Fashion: Mother knows best

Buying your children clothes can be hard on your wallet and even harder on your wardrobe. But three British mothers have designs to change all that.
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The Independent Culture
DESIGNER KIDSWEAR does not have to mean DKNY or Calvin Klein - clothes that are often just over-priced versions of basics from Gap. But do not despair: there is an alternative to both designer logos and the high street's obsession with Sporty Spice. Three independent British companies are making clothes they hope both you and your child will really, really want.

Utiliti, Rachel Riley and Miss Fleur are all run by mothers who work from home, manufacturing their clothes on a small scale and selling through chic, modern boutiques. Not only are you buying a unique piece of organic quality clothing: you are buying into part of a homegrown lifestyle as well.

Sarah Hiscox, of the Utiliti label, started designing children's clothes about a year and a half ago. "I've got a little boy of three and I was very frustrated with the clothes that were available for him," she says. "You either had Gap, which is very preppy American, Hennes, which is quite tacky, or Paul Smith, which is too expensive."

Sarah sells her clean, simple, Eastern-modern, denim clothing at The Cross near London's Holland Park. The Mickey Mouse free zone of Utitliti was established after a brief spell with ex-model Jenny Howarth when Sarah's company, then known as Howarth Hiscox, became Utiliti.

Hiscox's concept was simple and clever: to design matching clothes for mothers and children. The collection starts at around pounds 18 for a baby hat to pounds 40 for a pair of children's trousers. "I wanted clothes that I would wear but shrunk in size," she explains. Two seasons on, her modernist, no-frills clothes for 0-8 year olds and adults - denim Nehru jackets, combat trousers and simple quality hand knitted sweaters - have caused a flurry among celebrity mothers, including Nicole Kidman, Paula Yates, Jade Jagger and Yasmin Le Bon.

Despite having already been contacted by Harrods, Sarah is for the moment staying manageably small. She is now in partnership with former fashion coordinator for Macys in San Francisco, Kathleen Bolwell, and the two have plans to produce a clean, modern, mail-order catalogue by Christmas.

Down in Knightsbridge, former model, Rachel Riley has set up another indie kid haven. She started off by selling her self-made, traditional children's clothes by mail-order. Five years on, she has recently opened a shop selling both children's and ladieswear in London's new boutique location, Pont Street.

"I would never have dared set up a shop without having had a regular clientele," says Rachel. "I think catalogues are really practical but you need to see and touch the clothes to see the quality of the fabrics and manufacturing."

Rachel commutes to London three times a week from her home in The Loire Valley. Her photographer husband shoots their catalogues and postcards which feature Rachel and their three children. "Working from home is extremely practical for women like me with young children," she says. "It doesn't mean to say because you manufacture you have to go off to Hong Kong or China or India and have vast quantities of things made up. There's another way of doing it on a smaller scale."

The Rachel Riley selection of traditional clothes is not run of the mill. Pyjamas come with leopard print piping and matching leopard print slippers and embroidered organdy dresses are lined with white muslin. She has everything, from Liberty print smock dresses to Jellys, all sold beautifully packaged with a bag of sugared almonds tossed in for that extra something.

"We are not harking back to some kind of `lost era', but there are a whole load of classics, that unless you can do them better, they're probably not worth changing at all. We are trying to do something traditional but interesting as well," she says.

For something a bit more bohemian, Miss Fleur is like the ultra-hip South Kensington label, Voyage, but for 2-8 year olds. The label is run by four women: Tiphaine de Lussy, Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Carolyn Clewer and former stylist Carole McIlwain. "We didn't want to go back to full-time jobs with mad hours. We wanted to be in charge of our time and be able to look after our kids," says former Royal College fashion graduate Tiphaine, who also happens to be married to Dinos Chapman. She dreamt up the concept with Natascha two years ago. "We felt that there was a gap in the market for what we wanted to do, which was partywear. We began to make these dresses, mixing up colours and fabrics but keeping the silhouette simple."

Everything is tried out on their kids, who also modelled at Miss Fleur's first fashion show at Alternative Fashion Week in March 1997. This season's collection is Chinese -inspired, with Tiger Lily dresses in two-tone silk. For next winter, the theme is "Princess", with medieval shaped dresses in denim and silk. "We always look for quirky concepts, never the obvious," says Tiphaine.

Miss Fleur is available at The Cross, as well as Small Talk in Nottingham. At the moment they're content to manufacture and market their transfer print T-shirts and satin make-up bags themselves on a small scale.

Rachel Riley, 14 Pont Street, London SW1, mail order and enquiries 0171- 259 5969. Prices from: slippers, pounds 28; cotton dress, pounds 40; embroidered organdy dress, pounds 175.

Utiliti, available from The Cross, 141 Portland Road, London W11, enquiries 0171-727 6760. Prices from: knitted hat, pounds 18; denim trousers, pounds 40; knitted jacket, pounds 45.

Miss Fleur, available from The Cross, as before and Small Talk, 102A Parliament Street, Nottingham, enquiries 0115-948 1303. Prices from: Chinese turquoise dress, pounds 50; yellow party dress with pink net underskirt, pounds 60.