Introductions: Childrenswear buyer
An issue on fashion wouldn't be complete without an industry view.
We interviewed an experienced (and anonymous) children's wear buyer for an insider take on how clothes on the high street get designed.
You've worked for some of the biggest UK high street brands. Thanks for giving us an insight into the working processes that get clothes on to the shop floors. Tell us first, how does a season of clothing get planned?
All brands have in-house designers. They will be working with trend-forecasters and looking at the designer brands and seeing what cuts, colours, prints and fabrics will be popular for the seasons coming up: perhaps it's all about tropical beach prints or nautical stripes. Then the buying team will take that and translate it into a full range - how much should be put against each look, what staples do we need to update with colours or prints. We're typically working a year to six months in advance.
Do buyers work across all children's Wear, or is it split by gender, like men's and women's wear?
It really depends on the size of the organisation. In the big places, there will be different buyers for girls and for boys, and then they'll often be split further by age - baby, toddler, and then up to teens. I'd say the buyers for boys and girls would tend to work separately, and would rarely cross-pollinate. Because in the shops kids' clothes are laid out in the same section, it's understandable to think that they are thought of together, but in reality boys' and girls' clothes are usually planned quite separately.
So when a brand like Boden bring out a new Space range for girls (this seems like a new departure for them to us), where does that originate?
Of course I don't work for Boden, but I could guess that might be a decision they've made based on feedback they've had from customers, alongside trend forecasting and so on. Smaller brands can be quite responsive.
The big high street brands will often have an eye on what the more boutique brands are doing, and will be factoring that into their planning too. In fact, big brands will often have a small capsule collection doing something a little bit out of the ordinary to test the waters, and gauge interest in their customers. These collections will often garner some PR for them, and see if a trend has lasting interest and sales impact past any media hype.
We've noticed that the boys' and girls' clothes can be quite different in cuts, even though physically children are relatively similar in shape and proportions till puberty. Also, often the boys clothes can be heavier-weight, or more hard-wearing. How does this come about?
It's likely that the boys' and girls' buyers have never looked much into what the others are buying. They will more likely be taking the lead from the women's and men's wear in the same brand, and working from there. For boys' hoodies and sweatpants for example, they are probably looking at what is the best selling weight of jersey in menswear and then making smaller versions of that. It's probably never come up to check the weight of the fabric in the boys' section against the girls'. It's never been important to look at from the point of view of gender, the focus will have been on what has historically sold for boys and girls, what the trends are and what other kids and adult brands do.
It's the same for the girls' clothes - not just in fabrics, but in cuts. Cuts of t-shirts and tops will be influenced by what the big sellers in womenswear are - so you're likely to see lower cut necklines or slimmer fitting styles for girls.
Taking the difference between boys' and girls' vests as an example, this definitely stems from what men's and women's wear do. Underwear is still influenced by historical dressing - there are the best-selling styles for men's vests which become the styles for boys vests - partly it's just how it's always been done. We also think about what they're layered under. Girls' school blouses are often open-necked so they need a lower drop on the vest, whereas boys' school shirts tend to be buttoned to the top, maybe with a tie. Once you get into the pre-teen and teen age groups, then you'll start to see a more obvious connection to womenswear - styles of briefs will get skimpier for the girls for example. When you dig into it, it's impossible to say what comes first - the expectations make a sort of chicken and egg cycle!
SPeaking of Pants, We've noticed that little boys' briefs can be a bit more comfortable than girls' ones - Which made us think how much of our lives we've spent wearing uncomfortable underwear! Do you think there's a hierarchy of comfortable pants?
Are these the same brand and same age? [Yes.]
It's not that the buyers, designers, garment technologists, management are trying to make profit at the expense of the girls - in all likelihood, they haven't made this comparison like for like. As long as the full range of girls' or boys' clothes are making the margins, they probably don't look into specific items and how they compare to each other. I'm not saying that they shouldn't! Just that they won't have looked at it from that angle.
Those boys pants are definitely more expensive to make - that's a much more complex construction. I'd guess the margin on the boys' ones are pretty negligible so I think this is a question of customer expectations - no big brand is choosing to make one more expensive solution for the same price. I think parents are expecting to see pants that look like the ones they wear, and so they automatically buy one type for the girls and one for the boys, which has a knock on effect to the buying team - you're not going to discontinue your best sellers. If your girls' pants are good sellers, you're not going to change them to be more like the boys', because many customers will be unhappy. Also, customer complaints go a long way to changing things but you don't tend to hear a lot of feedback that the girls' pants are uncomfortable. Maybe this does say something about expectations of men and women about how comfortable their clothes are.
So What are the benefits of splitting clothes by gender? do you sell more if they are split by gender?
It's so complicated to break down. Our parents just didn't buy so many clothes and there was generally much less choice, especially for smaller children. But there are lots of different reasons behind this move to more and more separate things. Partly it's consumer choice - for example pink clothes sell up to three times as much as other colours. Once you see something like that in your sales sheets, it's hard to ignore, so you keep buying pink as it's what sells. If you go on trying to maximise this trend can see your range quickly move from 25% pink to 75% pink. It's possible that pink is going to start swinging the other way - we might have seen pink plateau now.
Do you think there will be a move away from heavily-gendered clothing for pre-teens any time soon then?
I don't think there will be a massive swing away form gendered clothing, but I can see there being a shift away from heavily-gendered slogans and associating imagery: princesses for girls and science or football for boys. Or at the least a move to include a range which is less stereotypical.
What Can Consumers do if they want to see different colours, cuts, designs on kids' clothes?
Ultimately it all comes down to what sells, so if parents want to see more styles, graphics and colours which are less stereotypical, they need to make those choices in the shops. The buyers will follow the consumers' lead.
So, whether it is buying more gender-neutral clothing ranges from the big stores, or choosing smaller brands which are less traditional in their designs and colours, putting your money into these ranges is the best way to lead the high street to follow suit.