Bonnie Mob’s Tracey Samuel about starting your own children’s wear brand
Baby, Kids, LIFESTYLE, People
When it comes to cosy, modern and adorable knitwear for babies and children, you cannot miss The bonnie mob.
We sat down with Tracey Samuel, owner, founder and designer, and talked about knits, starting a brand and how to deal with all the changes and demand we are facing in this fast paced world.
Tracey lives by the sea in Brighton, together with her husband and two kids, Alice (13) and Rhys (11).
I love living in Brighton. It’s such a vibrant, creative town with a laid-back feel and being by the sea means that we can live an outdoors lifestyle. My husband Gareth and son Rhys are very keen sailors and spend many weekends at our local sailing club.
Luna: Please tell us when The bonnie mob was born and what led you to launch a children’s wear brand?
Tracey: The bonnie mob was born in 2005 whilst I was pregnant with my daughter Alice Bee. Back then I had a pretty glamorous but hectic life. Working as a knitwear designer at Sonia Rykiel and commuting between Paris and Brighton on a weekly basis. Life was good, I had a little ‘pied a terre’ in Montparnasse and a ‘house renovation project’ in Brighton. Meaning I could escape the dust and head to Paris for work. This all changed when I got pregnant. Because I realised that this life wasn’t going to work with a newborn! So, we quickly finished the house and I started to think of alternative creative things to do.
Bonnie baby was born out of a frustration that I couldn’t find good quality baby knitwear for my impending arrival! Back then there really wasn’t much choice and most baby knits were made from acrylic and in sickly sweet pinks and blues. So, I chatted with my factory friends and we launched a tiny capsule range of cashmere/cotton baby knits.
One of the sweaters was an ‘apple of daddy’s eye’ motif, which Gwyneth Paltrow bought for her new daughter (along with the rest of the collection!) and we were catapulted into the press as the next new thing! I then adopted the apple motif as our logo (as a bit of a good luck charm!).
I remember about the rebranding, from Bonnie Baby to The bonnie mob. How was that transition?
To be honest it was quite smooth. We had recently started going up to age 7, so the word ‘baby’ seemed a bit out of sync with our aspirations. Also, as we were expanding we were having trademarking issues in certain countries so a name change was necessary if we wanted to grow. Once we had the new branding sorted and the trademarks in place it was just a case of rolling it out over the labels /website etc. There are still people who remember us as Bonnie baby, but that’s cool, it means we made an impact.
Did you always know that you wanted to have your own brand?
No, to be honest I’ve always shied away from that side, it just kind of happened organically. I still cringe when I have to do the ‘face of the brand’ stuff, as I’m quite a private person. And I really have to push myself to be that person.
What fascinates you about knitwear?
Ha, now here’s where I could go on for hours and bore you and your readers to tears!!! I just love the fact that I can design a fabric and a garment all in one. And I love looking at a yarn and imagining the million different ways I could interpret it, either in texture/stitch/stripe or knitted motifs and jacquard’s.
Also, I see myself as a technical knitwear designer. I’m at my happiest chatting to the knit technicians in a factory about the possibilities a complicated knitting machine can make for me. It’s always a challenge and I’m always pushing them that bit further, which means we both learn new things. Sometimes the best bits come out of mistakes which is always really rewarding.
The kind of machines we use are serious bits of kit, each one costing a small fortune. The technicians take years to train and learn the art of knitting.
It’s a real artisanal skill and one that we need to appreciate more as consumers. A good, fully fashioned knit should last a long time, it should be loved and handed down and worn again and again. It’s certainly not throwaway fashion!
The UK initiated British Wool Week back in 2011 and HRH Prince Charles is a patron. This is because sales are declining and we need to raise awareness. What are your thoughts and what is your message on the topic to all parents out there?
I love ‘British Wool Week’ but do wish they’d re-brand it ‘British Knit Week’ as there are so many misconceptions out there about knitwear. Many people assume all knit is made of wool and therefore ‘scratchy’ or something they would shrink, which just isn’t true. We knit mostly in cotton and cashmere blends, making the knit super soft to the touch and against a baby’s delicate skin. All of our knits are ‘fully fashioned’. Which means that each garment is knitted to its particular shape so no cutting out is needed and no extra fabric is wasted or thrown away. This technique takes longer to knit, but is well worth it as you get all the added artisanal ‘fashion marks’ around the sleeves and neck shape making the knit look extra special.
I think most parents and consumers in general have forgotten what a good knit is. It does make me a little bit crazy when I see a jersey wear cut and sewn sweatshirt called a ‘sweater’. Because it is misleading for the customer and has nothing like the love and care that goes into a true quality knit.
Once you launched your label, what did you not expect beforehand?
How much time it takes up and how many little problems there would be to solve on a daily basis!
How did you get people to notice your brand and buyer’s attention?
To be honest the quality spoke for itself. I did my first trade fair and picked up one of the biggest retailers in the UK (Childrensalon) as their owner Michelle knew a great knit when she saw one. We still sell to them, today. Word of mouth grew and we were picked up by many other department stores like Barneys NY and Selfridges in London. This was all pre-social media, so it was all very organic. Since the arrival of social media, Instagram has been a really important platform for us to reach customers.
Anyone starting a children’s wear brand today – what top tips can you give them on the way?
Be prepared to work hard, if you’re not then don’t do it, it’s just not worth the stress and hassle!
Sorry it sounds a bit bleak, but for me that’s been the truth. The learning curve has been steep and there have been times I’ve wanted to bail, but then the positives arrive and make it all worth it.
The industry changed a lot over the last years. With the online world everything is much faster now. How do you keep up?
I don’t! I do find the current rate of change a huge challenge, both mentally and for the business. You just about get used to one way of doing something then there’s an algorithm change and you’re on the back foot again. It’s such a challenge for small businesses who just can’t compete with the huge marketing budgets of the bigger brands! Also, I think that everything being out there to consume at all times of the day is really detrimental to designing well. When I design a collection I need to switch off from outside influence, as you’ll always find something better/different/similar a mere click away.
Indecision is the killer of creativity!
Of course, we have to ask – being a mum, wife and business owner. How do you manage to do it all?
It’s a juggle for sure, I’m lucky my kids are a bit older now, so things are a little easier to manage at home. I think it’s my sheer dogged perseverance that gets me through sometimes.
Your husband is part of The bonnie mob as well. What are the positive and negative sides on running a business with your partner? Do you ever not talk about business? Or better, how do you ‘relax’?
Yes, it’s the question I’m asked the most. I’d be lying if I said it was easy! We try to have some boundaries about not chatting business before we get to the office in the morning, as well as turning phones off at a certain time, but that doesn’t always work! However it is great to have complete trust in your business partner. You’re both on the same path with the same common goal so ultimately the decisions we both make are for the right reasons.
As for relaxing, we need to work on that one, but I’m currently writing this interview from my holiday in Sri Lanka!
And how about your children? Are they somehow involved (opinions, inspiration?!) or what do they think about The bonnie mob?
Yes, they are involved, Alice is a budding photographer, so I’m always stealing her pictures for our Instagram! Both Rhys and Alice have a great design eye and can give some really constructive feedback when they want. I’m also a great believer in giving your kids a sense of money so they often come into the office to lend a hand and earn a bit of cash!
Looking back – is there something you would do differently if you could start all over again?
What a difficult question! If I hadn’t had the challenges then I wouldn’t be who I am and where I am today, so I think I’d have to live them again, good and bad. I’d maybe have listed more to my gut in the early days!
Would you start all over again?
Thank you so much Tracey!