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Kids TV producers turn to style specialists for design innovations

While haute couture may not be synonymous with animated kids programming yet, that may soon change. Hoping to catch the eye of increasingly fashion-savvy tweens, many of whom already know the difference between Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, some toon producers are beginning to turn to fashion designers to give their series some additional flare.
September 1, 2003

While haute couture may not be synonymous with animated kids programming yet, that may soon change. Hoping to catch the eye of increasingly fashion-savvy tweens, many of whom already know the difference between Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, some toon producers are beginning to turn to fashion designers to give their series some additional flare.

That was one of the reasons why Italian studio Rainbow called in three designers from Italy’s top fashion houses to work on Winx Club, its girl-targeted fantasy series co-pro with RAI Fiction that’s set to launch in Italy on RAI 2 this January.

When Rainbow tested an early trailer of Winx with 120 kids in 2002, they loved the series’ concept (it’s about the adventures of a group of teen girls who transform into fairies and witches), but found its look less than enchanting. The original main characters were very classic, pixie-like figures that lacked modern panache. Main character Stella, for example, was initially decked out in generic fairy garb with medieval-style bracelets and a slightly revealing halter top-and-skirt combo. But by the time the designers were through with her, Stella looked ready to go-go dance at a rave, dressed in a short shorts, a one-shouldered crop tank and knee-high boots. And after her design makeover, Tecna (the fairy of technology) looked like a hip high-school student in capri pants and platform sneakers. ‘Our objective was to be trendy, but with a futuristic twist,’ says Rainbow CEO Iginio Straffi. ‘Otherwise you risk having clothing styles that go out of date too soon.’

Besides putting a modern gloss on the characters’ wardrobes, gadgets and hairstyles, the designers also changed the color palette of the show, opting for a much brighter and stronger collection of hues that are more in tune with today’s tween fashions. They also suggested changing the nationality of one of the characters so that she would look more Latin, the idea being to widen the show’s ethnic diversity along the lines of universally appealing pop groups such as All Saints and The Spice Girls.

While Rainbow’s decision to use designers was all about putting a stylish twist on a kids TV genre (fantasy) that isn’t normally associated with fashion, Paris, France-based Marathon Productions tapped the style expertise of a local trend agency to stay true to the premise of Totally Spies!

Fashion is a such a key component of the tween-targeted animated series (which is set in Beverly Hills and concerns the adventures of three Clueless-like girls who spy for a living when they’re not busy shopping) that Marathon contracted Promostyl to help its in-house designers create an expansive toon wardrobe for a fee of US$80,000. The result? Around 1,000 different ensembles that the girls change in and out of two to three times per episode – a rarity in cartoonland, where characters tend to sport the same threads for an entire season.

Achieving a higher level of realism is also why New York-based Scholastic Entertainment is considering hiring design consultants that specialize in urban market apparel for The Misadventures of Maya and Miguel. The new 65 x half-hour, 2-D animated series for PBS is about Hispanic twins who live in an ethnically diverse inner-city neighborhood.

Maya and Miguel are both 10 years old, the age at which children begin to be aware of fashion and start making their own decisions about clothing, says Cheryl Gotthelf, VP of marketing and media affairs at Scholastic Entertainment. ‘We want the series to mirror the lives and experiences of real children [living in an urban environment] and for kids to see themselves when they watch Maya & Miguel,’ says Gotthelf. ‘For that reason, we must design clothing for the characters that is relevant to the age group and to the culture.’

In addition to trying to attain a more in-touch look on-screen, animation producers are also drawing on the expertise of designers to dress up their merchandising style guides. Both Rainbow and Marathon appealed to their design consultants to help create a wide range of icons featuring their shows’ characters and logos that could be used in product design. While the series is always the first inspiration for product, Rainbow’s Straffi says that once licensees start to work on collections for things like apparel and toys, the style guide is not always connected to the same elements that appear in the show.

Rainbow learned this lesson on previous series such as Tommy & Oscar, issuing modest style guides at first and then having to scramble to come up with additional designs for licensees to work from. But for Winx, Straffi says Rainbow has assembled a much more comprehensive style guide (including spring/summer and fall/winter apparel collections for each of the main characters) that he’s confident should limit any extra design work.

Given that the trend of using fashion designers on kids toons is still in an embryonic stage, it’s difficult to determine whether their input is translating into the creation

of wildly successful shows. That said, Marathon managing director Vincent Chalvon-Demersay points to the success his company has had selling Totally Spies! to international broadcasters – most notably in the U.S. – as evidence that it does help. After moving from ABC Family to Cartoon Network in July, the show registered a 1.8 rating with girls six to 10 in its first two weeks, representing a 63% increase in that daypart over the previous four weeks.

Rainbow’s Straffi also believes the investment his company made in hiring fashion designers was worth it, citing early licensee interest in Winx Club as proof. Rainbow has already signed 20 European licensees for toys and back-to-school SKUs (Giochi Preziosi), stickers (Panini), audio/video (Universal), trading cards (Upper Deck) and a magazine with a comic book (Carlsen). And according to Straffi, Rainbow’s licensing and distribution partner for English-speaking territories, 4Kids Entertainment, has received 30 proposals from licensees since Licensing Show in June. Rainbow will kick off the European merchandising program for Winx with a comic book release in December, and the rest of the line should start rolling out this spring.

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