WRITER: India Stoughton
Owner of Cookie Dough, Yasmin Agha, isn’t afraid to think outside the box. By combining the most exclusive, children’s fashion with expert tailor-made advice for parents, hers is a children’s boutique with rare added value.
When she was a child, Yasmin Agha loved playing shop. Dolls, building blocks and toy cars were rejected in favour of a till, merchandise and receipt books, and her parents were drafted in to playing customers to Agha’s shopkeeper.
Years later, she was about to leave Lebanon and move to England to embark on a PhD and start a life as an academic. It should have been a dream come true but something felt wrong. “What do you want to do?” her dad joked. “Open a shop?” But that was exactly what she wanted.
Today, she is the proud owner of Cookie Dough, a luxury boutique that started in Beirut and more recently, expanded to Kuwait City. It stocks some of the world’s most exclusive children’s fashion lines. But Cookie Dough is more than just a shop. In addition to selling clothing and shoes for children aged zero to 12 – as well everything else new parents might need, from bottles and nappies to cribs and strollers – Cookie Dough offers a range of innovative services through their ‘Nursery Consulting Centre’, which she opened in 2011, two years after she founded her first shop.
When I meet Agha at her Beirut boutique, we sit to chat on a comfortable leather sofa, surrounded by racks of miniature T-shirts and shelves of tiny shoes. With its pale wooden floors, discreet lighting and clean, well-sorted displays, the store radiates an aura of luxury and calm.
Agha on the other hand, is a bundle of energy, jumping up frequently to greet customers by name and enquire about their families. She explains that this is quite usual because the clients of Cookie Dough often become her friends. And she tells me how she has preferred not to have an office, choosing to spend time in the boutique instead so that she’s always on hand to help as she can.
Even the window displays are always personally dressed by Agha, usually with the aim of evoking the magic of a fairy tale. “Of course, it’s important to appeal to kids, but our clients are adults,” she says. “What’s essential is to touch the child in every adult. It’s like when you drive past a Ferris wheel – no matter how old you are, something tingles inside.” Right now, her Beirut boutique windows tell the story of a white rabbit, poised on its hind legs, surveying what lies beyond and positioned beneath a hot air balloon made of willow and papier-mâché and to the side of a miniature tree covered with bursts of pale pink blossom.
“Often, we’ll first meet with parents while they’re still expecting,” Agha continues, “so that we can go through a very detailed checklist. Part of this includes a lifestyle interview, based on which we can make suggestions.” This nursery consulting is a service that Cookie Dough provides free of charge but what really sets the place apart is the programme of free monthly seminars that provide direction and awareness for parents that they would not be able to find elsewhere.
“It’s a first in the Middle East and actually I’ve come to find out that it’s a very unique concept worldwide,” says Agha about her initiative led by experts in varying fields – like early childhood development, pregnancy and nutrition – with a focus on topics as diverse as the effect media has on children, discipline, breastfeeding, hypnobirthing and mental health. “There are community centres across Europe and the US that provide the sort of support and guidance that we offer but I haven’t yet found a boutique that offers this kind of service. My background is in sociology, so to me, the most important part of the business is reaching out to parents, creating a community where they can find the guidance that they need.”
Cookie Dough’s expertise doesn’t stop here. Agha added another string to her bow with an events service, which organises baby showers, children’s birthday parties, and even the odd party for daddy. But they haven’t lost sight of their main function, for children’s clothes remain the core part of the business and they even offer a service for this too.
“The kids’ styling service is a lot of fun. When they have a special event we talk to the kids and find out exactly what they want and we help them choose the perfect something – within the parents’ budget and limitations, of course. We’re very much aware of the risk of children being exposed to superficiality and materialism at a young age and we try as much as we can to take that out of the experience. We focus on asking the right questions such as, ‘What makes you happy?’ and ‘What do you like?’ rather than ‘What do you think looks good?’”
Cookie Dough’s philosophy is obviously working because in May, the store celebrated the grand opening of their first overseas outlet, Cookie Dough Kuwait, and Agha says there are further plans for expansion in the form of pop-up shops, both regionally and internationally. Although she’s obviously excited by the prospect, she is also circumspect.
“I don’t want to ever get bigger than my boots,” she stresses. “I want to be present personally, to connect with the clients, to create the kind of hub that we’ve created in Beirut. We won’t be expanding at the expense of what we’ve already built, which is often the case. We will never be a chain or a franchise.”
The Kuwait branch is an exception, she explains, a combination of franchise and partnership. “We were approached by a lovely couple who were interested in the concept, had the same philosophy as us and were willing to work in a way that we admired,” she says. “Also Kuwait is a wonderful city. Fashion-wise they are risk-takers.”
The boutique may be firmly anchored in the luxury market, stocking brands sold only at Cookie Dough, Harrods, and Bergdorf Goodman and even boasting its own limousine service, but Agha’s human-led ethos is about inclusivity, not exclusivity.
“It’s funny,” she says with a laugh. “I really feel as if my entire childhood I was preparing to do exactly what I’m doing today. Sometimes life brings you full circle. It’s amazing.”
WHAT Cookie Dough
FOUNDER Yasmin Agha
WHERE Beirut and Kuwait City
WHY It may cater to kids but this is no child’s play. Cookie Dough is a novel business that offers expert guidance for both parents and their children, creating customers who are as grateful as they are loyal.