If you’re old enough to think back to the ’70s, ‘great’ and ‘style’ are not necessarily words you would now put together to describe that era.
However, David Graff and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Susan bucked this trend in 1970, setting up David Charles Childrenswear at the respective tender ages of 23 and 20.
The company, which sells designer dresses for girls aged two to 16, is now a flourishing concern, stocked in stores around the world, including Harrods, Neiman Marcus and Saks 5th Avenue, and with standalone shops in China.
Its dresses have been worn by the likes of Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, the daughter of Princess Caroline of Monaco and Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes.
It was not a huge surprise that Graff – whose middle name is Charles – set up the business, as he had studied fabric design at school and at Hornsey College and had learnt much from his family, which had previously owned an established childrenswear company called Beta.
He followed the studying with an 18-month stint at Liberty department store and then 18 months at Beta, where he met Susan.
For her part, Susan, now 65, was a fashion designer who had graduated from the Lucy Clayton School and had started working for her father, Sam Cohen (Cornell Dresses) but “switched sides” to work with Graff, teaching him how to pattern cut. She is now the company’s design director and is responsible for her own collection.
Graff, 68, says: “I thought that there was a market for modern-looking children’s clothing. In the early 1970s, kids’ clothes were very basic. There were smock dresses and things like that. We recreated women’s high-street fashion with an edge for kids. We didn’t just copy high street fashion – we made it suitable for children.”
But for this it was necessary to set up on their own and the couple’s big break came when they exhibited at a childrenswear show in London in April 1970. Susan had wanted them to marry, but Graff says he told her it was a big step for him because he was so young and didn’t have any money.
He recalls: “I said: ‘If we sell 12,000 dresses, we’ll get married’, and we sold 11,999 and I said: ‘I won’t hold you to the one,’” he laughs. “After that, we never looked back,” he continues. The couple showed their collection in Paris, “and we started doing exports through that and then we did various exhibitions all over the world, and it just took off from that. We were learning on our feet, but we learnt pretty quickly”.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. “I was naïve in thinking in the early 1970s that one could sell one’s clothes abroad,” Graff says of the first exhibition the couple did in the US. “I had no idea. I just went with UK prices, not realising that they want landed prices – duty-paid and freight-paid. They just want you to give them the prices including everything. I very quickly spoke to somebody and worked it out and gave them a price as near as possible that was landed. I should have known all that before I went.” Graff also recollects setbacks beyond anyone’s control, such as recessions. “I remember the three-day week and when there was no power in the 1970s,” he says. “I bought torches; the boys were packing by torchlight…but it makes you stronger.”
So why, when there are so many other retailers out there selling girls’ dresses, do customers buy from David Charles Childrenswear? “Our edge really is that we specialise in the seven-to-16 age group. The majority of childrenswear companies, although they go up to bigger sizes, a lot of them do what I call blown-up baby dresses; they do a collection that is really suitable from two to 10 maybe and then they offer 12s to 14s and 16s.”
Explaining where the company has decided to pitch itself, the New London Synagogue member says: “We design with 12, 14, 16-year-olds in mind, so we have two collections – one for two to 12s, which is classic party dresses with an edge, and the bigger collection, which is really aimed at the older girls.
They are a much more sophisticated audience. It’s geared to the girls who don’t want to wear pink fluffy party dresses.” Graff humbly attributes the continued success of the company – which exports about 85 per cent of its business – to “a tremendous amount of luck and sticking to what we know and what we believe in”.
He continues: “We’ve not tried to introduce other items into the collection or diversified – we’ve stuck to what we know, to what we believe in and what we think we do well.” He also cites customer care as extremely important – “making sure that people get what they order and that they get it in time. People buy from us because they know we’re going to deliver”.
Creativity certainly seems to run in the family. The couple have three children, with their daughter Tanya a stylist for Martha Stewart Living magazine in New York, elder son Matthew, 38, a television producer, and younger son, Joshua, 35, a senior director at LinkedIn.
On the horizon, Graff has high hopes for the Chinese market. “The people we have a partnership with [in China] have planned 50 shops. They’ve already got four and it’s only been 18 months, so I’m hopeful – it’s very dynamic over there and the opportunity is just phenomenal,” he explains with enthusiasm.
But Graff has his eye on geography for other reasons than pure business. He is a patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust and leads treks for the charity all over the world, taking groups of 15 to 35 adventurous people away at a time. “I’ve just come back from Burma – we slept on the floor of monastery,” he says. “It’s something that’s really good for the soul.”
•Details: http://davidcharles childrenswear.com