Had I stumbled across the My London Girl store in London's Westfield shopping centre by accident, I would have probably assumed it was a high-end children's wear boutique, what with the elaborate chandelier in the doorway and the classy displays of gorgeous pint-size clothing inside.
But My London Girl is in fact a toy shop. Specifically, it is the UK's first doll boutique. The 900 square foot store sells a range of dolls and doll outfits, and, the brand's USP – matching togs for girls aged three to 12.
There are seven 42cm dolls to choose from, each with different skin tone, hair and eye colour, from blue-eyed blondes to a black-skinned Afro-haired model. At £79 they are not cheap, and with their accessories and outfits starting at £2 for a hair clip through to £150 for a child-size limited edition party dress (they have David Charles designing some outfits for them), they are something of an 'investment' toy, but that seems much of the appeal; a companion doll that will almost 'grow' with the child.
But given all the other dolls on the market – and of course the ubiquitous Barbie – what will attract young girls to My London Girl? As a parent and auntie to three nieces, the answer is obvious to me: the store is girly and pretty and enticing, and many of the clothes are straight from fairy-tales: fluffy stoles, dresses with sequined bodies and organza, Disney-princess-style skirts. And they are for dolly AND child. And I imagine it is that side of things which will attract any critics; little girls in dolly's clothes, despite that alongside the frou-frou there are tracksuits, funky-but-practical flowery print tops and leggings, fleece hats and winter scarves. It is real life and make-believe all under one roof - and it's not all pink.
The store is the brainchild of husband and wife team Kathryn Fleetwood-Neagle and Paul Neagle. Kathryn – who is a teaching assistant and mum to two daughters – says they were inspired by the American Girl stores when they were on holiday in the States – but wanted to put a very British stamp on the concept.
'We were surprised there wasn't something like that here,' Kathryn tells me, adding that her 'real English slant' will include things like Wimbledon tennis and horse riding outfits - 'bringing out all those English hobbies.'
I ask her if she has specifically steered away from the 'trendy' togs and slogan type garments that many kids' clothing stores have on offer.
'We steer little girls away from the make up and the glamour that's in today's market,' she says, 'It's too much, if you ask me. I think we're doing that very well - people are finding that quite appealing. We haven't been asked by anybody - any child or any adult - if we sell make up or colour streaks for the hair or padded bras.'
Kathryn admits she is 'careful' about the clothes - for both the dolls and the children ranges: 'Because ours are soft-bodied dolls, I don't actually like the body showing,' she says, 'I know American Girl sell bikinis for their dolls, but we won't be selling anything that's cut-away, that shows the body. I think it's inappropriate for children anyway to wear revealing clothing, full stop. So I am careful about that.'
Nor will they be going down the same route as the US brand by incorporating hair and beauty salons and in-store diners.
'We won't be doing that,' Kathryn says, 'And we heard yesterday from one of our customers that they do ear piercing as well - that's another thing we won't be going for. I think there's still enough wow factor here for little girls. They just want to embrace the whole idea of what we are offering.'
Kathryn says she simply wants 'little girls to be little girls,' whilst in an interview with the London Evening Standard, her husband stated: 'We are not trying to turn little girls into adults' adding that he hoped 'that by making the dolls fashionable, it will 'extend the life of doll play among young girls.'
Part of the appeal of the store, Kathryn thinks, is the opportunity it gives children to act, play and behave in an age appropriate way – and it's something she thinks parents appreciate:
'They [parents] are thrilled with it, it's like a different world and I think they're happy for their little girls to be involved in that. Nowadays there are so many things that you don't want children to get involved in, but you get dragged along with 'Oh, but everyone else is wearing that', and 'everyone else has got that', but with this, I think they're happy to have found it.'
And it's not just pre-schoolers or very young children who are taken by the dolls. Kathryn says the store is often full of tweens and young teenagers at weekends:
'We get crowds of girls who have gone shopping together and they come in and pick things up and write notes and take photos of what they want to have, what they want for their birthday. I'm quite surprised because they'll be 13 or 14 year olds! They just love it. One actually cried the other day because one of the tops we were selling only went up to age 12 and she needed it bigger!'
Kathryn says the shop is hopefully just the start of the My London Girl concept, and that she has plans for 'different ideas': 'Maybe some story books, situation books, you know 'my visit to the dentist' or 'Mummy's having a new baby''. And she is even considering a boy version...
'I don't know how well-received it'll be, but I'm hoping to have two boys - a blonde and a brunette to begin with. We'll be having wizard dressing up outfits and a range of unisex football outfits and school uniform for boys. Little boys seem to like it a lot more than I thought they would!'
'I teach children with special needs and I've got a little boy who keeps asking me 'Have I got boy dolls?' and I say 'Would you like it if I had?' and he's 'Yeah, I really think that would be cool'. And he's nearly 10 and if he thinks it would be really cool, I think it could go quite well...'
What do you think? Have you visited the store?