When Sitting down with Sylvia Benoist, Design Director of her latest children’s clothing label, WK (short for Where the Wild Kids Are) it is clear she has been all around this world. You can’t quite place her accent? Is it French? Is she from a neighborhood in London I haven’t heard of? Or she could be South African? Her accent is a conglomeration of many years spent living around the globe with her South African husband, photographer Justin and their 11 -year -old son, Noah. Sylvia was born and raised in Normandy, France, though she hasn’t looked back since she left home. Always the rebel, she headed for London where she met Justin who was there working. She lived in London for 9 years until she became pregnant with Noah, and they decided to set sail back to South Africa. She remembers her London days fondly. “We shopped like mad. Portobello market of course. Everything was very music oriented. Very rock n’ roll.” It was a combination of being pregnant and a love of fashion that led her to her first label Petit Pois in 2003 which began with her first designs on baby grows “Make Love Not War” and prints of Elvis Presley.
For years at Journey Lifestyle, while I was the buyer, we couldn’t get enough Petit Pois on the rails and onto the shelves. Though we catered to young adults we had a smaller children’s section of kitsch toys, baby grows and blankets from Petit Pois with sayings on them like “It’s OK I’m with the band.” White on black. I never ordered pink for girls. And of course Petit Pois’s legendary baby blankets Louis Vutton inspired print with Nelson Mandela faces in between. Though inspired by Sylvia’s London days, she added in her own dashes of local Africa that truly made her label her own. At the time, no one in South Africa was making what Petit Pois was designing. Petit Pois’s children’s clothing range was fresh, hip and cheeky. It was a perfect fit at Journey. Though like all clever best selling designs, South Africa soon caught on and there were many copies of the design to follow saturating the already niche market.
From the very beginning in 2004 Petit Pois had always traded at the Biscuit Mill market, back when it was uber hip, but like all things in Cape Town the hip crowd shifted away from the Biscuit Mill once it became commercial. As the hip customer shifted out Sylvia noticed her customer changed significantly. Sylvia found that the new mainstream customer did not want to spend money on children’s clothes. “In South Africa,” she says, “children’s fashion is a much harder selling point. It’s not a money thing. It’s a cultural thing. You go to French schools and kids are so well dressed. It’s the one thing I really miss about France.” Though Sylvia was a rebel even in those days. She remembers she had to beg her mother for her first pair of denims who preferred her in a paddington coat and dresses.
The advent of Sylvia’s kids fashion blog, “where the wild kids are” began as a way to inspire the South African market about children’s fashion. What she found from the blog was that her biggest market was American. Justin even ended up getting work as a photographer from the blog from US clients. Sylvia’s latest children’s label, WK, was developed as a way to grow her brand internationally and focus more specifically on the marrying of illustration with functionality in children’s fashion. Her brand is now going to focus on export to the UK, US and Japan, though the manufacturing, design and materials will all be sourced locally. The children clothing labels that Sylvia admires most are all in Europe, particularly Mini Rodini. “It’s all about art work. They are a big inspiration. The reason why her brand is so good is because she is such a strong illustrator.”
With WK, “It’s all about the graphic prints and illustrations. The styles are very simple.” Sylvia believes in the athestic less is more. WK will continue with baby grows, harem pants, baby blankets, hoodies, bibs and tote bags, but she is teaming up with her lead illustrator South African Maritsa Odendaal. Sylvia says that she herself is very involved in the illustration process. She has an idea and she asks Maritsa to draw it. “We are all cat crazy, Marista and I. I asked her to do some hipster cats. Even with the cat’s heads I asked her to turn them a specific way.”
Sylvia has always been inspired by graphics, just look at all the tattoos on her arm. It is a natural progression for her to go in this direction and in time after maybe an illustrator course she may be drawing the very designs we see on the WK 100% cotton 100% fresh children’s clothes. WK’s first collection will launch S/S 2016.