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The designer baby boom

It used to be the place to go for bibs, bottles and buggies. Now Mothercare simply can&rsquo;t compete with our love of luxury brands. <b>Alice-Azania Jarvis</b> reports

When Victoria Beckham held her baby shower earlier this month, guests came armed with gifts – pink ones, reportedly at the insistence of the host. The event took place at Hollywood’s luxurious Hotel Le Petit Ermitage, and the former Spice Girl was presented with two prams: one Quinny pink offering (a snip at $540, or £335), and a smaller Orbit model (worth $900). She also received a Timi and Leslie leather baby bag ($150) and a five-foot Melissa & Doug toy giraffe ($100). When Victoria Jnr arrives, you can be sure she won’t be short of the very latest in baby care.

Neither will Zachary Furnish-John. Elton John’s son is the proud owner of the sought-after mamaRoo chair. Worth £130, it is electrically-powered to include five motion settings and an iPod dock. Indeed, in the world of pampered infants, business has never been busier: boutiques offering the last word in natal luxury are ten-a-penny, from Petit Treso to Bloom Baby to Kidsen.

And yet, yesterday, Mothercare – longstanding bastion of expandable frocks and functional-looking pushchairs – revealed plans to close 110 of its highstreet stores. Pre-tax profits have fallen by almost £24m in the past year. New parents, it seems, just aren’t buying their wares. Instead, like the Beckhams and the Furnish-Johns, they’re embracing something different. A new culture of maternity shopping has blossomed: one in which luxury, individuality and, above all, style are paramount. It all starts with the bump. Maternity wear is no longer simply a matter of donning a smock and making do: these days, it’s perfectly possible to dress in the latest fashions, fresh off the catwalk.

When Natalie Portman arrived at the Oscars, she was clad in Rodarte, while the model Miranda Bloom spent much of her pregnancy sporting Stella McCartney. Nicole Richie recently designed a collection for Pea In the Pod, and Topshop’s maternity range has been keeping future mums in skinny jeans and sexy frocks since 2005.

Mothers-to-be are offered a host of specialist treatments. At Harrods, visitors toUrban Retreat can enjoy anything from a 70-minute Mama Mio Maternity Massage to specialised “tummy facials”. “When we started, we were creating treatments which had helped us with our pregnancies,” explains Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the Mama Mio product line. “Women come to us wanting confidence and reassurance and pampering.”

All this, before the baby is even born. When that happens, there’s ample opportunity for the fashion-conscious parent to ensure their child is just as neatly turned out as the rest of the family. At alexandalexa.com, Alex Theophanous and Alexa Till have created a kind of net-a-porter for under-14s. Parents can pick from miniature Ralph Lauren shirts, Roberto Cavalli babygrows and booties, and Dior bibs. At Selfridges, buying manager Lynne Crook has noticed a definite trend towards parents’ seeing children in an extension of their own style:

They dress their offspring as a ‘mini me’, buying into the brands they love. Hugo Boss and Stella McCartney have both introduced baby wear and for Autumn/Winter, we will be bringing Gucci, Vivienne Westwood and Moncler.”

It’s not just about clothes. There has been a surge in specialised products catering for infants’ every need. Want a feeing chair? Bloom Baby may have the perfect one for you: monochrome and minimalist, it’ll look at home in even the chicest of kitchens (and set you back £340). Or how about the Hoppop baby bath – available in lime, fuchsia and aqua? Even the humble pram has been given a makeover: the Bugaboo, favourite of Gwyneth Paltrow, has developed an almost cult-like following, with Selfridges reporting brisk business on its £680 Chameleon model. Where has it all come from? Part of the answer must lie with celebrity culture. With their mortgage- inducing accoutrements, celebrity offspring set the (very) visible standard. But there’s also, it would seem, a genuine desire amongst modern mothers to give their kids the best – and there’s no doubt that women are better catered for than in previous decades. As Sutherland notes: “Back when I had children there was nothing. I was like a monk.”

Among mothers without Posh-esque purse strings, the emphasis is as much on individuality as luxury. “They want to buy items that reflect who they are,” explains Lucy Phillips of notonthehighstreet.com. “Personalised and customised products are always exceptionally popular.”

Inevitably, though, with choice comes confusion. Such is the scale of the baby business boom that expectant parents frequently don’t know where to begin. It was with this in mind that the Baby Concierge was founded nine years ago.

“We’ve reached the point where the choice out there is ludicrous,” says Layton Tamberlin, who joined the board after they helped his wife through her pregnancy. “You can do all the research yourself – but it means hours every evening and weekends spent visiting stores.” The Concierge charges £120 for a consultation and walk-through of its stock room. Brands are selected on the basis of the client’s lifestyle and parents can select their orders from a list. “What we’ve found is that, while choice is good, it’s also incredibly confusing. This is a response to that.” Perhaps the Beckhams didn’t need that baby shower after all.