Going clothes shopping with a preadolescent girl can be a lesson in frustration. Children's sizes are too small or, even worse (in the eyes of a middle-schooler), too "babyish," while junior styles can be immodestly skimpy. Even though there is a booming market of music (think Justin Bieber), shows (anything Disney), and products (cell phones, spas) aimed at "tweens"—mostly girls between the ages of eight and twelve—there has been a surprising void in the clothing sector. Until now.
Fashion Playtes is a company catering to girls (and their parents) who want an alternative to the mass-produced sameness of stores like Old Navy and the hormonally charged campaigns of stores like Abercrombie & Fitch that are aimed at older teens. The brainchild of Sarah McIlroy '93, the company's founder and CEO, Fashion Playtes operates a website that allows girls to design and customize clothing, place an online order for the garment, and have their one-of-a-kind designs delivered to their homes.
"My mom is a seamstress, so when I was young we would design clothes together, and it was an amazing bonding time," says McIlroy. "My oldest daughter is seven, and when she started sketching clothes and getting interested in fashion, I realized there was a bigger opportunity. If she was interested in designing her own clothes, I figured that there were other girls who were, too."
McIlroy's instincts were more than a maternal hunch. A veteran of corporate communications, marketing, and strategic-partnership development, she had worked for such powerful brands as Brookstone, Atari, Apple, Hershey's, Microsoft, and Reebok, among others. She put together a marketing plan that focused on the website as not only a clothing-design destination for girls, but one that will expand to include a social networking and gaming component. To date, the company has secured $1.7 million in venture capital start-up.
"My professional career helped me recognize that there was a void in the market for tween girls' clothing," she says. In preparing her business plan, she researched mass-customization models such as the one used by Vistaprint and analyzed the costs of manufacturing and customizing high-quality but affordable clothes.
"The trick with Fashion Playtes was to make it kid-desired and mom-approved. This is a hard audience. Girls this age know what they want, but their moms are still involved in the shopping experience. So we really wanted to create an engaged community that included girls and their moms."
Visitors to the site can select from a variety of garments—long and short-sleeve T-shirts and dresses, leggings and capris, skirts and jackets—and embellish by using colors and patterns, contrasting fabric underlayers, ribbons, ruffles, rosettes, and rhinestones. There's even an option to create a customized label for each garment—or for a whole line. "Right now we have about two million combinations," she says.
Eventually, says McIlroy, young designers will be able to collaborate virtually with one another, comparing ideas and combinations. The site has already proven popular with daughter Maddie, who also serves as one of the site's models. The concept has attracted the attention of retail analysts, media outlets, and blogs aimed at parents. McIlroy says her current goal is to secure one or two additional strategic partners and continue expanding the brand, perhaps to younger and older girls, and maybe their brothers and mothers, too. "The sky's the limit," she says.