BEIRUT: A future career change was born alongside Dina Abou Sway’s niece, as the birth moved Sway to take up kids’ clothing design as a hobby.
“When I used to make her clothes, I would buy things from Zara and I would customize them and give them away as gifts,” Sway said.
Sway’s hobby, born from love, eventually turned into a business venture.
She is just one of a number of local children’s clothing designers who have cropped up over the past several of years. The designers come from all backgrounds – some began as women’s fashion designers, others converted from unrelated fields and still others were stay-at-home moms – all drawing inspiration from the children in their lives.
The clothing has an undeniable local character, as the designers incorporate sassy sayings in Arabic, give a nod to their Lebanese heritage and reproduce Beirut’s popular street style in miniature form.
Among the most successful designers of locally made children’s clothes are Paola, Carla and Tania Skaff, the sisters and co-owners of Sunflowers boutique, located in Saifi Village.
In addition to children’s fashion, Sunflowers sells women’s clothing, jewelry and accessories and has opened points of sale from Dubai to France.
Despite an international presence, Sunflower’s kids’ lines are purely homegrown. The beginning designs included baby bibs reading “100 percent Lebanese” or “I love teta,” said Paola Skaff Alford.
“We started with babies because my children were babies,” Alford said. “It was very simple stuff.”
A trained fashion designer, Alford and her sisters now create more complicated items: pajamas, dresses, jackets and baby blankets. Her greatest inspiration is her own children, she said.
“They love it. Some of the designs are their own,” she said. “They ask for particular colors, for example, the little one likes purple and the older one likes skulls.”
For Mira Chaghouri Matar, having children inspired the whole business. Matar, now the owner of and designer behind Little Blue Tomato, specializes in maternity tops and parent-child T-shirt sets.
“When I was pregnant, I didn’t find any tops for maternity,” she said, describing Little Blue Tomato’s beginnings. Later on, Matar designed a matching T-shirt set for her husband and son. She was soon doing similar sets for all of her friends, she said.
“I did them for everybody,” she said. “Then we decided to start this business.”
Matar launched the business at the pre-Christmas Afkart exhibit in Downtown Beirut, where rows of parent-child shirt sets decorated her stall. The shirts carried a range of clever phrases – “Original” and “Certified Copy” or “Generation walkman” and “Generation iPod” – as well as basic matching designs.
Matar had her pregnancy tops made from an ultra-stretchy, cotton-spandex blend. Speaking from experience, she said the material provides ultimate comfort and allows her to sell the basic long-sleeve shirts in one size.
While Matar’s business is still quite young, less than a month old, other children’s clothing designers have been able to grow their intriguing hobby into a living.
Dina Abou Sway went from making her niece customized clothes in her free time to owning her own boutique and brand DEE Little, located in Beirut’s Sodeco Square.
“I was a graphic designer. I worked at a printing press for 13 years,” she said. “I wanted to shift, I wanted to change my career, to do something alone.”
Many of these local designers started by going into business alongside their families. Sway opened her store three years ago with the help of her sister living abroad.
“We complete each other,” Sway said of the business collaboration. Likewise, the Skaff sisters began together, and others have started with the investment and support of husbands or parents.
DEE Little puts a trendy spin on otherwise classic children’s items.
Tiny shirts, onesies and novelty children’s items covered the walls and tabletops of DEE Little. Shirts with animated pirate children read “Mishkalji” or troublemaker. Eyes stare back from a pairs of fluffy bunny slippers. Fuzzy baubles bedeck a hot pink tutu and felt flowers cover children’s purses.
She calls her style fun clothes – quirky items that make for great presents.
Most of the designers said they choose to draw from adult fashion trends, but none more so than Dima Masri Jbeily of Little Star.
Jbeily fuses the inspirations of her own daughter with fashion trends, such as paint-splattered Converse sneakers, leopard or snakeskin sherwal pants, studded purses, wide-cut shirts, neon details and leather.
Giving a tutu a trendy spin, Jbeily uses alternating panels of neon tulle to make a full maxi-skirt perfect for an aspiring princess or fashion diva.
Standing at Afkart last month, Jbeily proudly talked about her children’s influence on her work. She pointed out one of her clever statement shirts, which read “I am jolie [pretty in French], but not Angelina.”
“Because my daughter has big lips,” Jbeily said, smiling, “people say she looks like Angelina Jolie.”