2018 Back to School Roundup


In Art Direction, Digital Product Design Posted

I was having a conversation at work the other day about the way children are photographed by various brands.  It’s been at the forefront of many retail sites lately since it’s mid-August so I am prompted to write the first Great Back to School Roundup where I’ll catalog and discuss seven of the top brands carrying children’s clothing and how they measure up.  (Full disclosure: I can’t include Macy’s because I’m currently employed there.)  This is a subject close to my heart as we currently have a one year old so I’m much more emotionally affected by great photography of children and even more offended by campaigns that seem to have no understanding of the soul of a child let alone how to interact with one and a camera.  A lot of my research and writing lately has to do with a search and appreciation for “authenticity” in the digital realm and an deep frustration for what I find to be lacking when the potential is there, but since this article is about children, I need to clarify beforehand.  When I critique certain works, it’s about the brand team making the work and not about the talent of the wonderful children involved.  It’s definitely a more sensitive subject since little humans are involved.

“…I’m much more emotionally affected by great photography of children and even more offended by campaigns that seem to have no understanding of the soul of a child let alone how to interact with one and a camera.”


Coming in at number one is, of course Zara.  If you have been watching the evolution of Zara’s editorial photography the last few years this come as totally no surprise.  What I love about Zara is that they put as much time, effort, site space, and attention to their photography of children as they do to their women’s editorial.  That takes a serious commitment to the category and will only make it more profitable in the future.  The best thing is that the garments and accessories themselves are beautifully designed but at the same price level of many competitors with far less successful visual strategy.  That’s the secret sauce of Zara these days- keep the prices extremely competitive and the photography on the Gucci level.  Here are a few shots from their Fall Children’s campaigns:

So I love this campaign because it’s got that “Life is perfect and everything’s made out of organic cotton Muji” vibe.  This is not, I repeat NOT what our home looked like when we brought a baby home, but that’s the point of certain successful campaigns, right?  The casting is perfect.  The dad is precious and I believe that could be (probably is?) his own baby daughter.  The home is brightly lit and the soft shadows are folding into the creases of the fabrics beautifully.  It’s so warm and sweet.  You know they had to spend a significant time with this family to pull this off.  The commitment is obvious.

And now for a completely different type of campaign all together Zara is here channeling the recent work of Gucci, most especially their Dapper Dan collaboration campaign:

So many things to love about this shoot.  The mashup patterns of the bus seats and plaid pants, kids being real kids hanging from the ceiling poles.  Also some great choices for closeups and fun cropping.

Just one more shoot from Zara, but really it seems like they put up a new one every day:

This is a shoot where I feel like they’ve stripped away the props and gotten to the little soul of this beautiful tiny lady.  They don’t need to show the paint pots, it’s obvious what she has been up to.  Whether she’s staring straight into the camera, or back turned exploring the set, she’s totally “herself.”

Zara has a way of changing direction completely from one campaign to the next while maintaining the authenticity of childhood that is not easy to pull off as we will see by studying the formulas of other brands.

#2 Boden

Boden is a brand I was completely unfamiliar with until I Googled “children’s clothing” today to write this article but will now be receiving all of my income thank you.  The prices are just about double that of Zara and while they are not putting nearly as much money and resources into their photography they are managing to do an excellent job showing realistic children at play within a budget.

Very natural shots full of beautiful sunlight.  The children look very comfortable in their surroundings.

The group shot is a common element of most Back to School campaigns.  This one above seems more authentic than most.  I actually believe these four girls could realistically be friends.

I like how on their site they pop in an editorial shot among the product pool listings and accent them with little crayon scribbles and cute hand written copy.

#3 Burts Bees Baby

I love Burts Bees Baby photography because it features very real families. Just look at that precious little smile in between his not totally perfect daddy and mommy with her half sleeve of roses.  Adorable.  I’m also biased here because my little family is mixed race.

Oh the Family Pajama Shot, seems every brand site has to have one.  I like this one in particular because that mom actually looks like she might have given birth at some point.  Also that baby is very tiny and that means stressful times, but with such a lovely family it looks easy!  This actually makes me want family pajamas which is a new feeling for me.


I think realism is the name of the game here for Burts Bees Baby and that gives us all the feels!  Well done!

#4 H&M

I like this series of kids in the kitchen.  The children below are posed very naturally in this breezy white environment.  I like how one cutie is facing front and one back.  H&M also found a way awhile back to put the price directly over the editorial and make that look totally normal and not cheap too.

More cute kids in the same kitchen.  Their expressions are simple and darling. I love the little pointed toes!

Even more kids in this kitchen!  This one has batter all over his hands and yet none has landed on his overalls.  Reminds me of this editorial from New York Magazine recently of babies and todlers in designer clothing:

Baby in Dolce & Gabbana

And in Young Versace, but keeping in mind this is magazine editorial, not from a brand site.

#5 The Children’s Place

Here we have the classic Back to School group shot with kids rushing at the camera all smiles.  I’d rather see each child’s identity explored more the way some of the above brands have handled shots with multiple kids in it.  I know you can get great photography out of every one of these models if the team takes the time to plan out a story and then work patiently with the children. In addition, when you employ this style it’s hard to focus on any one garment and it’s all treated non-preciously.

This is a section of the site dedicated to future influencers.  Some parents may think it’s cute to see precocious children with hipster glasses tapping away on iPads ready to launch influencer careers, but I’m a little skeptical.  I’m more a fan of the shots showing kids being kids.

I love the concept of the photo above, but I feel like it can be pushed further by showing more of the soul of each kid here.  It might help to ask real kids if they wear their baseball cap backwards.  That feels like something we adults set up in branded photography because we think it’s cool rather than what the kids are doing these days.

I think this is from their blog.  It’s the most natural and successful photograph I saw on The Children’s Place site.  I like this dinosaur family.

#6 JCP

I want JC Penny to work on the way they feature children and young people so much.  The relationship from one to the next feels disconnected.  Again, these are all very cool kids worth taking the time to work into stories with meaning.  The viewer needs to be able to pick up on something in the story that they can relate to on an emotional level whether it’s humor, love, whatever.  For me that is missing from JCP.

These are beautiful children full of heart.  I can totally picture how great each could work in to a campaign, but JCP is missing the mark here.

#7 Old Navy

Old Navy takes a similar style as JCP with way better typography.

I think taking a little more time to shoot a lot of photos and then being more selective with what is chosen would go a long way toward helping Old Navy come across with a clear brand story and message.


In essence, great children’s editorial shots are less about what we think children are, and more about what each special little sprout is.  It takes time in preproduction to figure out what the story will be.  It takes patience and real effort to make that story come to life with the kids as real partners in the creative process once you are on set, and then great care to select the perfect shot.  Adding the right copy and typography should just be the cherry on top of what’s already a thoughtful concept come to life.  I always love to see what’s next from these brands that do it so very well, and hope those which need improvement can take inspiration from both their competitors in the market and the little ones they are working with.


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