Founder Alicia Peyrano believes that its innovative products and humanitarian approach can help nurture new generations of creative young minds.
Beneath the archway of a quaint courtyard in the centre of Holywood, County Down is to be found Little Citizens Boutique, a veritable Aladdin’s cave for children and parents. In its relatively short life, it has clocked up a brace of major accolades: Best Toy & Gift Junior Design Awards 2017 and winner of The Guardian Digital Innovation Challenge 2016. Now it is celebrating being voted the UK’s second best toy shop to visit, pipping at the post the likes of Harrods, Disney and the Lego Store, with only the global institution that is Hamleys of London ahead of it.
Little Citizens is the brainchild of Alicia Peyrano, a dynamic young woman of Argentine and Venezuelan parentage, who grew up in Boston and Buenos Aires and has lived in Northern Ireland since 2003. In 2006 she married Jon-Barrie Waddell, son of the distinguished television producer Brian Waddell. For some years she worked for Waddell Media, initially at the company's Holywood base and then, with her husband, in its newly established New York office. In February 2010 their daughter Zulema was born, at which point Peyrano felt the need for a change of career.
'I didn’t really know what I was looking for but as a new mum I didn’t want to keep the long hours that are part and parcel of working in television production,' she says. 'Spending time with Zulema, I became more and more interested in the space a baby’s mind inhabits.
'Before we moved back from New York I had gone into a store to buy something for my baby. It was called Sweet William and was a really cute, magical little store selling the most exquisite clothes and toys [Kim Kardashian-West has been papped shopping there]. It offered a unique artistic experience, a treasure trove of creativity and innovation. You don’t find places like that here.
'When Zulema was born the house was empty of baby things. We had none of the tools and toys you need for a baby's development. So one Saturday I took myself out shopping. I thought it would be a really fun thing to do, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Literally the only things I could find were big name brands and mass produced, run-of-the-mill stuff. I couldn’t find a single independent store selling imaginative, innovative things for kids. It got me thinking about Sweet William and whether there was scope for a little shop like that locally.'
Peyrano admits to being 'a huge online browser'. Bit by bit she embarked upon a worldwide journey of discovery, uncovering a vast international network of artists and creatives working in this field. Her own professional experience is in the creative industries, a combination of journalism, graphic design, animation and programme production. But, as she explains, she comes from a retail and business background and the establishment of Little Citizens has brought together many threads of her life and background.
'When I worked for Time Out in Buenos Aires, I wrote the shopping section,' she recalls. 'While Initially I didn’t think there was much challenge in that, I quickly discovered that visiting shops and investigating their range of products tells you so much about the world we are living in.
'My father was a wine importer and my mother had a creche at the house for many years. I have always been an ideas person and my father taught me to be entrepreneurial. My mother gave me invaluable advice and opinions as a professional child carer. I showed my husband the beautiful children’s clothes I had found on the internet and he encouraged me to start up my own online business. We thought for ages about a name for the business and I remembered something my parents taught me when I was young. People were always asking me where I was from, where my family came from, what nationality I was. Rather than go into the complications of it all, they told me say that I was a citizen of the world.
'The name sums up the ethos of the business. I describe it as an independent toy and idea store that brings little people into contact with top quality design and innovation from Scandinavia, France, Germany, America, India, the Far East. In other words, it acknowledges them as little citizens of the world.
'The online business did well and the clothes we sold were magnificent but expensive. The response was mixed. Belgian and Peruvian parents, for instance, don’t flinch from spending a lot of money on clothes for their children, but UK parents see it differently. They would prefer to buy a load of cheap clothes from a global brand than a small number of quality garments. I began thinking about how to expand into an associated market. Toys seemed a natural development. A well made toy can last years, there is no sell-by date and the child doesn’t grow out of it quickly. Through the internet you can connect with customers right across the world. That seemed to be the way to go.
'I’m pleased to say it was a good decision. The business has grown and grown through our very active online presence. The majority of our orders come from South East England, the United States, Australia, the Middle East, the Far East and Europe. We take pride in our personalised service. It is labour intensive and all done by our great little team here in Holywood. We wrap items individually, we put pretty handwritten notes in with them. At the moment, we have an order for 45 customised party bags for a client in Hong Kong. She comes to us because she knows we take real care in choosing the contents and in their presentation. That, to me, is a sign that we do things well.'
Lift the latch of the heavy wooden door underneath the archway and step inside. You will be plunged into a maze of colourful nooks and crannies. While it may be the window into a thriving internet business, the store is a tiny wonder in its own right. What child - or adult - would not be captivated by this dizzying array of toys and books, all personally sourced and chosen to delight the eye, stimulate young imaginations and keep small hands and brains engaged and busy?
Peyrano travels to fairs in Ireland, the UK, Europe and the US to handpick her products. There is a humanitarian ethos behind many of the products, indicative of the big plans she has for developing the business into something that taps into the zeitgeist.
'We are very much a ‘now’ business,' says Peyrano, who recently joined the Board of Young at Art, Northern Ireland’s leading art provider for children and young people. 'The future is about marrying content to a sustainable business. We have had a lot of help from a lot of people. Invest NI’s Go For It scheme got us started and INI remains very supportive. I’m always looking to push back the boundaries between science and technology and the arts. This month, we are taking part in the NI Science Festival with a Girls STEM Toy Hackathon, which will mix designers, educators, entrepreneurs, students, scientists, engineers, parents and artists to produce a prototype for a toy capable of preparing children for our changing world.'
Take a look at the Little Zine blog and the titles of recent posts give an indication of Peyrano’s forward thinking. There are regular Meet the Designer features, as well as thoughtful articles on when to give a child a mobile phone and how to keep them safe with it, advice on protection from sexual abuse, discussions on parenting, the latest news about toys designed to satisfy children's natural curiosity. Little Citizens has partnered with Barnado's in Belfast on a range of Worry Eater toys for Syrian refugee children. The purchaser writes a welcoming note for the child and puts it into the toy’s tummy, where it will be joined by notes from the child expressing his or her fears and insecurities. Essentially, the friendly toy gobbles up the child’s worries.
The manufacture of the best selling Grimm’s Rainbow is outsourced to wood workers in Bosnia, providing valuable employment opportunities in a country still recovering from years of conflict. Closer to home in Donegal, Lottie Dolls are loved by children because they look just like them. Their mission is to empower young minds and foster individuality through play. Parents love them them because they represent positive role models who are innocent and ambitious.
'Little Citizens has become all consuming, it’s always on my mind,' admits Peyrano. 'It has grown up alongside my own child and is very dear to me. I believe that we are doing things a little different from the mainstream and that more and more families are thinking about who they buy from and what they bring into their homes for their families. By supporting independent designers we celebrate the imagination in children. I feel passionately that raising children with creative toys and play is a route to nurturing citizens with open hearts, who are more capable of solving the world’s problems in the future.'
For more on Little Citizens Boutique visit its website where you'll also find links to its social networks.
This article has been published ahead of Creativity Month 2018, themed around 'careers in the creative industries'. Follow Creativity NI on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming news on this year's event programme celebrating the creative industries in Northern Ireland all throughout March. For more features from previous years click here.