Britain's shopping underrated? FTF's retail guru dishes about the boutiques and emporiums where famous American moms spoil their fashionable flock.
The city that has most fashionistas bowing at its throne is Paris. It’s true — just about every breathing soul in Paris, whether young or old, looks as if they’ve just walked off the catwalk. So naturally, when American style queens (and kings) drag their families to Europe with an eye for the truly unique, they go to France. But — the best-kept secrets don’t lie in France, as most Europeans know.
Instead, they reside in the city known for putting mayonnaise on everything: London. Don’t let odd food choices put you off! Not only can you find quality items for your child in this great city, but if you look hard enough, you might even find a bargain or two—despite a weak dollar.
Best Store to Spot a Celebrity
Some high-profile Americans have no problem with our ever-shrinking dollar. Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Sharon Stone, and new super couple Brad and Angelina have all recently made the London area home. Rumors abound that Britney Spears is even looking to buy a place. Yep, pretty soon you won’t be able to swing a stick without hitting a celeb from this side of the water sporting an affected English accent.
Where can you see Detroit native Madonna shopping for jumpers (sweaters) and knickers (underwear) for her adorable children? Carmel (291 Brompton Rd) is a favorite of the former Material Girl. The Greek owner designs a fun and funky clothing line for tots that rival any High Street designer. Keep in mind: you won’t find traditional English attire here. And it’s not cheap: Madonna recently bought a pair of pants for her son Rocco that cost upward of US$125.
Let’s just say $125 might be a bit much for your wallet and you’d like a more affordable store to look for a celebrity. Thank Gwyneth Paltrow for having a thrifty side. Oxfam (various locations) is a secret of the famous. The aid organization, known for feeding and clothing thousands around the world, has a plethora of consignment shops around London that Ms. Paltrow has been known to patronize seeking designer duds for her daughter Apple. Oxfam stores are filled with trendy, second-hand (and sometimes new) kids’ clothes. You might be able to find that pair of Carmel pants for as little as $30.
Best Store for Divas in Training
Not only can you catch a glimpse of a celebrity while shopping with your child but if you are traveling with a teen, you can treat them to some VIP glamour treatment at Topshop (various locations, but the Oxford Street store is simply heaven).
Self-titled “The world’s largest fashion shop,” Topshop is a hip place for any age but is especially delightful for teen girls. One of the best aspects of shopping in London: two weeks after the newest fashions appear on the runway, they’re copied for the masses and show up in teen havens such as Topshop. You’ll find racks and racks of designer clothes at el cheapo prices. To make the experience even more fabulous you can treat your teen to a stylist, private dressing room, and yummy snacks—all for free. If you buy a gift card, they’ll throw in lunch and a manicure.
Best Store to Play with the Help
My favorite scene in “Mary Poppins” is when Mary convinces her wealthy charges that putting away their toys can be jolly good fun with just a little singing and concentration. If you look closely, you’ll notice the children are playing with some mighty fancy toys. I feel certain that since the movie is set in London, those elegant toys had to be purchased at Hamleys (188-196 Regent Street). With seven floors and over 35,000 toys to choose from, this toy oasis is arguably the best toy store in the world. Not only does Hamleys boast an incredible array of toys, their child-friendly staff is playful to a fault. You can’t walk 10 feet without a demonstration of some cool or hot new toy. Employees are engaging without being annoying, and the store bounces with frenetic energy. Best yet, they have cleverly removed all electronic, computer and video games to the basement level.
Each Hamleys floor fulfills a certain child’s wish list. One floor is devoted to dolls and all their accessory needs, another floor is filled with stuffed animals, and yet another floor contains a variety of games and puzzles. There’s an entire floor of video games that will blow away even the brainiest child. You may find that you enjoy yourself as much as your child.
Best Store to Spot JK Rowling
Children’s Book Centre (237 Kensington High Street) may not be the easiest place to get your children into, but once they step in, you won’t be able to get them out. The center is chock full of books (arranged according to age, up to 15 years), videos, and computer games. Saturdays here are a favorite pastime among the young London set; it’s the best day to enjoy special appearances by popular authors and cartoon characters. Don’t miss it.
Best Department Store for a Sugar High
There’s a reason almost everybody wants to stop by Harrods when in London. It’s huge. And everybody else is doing it. Princess Di shopped there. Angelina Jolie bought a ton of baby clothes there. Of course, these should not be the only reasons you take your child to Harrods. The fact that the store claims to be able to order anything for a price should get your child’s imagination working. If it’s produced somewhere, Harrods says they can get it for you.
If that’s not enough, take the kids up to the 4th floor Children’s Toy Department. Grab a guide, so the other 329 departments Harrods offers don’t distract you on the way. Yes, the store is a bit overpriced, but the extensive toy department rivals Hamleys.
The floor is laid out like a wonderland of toy goodness; there’s a reason they call it a “Toy Kingdom.” Extravagant dollhouses and child-sized cars may be out of your price range, but Harrods is a place for dreaming. Consider having your child visit the cartoon cafÃ© or sit him down for a free storytelling session while you look around for more adult fun.
When it’s time to leave the magical kingdom, walk through the Food Hall and its dazzling array of sugar options. Harrods carries enough sweets to make even the most well-mannered person drool. The latest and most popular addition to the food hall is the US sensation, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. There is always a line and the doughnuts cost 90 pence per piece (about US$1.60), but so many people are fascinated by the concept of the sweet treat that it makes you proud to be an American. If you are on a budget — and why torture yourself by even going into this store if you truly are — know that the staff always gives out free doughnuts to everyone in line. So if you are planning on buying just one, know that you’ll get one doughnut free. Krispy Kreme is the best way to top off a day of dreaming in this marvelous store.
The Beatles strolled it, Mary Quant made it famous, Twiggy perpetuated it, and Liberty of London set up shop at the corner. What street could be more famous to the average pop fan than Abbey Road? Answer: Carnaby Street in London, England.
Carnaby Street was celebrated anew by Austin Powers, whose photo, autographed by Mike Myers when he filmed there for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” sits proudly framed above the teak and brass shoeshine stand at the corner of Great Marlborough Street.
Where Shoppers Drop Pounds
After you’ve dropped several pounds (and I don’t mean weight) at Hamley’s, exit north up Regent Street and make your first left after Liberty’s world famous department store and home furnishings paradise to Carnaby Street.
Today, Carnaby Street is a two-block-long pedestrian mall, a shopper’s Mecca, with a Starbucks to resuscitate the weary and a corner pub to remind you you’re in Britain. But what makes it so unique is the eccentric collection of odd boutiques (many of them chains) interspersed with used clothing shops, Army Navy Surplus, and postcard vendors.
Octopus at no. 28 (020 7287 3916) has other branches at Covent Garden and Kings Road, but the incongruity of duck-bill handled umbrellas, refrigerator magnets, and clear vinyl briefcases filled with plastic flowers seems totally fitting on Carnaby Street. I could have spent 10 pounds on a rubber makeup case or 25p on a wonderful postcard but instead bought my son a sturdy glass goblet with a Mack truck base.
Carnaby Street is not exclusively eccentric – more traditional luxuries, such as yacht wear (Henri Lloyd), bath and beauty products (The Body Shop) and teas and coffees are available. Whittard of Chelsea at no. 43 (020 7439 0095) has been furnishing tea to Britain since 1886, in a gracious fashion still upheld at its Carnaby Street outlet.
While your children sample the many decaffeinated floral blends brewed for ice tea, you can sniff the dry broad tea leaves ofOrange Pekoe or beans of smoky Guatemala Elephant coffee. Himalayan teas, hot chocolates, African coffees, tea biscuits and other delicacies to serve late afternoon can be taken away, or shipped globally, for a hefty fee, of course.
“Fresh enviro funky” is how one customer describes Lush, a cosmetic products firm that revels in environmentally correct, handmade natural products. Soaps, shampoos, powders and creams (tested on inanimate objects) are sold by the kilo to a diversely hip clientele, then wrapped in paper by tattooed, body-pierced greengrocers.
The large natural wood and thatch Lush shop at no. 40 (020 7287 5874) is one of dozens throughout Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Japan, US and other bastions of hipness. Lush features wheels of translucent green soaps flecked with vegetables, stacks of Choco La La massage logs waiting to be cut into bars, crates of After Tango foot mask packed in orange skins, and gift-wrapped Summer of Love bath products. Lush goodies are healthy, reasonably priced and so well crafted that even baby’s sensitive skin will benefit from them.
Suzzanne’s Shopping Tips
Know your child’s sizes. British and European sizes are different from each other and different from America or Canada, and can be confusing. Make sure to bring this guide or ask a sales clerk before making a purchase.
Buying CDs is fine, but be careful when buying DVDs or VHS tapes. Many are recorded on PAL and are not compatible with American systems.
Inquire about shipping costs. Many stores will send purchases home at a reasonable price, and there’ll be one less bag for you to carry.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.