How the rise of the luxury pram capitalised on the status anxiety of a new generation of parents
Before she had a baby, Kari Boiler never noticed what kinds of buggies were on the streets. But when Boiler – an American then working for an advertising agency in Amsterdam – became pregnant with her first child in 2001, she realised that the city’s pavements were dominated by a single buggy: the Frog, a sleek, futuristic stroller designed by a tiny Dutch company called Bugaboo. “It was all over Amsterdam – you didn’t see another stroller,” she said.
Near the end of the year, as their daughter Charlie approached her first birthday, the Boilers took a six-week sabbatical in Manhattan Beach, a wealthy seaside community just south of Los Angeles. There, when Boiler pushed Charlie along the pavement in her red Bugaboo Frog, people stopped and stared. For all its ubiquity in Amsterdam, Bugaboo was unknown outside of Europe. One day, a man in a Porsche pulled up and demanded to know what that thing was and where he could buy one.
Perfect prams for perfect parents: the rise of the bougie buggy – podcast
At the time, most American buggies were either as foldable and flimsy as an umbrella, or heavy and lumbering, like plaid-clad shopping trolleys. The Bugaboo Frog was spare but sturdy, collapsible, easy to push with one hand, and had wheels that could be switched to cope with snow or sand. The handlebar could also be flipped over the top of the buggy to choose the direction the child faced – toward the world or the parent. Boiler and her husband loved their buggy, and they quickly realised it would be a hit with American parents. “As a consumer focus group of two people,” Boiler recalled, “we were like: ‘Why aren’t these options here?’”
So when they returned to Amsterdam, Boiler arranged a meeting with Bugaboo. The company had been founded in 1997, and introduced its first buggy to European markets in 1999. Even after the release of its hugely popular Frog in 2001, Bugaboo still had only seven people on staff. At the meeting, Boiler made her pitch: she wanted to bring Bugaboo to the US. They asked her if she wanted to buy the company. “I told them: ‘You’d be crazy to sell it!’,” Boiler said. Instead, she returned to Manhattan Beach in 2002 as president of Bugaboo America. She stacked 15 Bugaboo Frogs in her garage – all the inventory the company could spare.
Boiler’s strategy was simple: “Making sure those 15 strollers got in the right hands.” That meant wealthy, visible people in LA. She tracked down the Porsche driver who had asked her about her buggy – it turned out he was the head chef at Nobu Malibu – and offered him one. But her real coup was getting one into the hands of Miranda Hobbes, the red-headed lawyer played by Cynthia Nixon on Sex and the City. It was, Boiler said, “the biggest, most iconic show” on television, so when one of the key characters got pregnant, Boiler called up the props department. On 25 August 2002, a Bugaboo Frog, purple with a cream interior, appeared in episode six of season five, parked in the hallway of Miranda’s apartment while she frantically prepared for work after a sleepless night with the baby.
As the closing credits rolled, parents across the US scoured the internet to find “that cute stroller”, much as they did after Carrie first lusted after a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels. Within 18 months, the Frog – despite having a price tag of $700 (£500), hundreds more than most other buggies on the US market – was all over the streets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham were pictured pushing them. Bugaboo’s US sales tripled for two years in a row; in the UK, they doubled. When the company released a new model, there were months-long waiting lists to buy one. (When the Bugaboo Bee came out in 2007, it had as long a waiting list as that year’s other hot new lifestyle item: the first iPhone.)
It was the beginning of a new era in the consumerist frenzy that is contemporary parenthood – the dawn of the performance pram. Less than two years after the Frog’s appearance on Sex and the City, half a dozen other companies had their own high-end models nipping at the Bugaboo’s interchangeable wheels. Bugaboo and its brethren were a leap forward in design and functionality, with swivel wheels, serious shock absorption, adjustable everything – they did a lot more than just roll. All that new functionality justified the cost, at least to some parents. Buying a stroller started to feel more like buying a car.
In the past, buggies were marketed toward parents concerned about affordability (“How am I going to pay for this baby?”) or safety (“How will I keep this baby alive?”). But the new generation of buggies appealed to a deeper existential anxiety in modern parents: “Who am I going to be after this baby comes?” The answer, these objects said, was that you’d be the same person you always were, the kind of person who is interested in design, travel, style – albeit with a new and much needier co-pilot. Becoming a parent didn’t mean becoming your parents.
By 2016, the US industry alone was worth nearly $750m, and analysts predict the global industry will grow to $3.5bn by 2020, even as birth rates are falling. Today, there’s also a thriving market for second-hand high-end buggies, and big business in repairing them: Buggy Pitstop in Harrow, the first independent pushchair repair specialist in the UK, services about 50 buggies a week.
Although Bugaboo and its direct competitors are too expensive to lead the market in sales, they have come to dominate people’s ideas about what a buggy ought to be – aspirational but attainable, functional but stylish. After the arrival of the performance pram, what you pushed your child in seemed to say something about you as a parent; it was easy to feel like the better the buggy, the better, the more competent and caring the parent. What began as a buggy for the 1% quickly became an investment that more and more parents were willing to make.
Why was it so easy to convince parents to spend so much on a buggy? It wasn’t just that they had better designs or superior technology: Bugaboo and its ilk had become an emblem of a new kind of parent.
Nearly everyone I spoke to holds Bugaboo responsible for turning the luxury buggy into a “status symbol”. But for all their pretensions of necessity, prams and buggies have always been signs of status – as well as reflections of the anxieties of the era.
For most of human history, mothers simply carried their infants. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that European aristocrats who had carriages for themselves decided their children needed carriages, too. Designed to be pulled by servants, dogs, goats or small ponies, these miniature carriages were beautiful and absurd: a three-wheeled rig built in around 1800 for the Duke of Wellington’s oldest son was made of giltwood, shaped like a seashell and upholstered in blue-green velvet.
But it was the Victorians who largely invented the modern pram. Rapid urbanisation crowded people of all classes into filthy cities. Nannies, according to the contemporary press, couldn’t be trusted not to drop their charges. In response, some wealthy parents had more practical carriages built for their children. The word “perambulator” originally applied to the person pushing the vehicles, but it was quickly conflated with the conveyances themselves. These turned out to be useful in distinguishing yourself from your social inferiors: “A perambulator was an indicator that you had some place to perambulate in – that you had a private garden or were close to one of the parks,” Janet Rawnsley, the author of a forthcoming book on the history of buggies, told me.
Prams, as they came to be called in the popular press, quickly became objects of trickle-down desire. Queen Victoria was one of the first celebrity influencers to make them fashionable. In 1846, she bought three, at four guineas each, from Hitchings Baby Stores of Ludgate Hill in London. Within a few years, there were more than 20 pram manufacturers in the capital; six had showrooms on Oxford Street. Around the same time, pram-makers began targeting the middle-class market, with advertisements that depicted mothers pushing them, rather than servants.
The state of the art in prams in 1926.
Cheaper prams soon entered the marketplace, enabling working-class parents to buy one, and by the 1920s and 30s, prams had evolved from luxury to necessity. (Though the terms are often used interchangeably – and today many models function as both – broadly speaking, newborns lie prone in prams, and older infants sit in buggies, pushchairs or strollers.) How people moved around their cities and towns had changed – people went further to visit family or friends, or to the shops – and mothers recognised the ease that pushing a child offered. In post-war Britain, more disposable income, rising standards of living, and the suburban housing boom solidified the pram’s place in society: just as father needed his motorcar, mother needed her pram. On the face of it, this reinforced the idea that a “woman’s place” was taking care of children, but it was also quietly liberating; as Rawnsley notes, if you were a woman with small children, the pushchair was what enabled you to leave the house.
The buggy industry has always responded to wider changes in society. Through the 1960s and 70s, cars became cheaper, and more parents needed a pram that could fit in the boot. In 1965, British aeronautics engineer Owen Maclaren pioneered the lightweight, aluminium-framed “umbrella stroller”, named for its ability to fold down to a fairly slender stick. It put most of the companies still manufacturing traditional prams out of business. The next big innovation came in 1984, when a marathon runner invented the first jogging buggy – a three-wheeled design that made it easier to take your baby on a run, capitalising on the 80s jogging craze.
By the end of the century, babyhood had undergone an unprecedented commodification: parents had more money to spend on protecting and pampering their children, and there was an increasingly bewildering array of stuff to spend it on. Many people were also becoming parents later in life, when their incomes had caught up with their tastes; they wanted the nursery to look as sophisticated as the rest of their home. At the same time, in the wake of Apple’s design-led success with computers that looked like bioluminescent clamshells, there was a new vogue for “redesigns” of previously mundane products, like rubbish bins and tea kettles. Companies of every sort started focusing more on how a thing looked than solely how cheap it was to make.
Design-focused baby gear companies surged into the marketplace, often furnished with similar origin stories: entrepreneurs, most of them new parents, saw baby gear as a wasteland of pink and blue plastic, and wanted better. Boutique children’s shops popped up across the world, selling organic cotton sleep sacks, £80 nappy bags and £500 beechwood cots.
But the biggest shift had to do with society’s changing gender dynamics. More and more women, taking care of children and pursuing careers for the first time, were unsure of how to navigate both work and motherhood, and companies saw an opportunity to sell them stuff that promised to make it easier. Equally transformative was the fact that by the late 90s and early 2000s, significant numbers of men were pushing prams, carrying nappy bags and doing childcare. According to one study, the amount of time British fathers spent caring for infants and children each day rose 800% between 1975 and 1997 (though it was still less than mothers).
Companies believed that this new male buyer expected better stuff – less bland, less infantile – than that which the previous female buyer was willing, or forced, to put up with. Designers, who were still mostly men, began to look anew at the practical and aesthetic challenges presented by the buggy, and realised that making a new model was no less exciting than designing a new car.
Into this complex, gendered terrain rolled Bugaboo, with the explicit mission to appeal to modern sensibilities – and to the modern dad. “When we entered the market in 1997, there were ugly strollers with ugly teddy bear prints on it, with white wheels,” Max Barenbrug, co-founder of Bugaboo and the inventor of its key designs, told me, with well-worn disgust. The prams were clumsily designed, with “lots of tubes and bars” and “cheap parts”.
Barenbrug, 53, is tall, lanky and energetic, with pale hair and pale eyes behind light-framed glasses. We met in a conference room at Bugaboo’s headquarters on the outskirts of Amsterdam, where much of the design and some of the product testing happens. The office decor is friendly but minimalist, in keeping with Bugaboo’s aesthetic, which aims to appeal to parents rather than children. (Likewise the company’s logo: rather than being cutesy, it’s three overlapping circles, inspired by the view through a gun barrel that appears in the opening sequence of many of the James Bond movies.)
In 1994, Barenbrug was 29 and childless, in his final year at Eindhoven’s highly respected Design Academy, and looking for a graduation project. Buggies, he thought, were boring, ugly and impractical. Fathers were uncomfortable pushing them, and most were too short for Dutch men anyway. (According to a 2016 study, Dutch men are, on average, the tallest in the world.)
But reinventing the buggy wasn’t easy. Even the most basic one needs to work both for the person pushing it and for the person who actually sits in it. If it’s to be used from birth, that means accommodating a passenger who, between their first ride and the time they no longer want to sit in a buggy, will grow more than twice as tall and four times as heavy.
Without exception, these passengers are erratic, intemperate and fragile. The buggy needs to offer substantial shock-absorption in order to minimise the risk of rattling the infant brain. It needs to have responsive brakes. It needs to be difficult to tip over. It needs to have a safety harness that is easy to put on but hard to get out of. (Between 1990 and 2010, there were nearly 361,000 buggy-related injuries in the US; 67% were from children falling out of them.) Anything in reach of the passenger needs to be non-toxic. If the buggy folds up, it needs to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. (In 2009, Maclaren USA recalled 1m buggies after 12 children lost their fingertips in the folding hinge.)
Then there’s the physical stress that a buggy is bound to endure. “There are the predictable forces, and then there are the unpredictable ones,” James Lamb, an industrial designer and tutor at the Royal College of Art, told me. The predictable forces are fairly straightforward. For example, now during design and manufacture, Bugaboo’s models are subjected to a battery of tests. In the “irregular surface test”, the buggy is set on a treadmill to judder across some 480,000 bumps; the “curb mount test” simulates climbing a street curb 10,000 times with a full weight load in the buggy; and the distance test is a question of how far can it go. (Bugaboo’s Cameleon3 lasted 5,592 miles – you could push it from Miami to Seattle and back before it fell apart.)
A Bugaboo Frog.
Then there are the unexpected situations, like getting stuck in the closing doors of a train, or trying to get off a bus at rush hour with your shopping hanging off the back. These can’t be tested for, but have to planned for. “That’s partly why they have to be over-designed,” Lamb said.
But when Barenbrug first set about solving the problem of ugly buggies, none of this crossed his mind. All he wanted to do was to design a buggy that he thought would appeal to men by bringing “beauty”, “simplicity” and “joy” into the design. The original prototype he made for his project lives on a shelf behind Bugaboo’s reception desk. He asked an assistant to bring it in. “That was 1994,” he said.
The prototype looked unlike any other pushchair then on the market. It had an L-shaped seat with a small footrest, riding on a silver frame of bent metal. The handlebar stretched down to meet the axle connecting the two large front tyres, which Barenbrug says he took from a child’s bike; the metal bars attaching the smaller rear wheels seemed to continue into the base of the seat, giving the profile the impression of an X. It looked more like a handcart than something you’d put your baby in. “Because it was a man that had to be behind this stroller, I wanted it to be all-terrain, jogging,” Barenbrug said. It had the ability to attach to a bike – this was the Netherlands, after all – and, with a flip of the handlebar, to switch to two wheels. “Nice, eh? In this position, you can go into the woods, into the mountains.”
As a parent, it made me nervous. The seat was too angular and exposed, and there was no weather cover. There were also no straps to keep the child in – just a bar to go over their legs, like a sketchy funfair ride. There’s little of the womblike comfort I’ve come to expect from a buggy. It was, Barenbrug agreed, “too spartan”.
But even if the flesh wasn’t quite there yet, the bones of later models were. (As was the name Bugaboo, silk-screened on to the red fabric seat. It means “bogeyman”, but Barenbrug thought it was “cute”.) The prototype’s most important structural piece was Barenbrug’s signature innovation, the central joint – Bugaboo’s name for the axis where the bottom of the handlebar meets the top of the front and rear legs and the support for the seat. Visually, this made a simpler, more attractive design, the nearly straight line from the handlebar through the front wheels giving a sense of strength. Functionally, it would enable you to do things such as change the direction the child faced just by swinging the handlebar over the seat.
Even now, after multiple iterations and more than 20 years, this central joint is the crux of most of Bugaboo’s models, and the thing Barenbrug is most proud of. “For me, it is the purest structure there is. Central joint, front leg, rear leg, seat, handlebar. That’s it,” Barenbrug said. “You cannot make it more simple,” he went on. “If you ask me to improve this design – I cannot.”
Barenbrug graduated from design school with honours and an award, but this meant little in the commercial world. “We were idealistic, we thought we could bring it to the market,” he said. “We could not. The people in the shops, they all said: ‘Mommy doesn’t want this and daddy is not ready for it.’ So we had to change the design.”
Over the next three years, Barenbrug redesigned the stroller, making it safer and more comfortable. In 1997, his then brother-in-law, a physician and entrepreneur named Eduard Zanen, fronted the seed money to make new prototypes in Taiwan, and became a co-founder of the company. Armed with 10 of their new prototypes, Barenbrug and Zanen took a booth at the Kind + Jugend Fair in Cologne, one of the world’s biggest trade fairs for baby and child gear. Retailers and manufacturers who had passed on the 1994 prototype suddenly loved the 1997 version. After a few hiccups and some tweaks to the design, they began producing a new model, the Classic, in 1999. Uptake was immediate, Barenbrug said. “They were pulled out of our hands. There was no sales push.”
When you buy a buggy – or rather, when you buy into one – you can feel like you’re pushing around a physical representation of how much you love your child. You want the best for your child, and you worry about not only being able to provide it, but also being perceived by other parents to be providing it. But you don’t want to overdo it – no one thinks conspicuous consumption is a good look. It’s a difficult line to tread.
When Bugaboo came along, it seemed to offer a way out of these anxieties. There had been very expensive strollers before – the same year Bugaboo released the Frog, Maclaren put out its limited-edition, $2,000 titanium-and-leather Techno – but unlike them, Bugaboo eschewed ostentation. It presented its products as brilliant, useful pieces of design, not as vehicles for trumpeting your wealth.
The company had hit a sweet spot. It was practical luxury – luxury that didn’t feel too luxurious. “When you go to the park, people aren’t going to think you’re a snob for having one,” James Lamb, the industrial designer, said. Plus, it wasn’t really for you, it was for the baby – a phrase that rationalises all kinds of purchases.
Part of the way Bugaboo sold this image was by addressing people as adults rather than parents. Instead of placing adverts in parenting magazines, the company targeted sophisticated design and lifestyle publications such as Dwell and New York Magazine, cultivating the perception that it was a mobility design company that just happened to make strollers. Bugaboo also sells luggage, but has never sold any other baby products, despite what seems like a logical expansion of its brand.
In his office, Barenbrug asked me if I had owned a Bugaboo. I hadn’t – I remember feeling that maybe we should have bought one, like so many people we knew had, but we couldn’t justify the cost for something with an expiration date. Instead, we got the less expensive Quinny Buzz, which ticked most of the boxes – not too shiny, adjustable-height handle, and so on – despite having a name that sounded like Victorian slang for vagina.
“It’s shit,” Barenbrug declared. He sprang over to the Bugaboo Cameleon3 to demonstrate its infinite superiority – the reversible handle, the seat that could be taken off the chassis and used as a carrycot (useful if you don’t want to wake a sleeping baby), and other things parents didn’t know they needed until Bugaboo provided them. Barenbrug half-shouted: “To be honest, the consumer is stupid as hell, they know nothing, and they’re pregnant!”
Barenbrug is still frustrated that not every consumer recognises the exceptional utility of Bugaboo’s design innovations – and that people like me continue to buy the lesser designs of their rivals. Long-time marketing head Madeleen Klaasen sees their competitors, even the ones that are derivative of Bugaboo, as useful: “There’s more acceptance in the market that people buy, or spend more money on it,” she said.
Hearing this, Barenbrug grimaced. “I don’t see it like that,” he mumbled. The problem is, he said, Bugaboo created the category, but now they don’t stand out in it: “The competitors are getting bigger, and they look like us, and some people don’t even see a difference.”
A ‘power-pramming’ class in London in 2006.
These days, it may not be obvious to parents what they get for the extra few hundred pounds a Bugaboo costs. Strict international regulation of baby products means that cheaper brands of buggy are just as safe, while Bugaboo’s innovations have pushed other buggy makers at all price points to start offering more functionality (even if Barenbrug is right that most of their competitors don’t offer as much). This is the question that has always dominated Bugaboo’s success, and the question my husband and I asked ourselves, and the one that still pops up in articles, parents’ forums and innumerable chats over coffee: is a £1,000 buggy really worth it?
After years of doubling and tripling sales, the question of value became a problem for Bugaboo during the recession. “The story then began to get away from us,” recalled Kari Boiler, who left Bugaboo five years ago to become a life coach. “It was: ‘Oh, you’re just expensive to be expensive.’ Every article, every person I talked to wanted to talk about price.” Parents couldn’t justify it. In 2008, according to figures provided by the company, Bugaboo earned €80m in revenue. The next year, revenue plunged 15% to €68 million.
It was a turbulent period for the company, but it doubled down on its message that their buggies were investment pieces. In the middle of the financial crisis, it raised the price on its Cameleon model. Then, in 2011, the company put out its answer to a double stroller, the Donkey. The new model inspired the same frenzied interest previous models had – one New York children’s boutique charged parents $60 just to gaze upon it before it went on sale – and by 2012 Bugaboo’s revenue had climbed to €94m. In 2015, the last year covered by the figures they provided, Bugaboo’s revenue was €151m.
Many of the other companies that leaped into the parenting-gear bubble in the early 2000s are no more. But Bugaboo is still here: each week at its factory in Xiamen in China, 2,000 strollers roll off an assembly line that Barenbrug designed himself. This month, Bugaboo released its latest model, the Fox, which folds down to the size of a small suitcase.
This cachet is what private investment firm Bain Capital banked on when it agreed to buy the company last month; Barenbrug, Klaasen, and other staff will stay in their positions. No one would disclose the price, but speculation in the financial media put it at around €200m (£175m).
Bugaboo didn’t have to work hard to convince people that buying a buggy is an emotional investment, because it is. After the birth of our first son, the Quinny was the object I touched more than anything else in the house, except my phone. Our first son abused it until our second came along two-and-a-half years later and evicted him. And then, just like that, after four years of daily use, we didn’t need it anymore. We stashed it away in the loft until last summer, when we sold it on Gumtree for £40 in cash to someone who didn’t mind the foam peeling off the handle. I didn’t expect to feel sadness at its departure, but I did.
When you’re pregnant, buying a buggy is a big decision that you can control, in the face of so many things that you can’t. The promise that your life doesn’t have to change too much is beyond hollow – no buggy will ever buy back the bits of yourself you sacrifice on the altar of parenthood. But it resonates. We buy things to reflect who we are and who we want to be; it would be nice to be that parent who keeps hold of the person they were before the baby came. And once the baby does come, you have the kind of dependent relationship with a buggy that you might have with your first car, but deeper, because it has to do with your children and the finite time you have with them. Selling it on is depressing evidence that you are all getting older, that you won’t be needing baby stuff again.
The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry.
Vicki Psarias, a writer who has blogged as The Honest Mum since 2010, offered me her theory of why so many people buy Bugaboos. It was, she said, because it was a genuinely well made product, and because of the “herd mentality”. Buying the same pram as your friends provides mutual reassurance that you’re doing it right, that you belong to a tribe; it’s protection against psychological predators. “You do also feel like: ‘If I buy this for my kid, I’m going to be a good mum,’” Psarias said.
We know that buying the most expensive pram won’t really make you a good parent, that the season of buggy-pushing is heartbreakingly short, and that, in hindsight, it won’t really matter. But we live in hope that maybe, if we get this decision right, we’ll get the other ones right, too.
Via The Guardian