A small price to pay for your sanity

The Boden mail-order catalogue has been a doormat-thumping success. Now there is a children's version. By Fiona MacAulay
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The last factory sale of The General Clothing Company - Kate Barton's children's wear - was mobbed. Sixteen cashiers and an army of helpers could not handle the rush that ensued with scenes redolent of the smash and grab of Harrods' biannual jamboree. At that sale Barton finally decided that the best way to meet the increasing demand for her clothes was to start selling by mail order.

This Monday, less than a year after that sale, Barton launches her first catalogue, under the wing of the adult mail-order clothing company, Boden. Mothers can breathe a sigh of relief; the days of bribing and cajoling their small children into shops are over.

Up to now Kate Barton's clothes have only been available in up-market children's shops - the Trotters chain, for example. Then parents in London and the South of England who appreciated her fuss-free, strongly coloured and reasonably priced garments, cottoned on to the factory sales, used to clear surplus stock. A growing barrage of enquiries from people trying to get hold of particular items or asking for stockists finally convinced her to start selling by mail order.

Barton, who has four children, Lily, eight, Ned, six, Tom, four, and eight-month-old Jack, says: "I didn't start the business because I felt there was a gap in the market. I just wanted to do something with children and felt strongly about the way they should look".

Her first mail-order collection will be launched under the "Mini Boden" label, an off-shoot of the well established Boden catalogue. "Johnnie Boden [the originator of the Boden label] wanted to do children's wear and didn't have the know-how. I wanted to do mail-order but didn't want to set it all up on my own." says Barton.

The pooling of ideas should prove productive. Boden conducted a survey among its 35,000 active buyers and found that most of these customers either had children or bought clothes for them.

The new partners also felt that there were a lot of "cottage industries" doing children's clothes by mail order but very little being done on a large scale. "The hand-written envelopes are always a giveaway," says Boden. "There's Blooming Marvellous, and Land's End does some children's things, but there's not much else. Rachel Riley make wonderful things but they are expensive and cater to a very specialist market. Kate's clothes are far more middle-of-the-road."

Indeed, Barton's clothes compare favourably in price with our favourite high-street sources of childrens' clothes: Mothercare, Marks & Spencer and Gap Kids. Plain or stripy T-shirts start at pounds 10, pedal pushers at pounds 8, denim Bermuda shorts are pounds 15. The most expensive item in the catalogue is pounds 44, not bad for a hand-smocked party dress.

The potential for mail-order in the UK is enormous. There are only about 250 mail-order specialists here at present, compared with 9,000 in the US. Although the mail-order share of the retail market has remained stable over the past four years, it has altered considerably and is fast shedding it's previous down-market image. The success of the Boden catalogue, which only started four years ago, is proof that there is a considerable market to be tapped in Britain. Turnover is at pounds 2.5m, up 70 per cent since last year. Mail order is also particularly suited to children's wear because the sizing relatively straightforward: children may be tall or short, fat or thin, but they don't come in such a variety of shapes as adults.

Boden and the General Clothing Company share plenty of common ground, enabling them to marketed as a package. Both emphasise the smart casual look, specialising in natural fabrics, and using a mixture of classic and jazzy colours. Regular features in Boden (as well as chinos and polo shirts) are bright tartan trousers and wild check shirts.

Likewise, Mini Boden will concentrate on everyday items, but in fun patterns and colours. The first summer catalogue, for example, is long on Breton stripes and large gingham checks, with plain coordinates to match. The winter collection "will have much tougher clothes," says Kate Barton, "denims and a wonderful rosebud-print drill for dungarees and pinafores; also hats with sheepskin linings and aviator flaps". Her vision is tinted with nostalgia but not excessively so: "I'm swayed by the reality of having an eight-year-old daughter who pines for green Lycra leggings."

"The comfort factor is a major consideration," she adds. "I wanted to design things that didn't make children bristle - they hate having cold cloth on their skin - so I've done smart shirts in cotton jersey. I do crisp poplin shirts but in less quantity because some children don't like them. Practicality is implicit in the design. I never do flies on trousers because children want to go to the loo on their own and in nursery school you can't have someone doing up flies all day. I make clothes that children can get on and off themselves as much as possible.

"With mail order I can work in more expensive clothes without the costs becoming prohibitive. I can also print more of my own fabric because the quantities I can use are so much larger. Sometimes I copy prints from pieces of old china. In the summer I did one from a bowl I saw in the window of a shop. With Boden I'll be able to do this a lot more."

The aim eventually, says Barton, is to provide everything you need for a child to wear "from hair accessories to footwear. That's what mothers want. You really can't go shopping with more than two children. I take mine in shifts when I have to buy their shoes because I can't face them all at once."

Mini Boden will continue The General Clothing Company tradition of going up to eight years old but next winter Kate will add the Junior Boden range to cater for up to 12-year-olds.

The first Mini Boden catalogue is shot in Kenya, the images suffused by the magical African light. Just turn the pages and dream of another hot English summer ... when you won't have to take the children shopping.

For a Mini Boden catalogue, call 0181-964 2662, Monday to Friday from 9am to 6.30pm, and Saturday from 10am-3pm

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