This weekend, in an operation masterminded from a minimalist-chic brick-and-glass headquarters in central London, the White House is quietly expanding its influence over British life.
Crewcuts, the mini-me arm of American retailer J Crew, has become a leading light in burgeoning childrenswear, with the help of endorsement by the First Daughters, Sasha and Malia Obama.
Ever since the girls wore clashing J Crew coats at the president's 2009 inauguration, the brand's colourful modern-preppy aesthetic has been in high demand – and the White House connection was underscored when Malia, 14, chose J Crew for the second inauguration in January.
Crewcuts has been given a prominent space in the two-day J Crew pop-up boutique in London, next door to the Central Saint Martins College of Arts building, where the label will fund a J Crew scholarship for an MA fashion student next year.
The initiative celebrates the arrival of J Crew in the UK, as the brand prepares to open its flagship UK store on Regent Street, central London, in November.
An endorsement as commercially powerful as that of the Obamas is a precious commodity, one that will J Crew will discuss only in the most delicate terms. "We are honoured to be part of such a momentous occasion in both history and fashion," said Jenna Lyons, J Crew's creative director, in 2009.
Jenny Cooper, head designer of Crewcuts, says the company is "very happy and flattered" when Malia and Sasha wear the label.
Cooper, who lives in Brooklyn and has two young sons, points to underlying cultural factors that have played a crucial role in the rise of Crewcuts. She says: "Children are the focus of our lives more than they ever have been. Our family life is more public, and we talk about it more than previous generations did. And as a result of that, there is more interest in childrenswear."
This shift in motivation among consumers of childrenswear, from making a mundane purchase to making a lifestyle choice, is reflected in a willingness to spend more on children's clothes.
Eve Karayiannis, founder of the luxury British childrenswear brand Caramel, commented recently that "people are looking for the same quality and style in their children's clothes as their own. One reflecting the other. I read once that children of today are an extension of one's own brand."
The UK children's clothing market is worth £6bn, according to a study by Key Note.
J Crew and Crewcuts have enjoyed a surge in popularity in the past decade and annual sales have trebled to $2.2bn. The key figures credited with the transformation of what was once a fusty catalogue brand are the chief executive, Mickey Drexler, and Lyons.
The brand, positioned at the top end of the middle market, has forged a distinctive style that has made it aspirational for the middle-class consumer. At the same time, the lower ranks of America's "two percenters" – those earning more than $250,000 a year – have reined in their spending in the shadow of the recession, trading down from top-drawer brands such as Ralph Lauren to more affordable alternatives including Coach and J Crew.
At Crewcuts, colour is king, says Cooper. "We don't talk down to kids with our designs. We make clothes which appeal to kids and to their parents."
By bridging a gap between tweedy, formal childrenswear, which looks "smart" to grown-up eyes and garish, cartoonish clothes that appeal to the younger generation, the label has forged a niche in the market where the clothes are "a mix of casual and special – we think that's a good dichotomy", says Cooper.
As the traditions of dressing boys in blue and girls in pink have faded, the J Crew embrace of colour has hit a nerve. "I've noticed in children that their reaction to colour is very strong and instinctive. When they see a colour that they like their eyes light up, there is a sharp intake of breath," says Cooper. "Girls still gravitate towards pink, but we give them options – we will always include a beautiful yellow or a persimmon."
But J Crew will face a challenge winning over recession-hit British consumers, in an economy where the outlook is bleak. With a girl's summer dress at £60, the brand has priced itself above the UK's competitive high-street market.
But Cooper believes Crewcuts will strike a nerve. "One of the things I love about England is the wonderful colour sense", says Cooper. "My grandmother was an Anglophile, and used to buy quirky coloured cashmere in London. It's very sophisticated here. I'm hoping we'll fit right in."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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