Inside the business of children's digital media

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In the true spirit of fashion, design website FashionPlaytes.com is carving out its own trend that incorporates elements of gaming, fashion content and e-commerce. The Massachusetts-based website is putting a consumer products spin on online fashion play by allowing young girls to partake in personalized, social dress-up that materializes into purchasable, wearable clothing items. And after securing another round of Series A funding to the tune of US$4 million, the eight-person startup is counting on additional social networking functions to create a whole new multilayered online experience.

Founder Sarah McIlroy pieced the concept together from her previous gaming experience at Hasbro and Atari and her desire to give young girls like her daughter a means of self-expression. The website launched in November 2009 against a backdrop of popular girls fashion-oriented virtual worlds like Stardoll.com and a US online retail market that generates US$152 billion annually. ‘We’re unique because the girls can actually buy the clothes they are designing,’ says Val Fox, VP of marketing. ‘We’re the first to connect the virtual and physical worlds of design for a young audience.’

This young demo of five- to 12-year-olds uses the Fashion Playtes interface to become the creative directors of personalized fashion labels. Users select base items like hoodies, pants and t-shirts and sift through a selection of five million possible style options to customize and embellish the clothing according to sleeve hems and ribbon rations. Girls can also draw inspiration from on-hand Look Books that feature seasonal templates curated by Fashion Playtes staff members. Items are bought using gift certificates or are saved and ordered by parents for between roughly US$40 and US$50 apiece.

‘There’s a heightened desire for this when so many teen idols and celebrities are launching their own fashion and product lines,’ says Fox. Substantiating her belief are the 200,000 unique garments that have been created to date, tens of thousands of which have shipped globally.

Within its first year, the site has garnered a 30% customer return rate, which Fox attributes to the products’ appeal to the growing trend of customization. Also, given the higher price-points, an entire Fashion Playtes wardrobe isn’t the expectation. ‘It’s not an everyday product like clothes from The Gap. Ours is more of an experience-based product, so we’re not trying to compete with the volume shop,’ says Fox.

That doesn’t mean establishing a real-world retail presence is out of the picture. This past summer, Fashion Playtes paired with house of Hello Kitty, Sanrio, to offer a series of branded kiosks in the company’s retail locations across the US. It’s also in talks with a number of brands and media properties that are interested in increasing mindshare with tween girls using Fashion Playtes’ program interface.

This spring, Fox and her team will be rolling out a finely tuned community-enabled website design that will include more gaming and user-to-user sharing components. In taking on more social networking traits, users will be recognized via avatars, partake in fashion-oriented games, message one another and earn points based on their fashion designs.

The tools are there, Fox contends, to tap into an already vibrant conversation taking place among young girls. ‘As we’ve learned, girls have very distinct styles and develop their own unique voice when it comes to fashion at a very young age,’ she says.

Of course, behind the conversation is an e-commerce business that relies heavily on parental buy-in – and that fact is driving Fashion Playtes’ marketing efforts. Along with bolstering its product offerings and customer base, a portion of the recent round of funding is earmarked for marketing to the parents who pay for the clothing. This holiday season, for instance, the company made a large push for parents to purchase Fashion Playtes gift certificates on behalf of their kids that can be redeemed for a customized item or outfit.

‘Dress-up has long been a pastime of girls,’ says Fox. ‘This is just a natural progression with digital and e-commerce letting it take a new shape.’

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