, “We recently entertained a client from Ludhiana who came to shop for her grandson. She ended up purchasing above Rs 3.5 lakh worth of clothing, bed sheets, bedcovers and other products.” It helps business when parents are willing, grandparents are flush and kids are demanding.
With their well-researched textiles and on-trend silhouettes, international luxury labels set the standard higher for kids’ wear in the age range 0–8 in comfort, quality and style. Indian designers and labels were quick to respond. “Our focus is on occasion- wear for kids and our price range is relatively cheaper,” says Neha Mittal, co-founder of Kidology, who studied journalism, film and TV production, and now has a five- month-old baby of her own. “Our sensibility is also different. For example, the Princess Dress by Gauri & Nainika for Kidology is made with layers of draped net—it is couture without the unaffordable price tag! Moreover, our designers are careful to not just create mini versions of their adult lines for kids. We spend time adapting their sensibilities so that they are relevant and comfortable for kids, and parents recognise and appreciate this.”
But the biggest factors that Indian designers have begun to leverage are their Indian wear and customisation services such as coordinated ensembles for mother-daughter or bride-bridesmaid duos. Many designers create complete wedding wardrobes for kids, which means designing outfits and matching accessories for every function at a family wedding. “Projects like these cost substantial [sums] but parents are more than happy to pay. It’s a bespoke look for their little ones,” says Mittal, citing the case of a current six-year-old client whom they’re outfitting for six wedding events to take place at Pattaya this winter. Prices have inched upwards accordingly; Nishka Lulla, who retails clothes at her website Nisshk.com, says her customised outfits now range from Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. A Siddhartha Tytler lehenga sold for Rs 24,000 at Kidology this year. One of Jatia’s clients, a south Indian industrialist’s wife, regularly spends Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 on flouncy dresses and gowns, which sometimes use up to 10 metres of fabric per piece. “The lady feels her daughter loses brownie points for appearance because she’s dark-complexioned,” explains Jatia. “She says she doesn’t mind investing in beautiful dresses to make her daughter feel and look like the princess she is for her.”
Besides the personal touch, Indian designers have also invested much time and research on making products more and more comfortable for tiny tots. Aneeth Arora, who is known for her eco- friendly fashion, specialises in fine khadi and mulmul fabrics for kids. Standing in Jatia’s Noida studio, I peek up a mannequin’s orange gown and find four layers, starting with a cotton lining stitched with pure cotton threads, a can-can layer made of hard net, a shantung layer which is shiny but breathable, finally ending with soft net on top. The dress has been made for an exhibition where garments tend to fly fast, so it’s pegged at just Rs 16,000.
In a trickle-down effect, the comfort factor has also taken centrestage in premium kids’ wear. Kolkata-based label Nee & Oink—launched two years ago by sisters Neelakshi and Oiendrila Ray after they struggled to find good-quality, fashionable clothing for their own kids—also makes this its unique selling point. “We found that we were being forced to compromise between form and function, and decided to create a line designed for mini- fashionistas that used bright colours and fun designs without compromising on comfort,” says Neelakshi, who studied fashion and business at Parsons School of Design, New York, and worked with designers such as Giorgio Armani, Cynthia Steffe and Jason Bunin besides labels such as Coach and Calvin Klein before launching Nee & Oink with her sister; Oiendrila, a branding professional, handles design, fabric selection, embroidery development and the production unit.
The duo try to balance the mother’s needs with the child’s wants by carefully curating natural fabrics. “Mothers usually look for clothing that is fairly functional and comfortable. Children naturally gravitate towards bright colours and designs,” observes Neelakshi. With their top-of-the-line garments (up to Rs 8,000) growing at more than 100 per cent over the past year, she is unafraid of the burgeoning competition she faces from other premium children’s wear designers, such as those on display at India Kids Fashion Week in Mumbai. “The promise of the emerging Indian [market] is built on a young demographic that is beginning to earn more money, just as they are growing their nuclear families. This is extremely promising for the kids’ wear market in the years ahead,” she says.
Perhaps the last word on children’s luxury comes from my seven-year-old US-based niece Anaya Kapoor, whose grandmum bought her a Gaurav Gupta outfit from Kidology after hunting through several stores in south Delhi malls last year. Asked why she selected it for her mamu’s (uncle’s) wedding, Anaya says, “Because it’s pink.” After a pause, she adds, “And my red one is pokey.”
We can’t have anything ‘pokey’ at a six-hour wedding reception, now, can we?
First published in the 13-19 August 2014 issue of Open magazine