16 Dec 2015
Novelty and Quality Sparks Keen Interest at UK Christmas Gifts Fair
British, bespoke, eco-friendly innovative and charitable were among the winning words being bandied around at this year's Spirit of Christmas Fair, with visitor numbers suggesting a distinct penchant to spend, spend, spend this season.
With Xmas sales always a useful barometer of the economic well-being of any country, London's annual Spirit of Christmas Fair is always a useful chance to take stock of how things are faring in one of Europe's most robust markets. It is also a key indicator as to how confident the UK, as well as a number of its EU partners, remain about the year to come.
Stuart Hunter, the Director of the Spirit of Christmas Fair, is in no doubt about the role the event plays. He says: "The Fair celebrates the start of the Christmas season and provides a showcase for high quality products from hundreds of the UK's finest independent retailers.
"Welcoming brands that are not usually found on the high street, it is a unique shopping opportunity to buy for yourself as well for family and friends."
One returning visitor to the event was Enchanted Trees, an artificial LED tree company, in town to showcase its range of illuminated garlands, grapes and trees. According to Annabel Gaynor, Director of the West Sussex-based company, its trees come in three sizes – 1.5m, 2m and 3m. The company launched trees with leaves at the event, a development that Gaynor said had received largely positive feedback.
Commenting on the response, she said: "Our illuminated trees have created such a buzz and we are now receiving orders from all over the world. You will see our illuminated trees at music festivals, bars, exhibitions, shops and wedding venues.
"In people's houses, they illuminate hallways, bedrooms, conservatories, terraces, driveways and lawns. They shower homes and gardens with atmospheric light wherever they're needed."
Bramwell Brown Clocks of London, formed by the brother and sister team of Rob and Sarah Leigh-Bramwell, was another exhibitor to enjoy brisk footfall throughout the event. Explaining the thinking behind one of the most popular items in its range, Rob Leigh-Bramwell said: "After a failed search to find a barometer that held any appeal for home use, we had the idea to invent one that would be more contemporary but yet still analogue – and simply a bit more exciting.
"Our products combine nostalgia with highly innovative engineering and product design to produce something that we hope is totally unique and complementary to the modern home."
He said that the company is now working with UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) to explore export opportunities, believing that the overseas markets will be very important to the business moving forward.
Taking a more back to basics approach was Blacksmith Alex Pole, Owner of Alex Pole Ironwork. He was attending Spirit of Christmas to launch Forge Kitchenware, a new range that includes bottle openers and utensil racks. Explaining the USP of his particular products, Pole said: "We use modern and traditional techniques at the forge in South Somerset where all work is produced by hand and, wherever possible, we use materials sourced from the local area.
"One of my primary aims is to promote British blacksmithing and to make it accessible – and affordable – to the general public. I am fully committed to running a sustainable UK business and will reuse, recycle, and salvage when and where I can."
Another company keen to emphasise its Britishness was Will Bees Bespoke. This Devon-based company launched just 18 months ago, with a focus on designing and manufacturing a range of accessories in a variety of styles. At present, it uses more than 500 fabrics and four different vegetable-tanned leather combinations to produce each line.
The bespoke element goes beyond the personal choice of materials. Designs can actually by further personalised with customers' initials embossed at the workshop.
Will Bees, Founder of the business, said: "We only use top quality textiles – linens, tweeds, plain, patterned, striped, checked – and natural vegetable-tan leathers. All our suppliers are UK-based and, most importantly, everything is handcrafted in England using traditional techniques."
There are more than 700 lines in the Will Bees Bespoke range with the company happy to personalise any purchases made at its stand during the course of the event.
For those looking for something a little more cutting edge, Rocknife, a British cutlery company, had on offer its new range of ceramic knives at the event. Damian Cardozo, the company's Lead Designer, described the products as far sharper than steel and likely to keep their edge for years to come.
Cardozo said: "Founded in 2014, Rocknife creates and designs its own kitchenware, from the shape of a handle to the design on the blade. We carefully put every aspect of each product together before it is prototyped and tested."
At present, the company sells largely via its website, rocknife.com. To date, it has received a substantial number of international orders.
More of the truly altruistic spirit of Christmas, however, could be found over on the stand of From Babies With Love, a UK-registered charity that supports abandoned children across the world. Explaining the charity's mission, Founder Cecilia Crossley said: "When I became a parent, watching charity adverts and reading articles about the hardship children face all over the world made me more determined than ever to do something.
"I was out shopping for my firstborn's clothes when I thought to myself – if I could buy beautiful baby products and know the profit helps babies in need, would I ever buy anywhere else? The answer is, I wouldn't."
The online shop of From Babies With Love features organic baby clothes and greetings cards, with 100 per cent of its profit donated to SOS Children, its partner charity.
Firmly back on a more commercial footing is Isla & Wilbur, a London-based organic cotton and bamboo clothing brand, launched by the husband and wife team of Hamish and Emma Dalrymple in March 2015.
Explaining the unusual genesis of their business, Hamish Dalrymple said: "We are Isla's parents and we live in London. Wilbur is our nephew and he lives with his parents in Houston in Texas. We were inspired to create Isla & Wilbur during a trip to America to visit Wilbur in October 2013.
"Our market research confirmed our belief that there was a gap in our home market. We thought we could reflect this by using hand-drawn characters, combined with colours that complement contemporary interior design."
Also paying strict attention to the more junior end of the market is YUUWorld, a British children's backpack brand that first came to public attention in the UK when it featured on the BBC TV series Dragons' Den. Outlining its proposition, Director Gill Hayward said: "We were fed-up of seeing children carrying their stuff in flimsy and non-supportive backpacks. We wanted to produce a backpack that would be more supportive, yet light-weight.
"YUUbag is an ergonomically designed backpack made of compressed light-weight material, with adjustable straps. Inside, there are compartments to hold items in place, and a chest strap with a whistle to encourage children to wear the bag correctly."
According to Hayward, the company is now looking to grow its international sales. Outside of Europe, it currently sells its products in Australia, the Middle East and New Zealand.
Again with a focus on young consumers, Director, Sarah Kerr, launched Cheeky Elephant, her UK-based children's gifts company, in 2014. She started the business as a UK and Ireland distributor for the Yumbox lunchbox and the Tidy Table Tray. This, year, though the company was launching The Reward Box, its first self-developed product.
Kerr said: "The Reward Box is the first of my own products to be developed. It is a concept I have used with my own children ever since they were very little. It is one that has proven successful time after time when it comes to managing everyday behaviour or even helping with potty training and bedtime arrangements".
The Spirit of Christmas Fair 2015 was held at Olympia in London from 2-8 November. According to the organisers, the event enjoyed a 5.5% increase in visitor numbers over 2014. This saw 46,848 visitors attending the event, together with 710 exhibitors.
Simon King, Special Correspondent, London