Tween Vogue

Salem-based Fashion Playtes makes budding designers out of the pre-teen set.

Growing up, Marblehead’s Sarah McIlroy would draw pictures of clothes she imagined wearing, while her mother, a hobby seamstress, would make the sketches come to life. When Grammy Rose began to do the same for McIlroy’s now-eight-year-old daughter, Madeline, McIlroy turned the family tradition into the family business, launching Fashion Playtes, an online workshop that lets users ages 5 to 12 (and their parents) design their own clothing and accessories.

"Girls love to create something uniquely theirs," says McIlroy, referring to a $260 billion tween market that thrives on mass personalization (think: Build-a-Bear Workshop, American Girl). "I thought, wouldn’t it be great if every girl could design her own clothes, like I did?" The former marketing exec partnered with Mary Beth Tirrell, a fellow Marblehead mom with a background in manufacturing and a tween daughter of her own to create the online enterprise.

Fashion Playtes users choose from among a rainbow of seasonal basics—hoodies, t-shirt dresses, and leggings, as well as accessories like headbands and belts—to customize with embellishments like ribbons, ruffles, and appliques. (There are over 2 million possible combinations, says McIlroy.) Three weeks later, the items arrive, with personalized labels. "Adults enjoy the collaborative experience with their daughter, granddaughter, or niece," says McIlroy. "For the kids, it helps bolster self-confidence and creativity. The experience is almost as rewarding as the actual product."

Since the launch of Fashion Playtes late last year, customers, who come from all around the US and Canada, have created more than 95,000 designs. Girls can maintain online "collections" to share with friends and family, and most pieces start at under $20. With a recent influx of $1.7 million in venture capital funding, McIlroy and Tirrell have opened an office in Salem, although much of the work still takes place at home. "Madeline and her friends will sit down and say, ‘We’re going to do some work for Fashion Playtes, Mommy,’" says McIlroy. "They like to let us know what they think will be popular. They definitely have opinions." —Alyssa Giacobbe

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