Three years ago, friends Cat and Emma decided to turn their mutual obsession with merino wool into a business, Love My Smalls. Today their stylish wool garments are worn by celebrities, raved about by fashion bloggers and stocked by Selfridges. Cat reveals how they did it.
What’s your career background?
I am a freelance interior stylist and art director, working on stills photographic shoots and TV commercials mainly for my favourite client NEXT. Most importantly I am a proud mummy of three gorgeous girls.
Emma (EJ) is an ex marketing consultant (she launched pay per click advertising before John Lewis sold online!) She is also a mum of two beautiful boys and a gorgeous girl. We are both lovers of fashion, style, music, art, culture and good food!
But while we enjoyed our work, we spotted a big gap in the market and an opportunity to shape our own careers to give us more of a work-life balance, we decided to go for it. (We have in fact created the total opposite for ourselves, but are loving every minute – apart from the lack of sleep!)
When did your love affair with wool start?
We would be lying if we said that wool was our favourite thing to wear as children. In New Zealand in the 1970s a woolly jumper meant the hand knitted, misshapen, itchy variety.
Thankfully we’ve come a long way since then and wearing Love My Smalls merino wool means the total opposite – stylish, super soft and next-to-skin-friendly.
Our love affair with Merino started in earnest when our first babies were born. New Zealanders are slightly obsessive about Merino and its benefits for babies are well understood. (Maternity nurses and midwives in New Zealand now recommend that you have a piece of superfine merino as one of your newborn staples.)
Our lovely mothers sent us lots of bundles of merino loveliness for our babies and were were hooked from the start. It really is a miracle fibre and to top it all off, machine washable so it is perfect for babies.
And when (and why) did you decide to turn it into a business?
Em and I met at a baby group when our first borns were 10 months old, 10 years ago. We bonded from the outset and had so much in common. Our mothers are both English, husbands the same age, both merino obsessed.
It was only when our children got a little older that we really recognised a huge gap in the market. The two year-old vest was getting a little snug on the five year-old, though it was still in perfect condition and she still wanted to wear it. No matter how we tried, we couldn’t find a good quality and stylish range of next-to-skin merino wear for children over four, even in New Zealand, let alone in London.
We discussed this problem for years, until over a glass (or bottle!) of wine one night we decided to do it ourselves. We wanted to create something stylish, beautiful to wear, and most importantly, practical.
This was about three years ago. It took us two years to find the best merino supplier, design our garments, sort our production, and create our branding. Each step was a total learning curve! We launched in July last year with Selfridges which was an amazing endorsement of our hard work.
What makes your products special?
Where do we start? Merino really is the perfect fabric for next-to-skin wear, during the day or to bed. It’s super smooth, skin loving and breathes like nothing else, drawing moisture away from the skin and regulating body temperature.
Superfine merino is amazingly soft and really not like wool as you remember! Its fibres are so fine (a human hair is 60-80 microns, standard wool is 30-40 and our merino is 18!).
It won’t itch even the most sensitive skin. It’s anti-allergy, its great for eczema sufferers and it’s naturally flame retardant. Love My Smalls merino wool regulates body temperature, so even in hot sweaty classrooms the moisture is drawn away from the body and released, which means no more smelly kids! (These sheep are clever I tell you.)
We were very conscious about how we designed our Smalls. Our kids hate itchy labels, so we have purposefully left off any sewn in labels. All washing instructions and size information is on a heat transfer in the garment. That’s one of our bug bears – when you cut off the label you lose the washing instructions!
We also created a garment that was longer in the body with a curved hem, which makes it more comfortable to wear when you’re racing around being a kid.
Merino has an amazing amount of natural stretch which makes it perfect for sport, or play. On top of this, Superfine merino has the highest weight to warmth ratio of almost any fabric so in the winter that means less bulk, less layers and less complaining – total thermo genius in one garment.
They are designed as underwear, but are gorgeous enough to wear as outwear, so they can be worn year round.
Why are they practical for mums?
Because Love My Smalls are the worlds most practical, useful and beautiful piece of clothing you can possibly buy! Smalls are super warm, super cool and super comfortable. They can be worn as a base layer whether for skiing, playing rugby, climbing trees or going to the library.
Smalls are perfect everyday under a school uniform to regulate your body temperature and keep you happy, warm and cool under all those synthetic uniforms. They are also brilliant to sleep in because of natural climate control in the fabric.
Whats more, Smalls stretch your favourite summer clothes to winter, a long sleeve under a groovy t-shirt or summer dress. In summer it’s perfect to throw on in those cool summer evenings.
My girls recently layered up their smalls on a long haul flight and they were a total godsend. They are perfect camping and tramping too. When not to wear it is the question!
On top of all this our merino is totally machine washable, so no washing machine dramas! It wont shrink, or fade and requires very little washing because of its anti bacterial properties. When you do wash it, it dries super quickly and doesn’t even need any ironing.
From experience Smalls are an amazing asset for travelling, because they need little washing and are a perfect basic, you simply just need to pack less! It also means more drawer space, we have handed on all our misshapen cotton vests and now the kids have two each that they wear week long, year round.
Who’s your ideal customer?
Everyone! Our goal has been to create something that quality and style conscious parents want to buy for their children. We feel strongly that British children need the brilliance of merino to wear under their synthetic uniforms all year round. On top of this because merino is a performance sports fabric, we have been selling more and more for families hitting the slopes and as a ski base layer that works for apres ski as well
Merino is perceived as a luxury fabric. We would love people to be buying less, but buying better quality that honestly will last a lifetime. To own something that will genuinely impact on your childs life in a a positive way and have the ability to pass it down many times over.
In New Zealand and Australia, all children wear merino, because it is simply the best, and lasts!
How did you convince Selfridges to stock you?
We were lucky in that we had an initial connection through a work colleague of mine. It wasn’t easy sailing though, we had to present to him, and then present to the gorgeous Selfridges buyer and convince her that our brand was special.
She was amazing, we hit if off and she totally understood where we were coming from. She is a big supporter of young brands and also recognised the big gap in the market… so, we were in!
We see her regularly still and she told us that our genuine passion for what we are doing and our enthusiasm were what really convinced her. We really are a little bit obsessed!
You’re popular with celebs, fashion bloggers and the media. How have you spread the word?
We decided initially from a financial point of view to do all our own PR. This has meant, again, a massive learning curve and much time spent, but it also means that we have forged really lovely personal relationships with the press and bloggers.
We think, if can do it, this is a really nice way to begin. We have had such lovely support from the industry and feel that it is full of other amazing women, just like us, all giving it a go, and working really hard. We all want to help each other and see others do well.
I also think you can’t underestimate how important good images are when it comes to press coverage. Our photography and imagery are really important to us and we think this has really helped.
We have been really lucky with support from a wonderful friend network who have believed in our brand and have spread the word to often celebrity friends and contacts. There are some amazing people out there wearing Love My Smalls – we just cant you tell who they all are!
What’s been your toughest challenge in launching Love My Smalls?
The hardest thing for us has been juggling time..at the start we were both working hard, looking after three children (each!) and trying to start a business. (actually..this is still the case!)
EJ is focusing on Smalls full time now and we discuss everything… including when we can fit in some ‘friend time’. Starting a business is new to us both, so we are learning on the job! And laughing a lot with it (crying only occasionally).
We have a good role model in EJ’s husband James, who is an entrepreneur himself and is a London Business School entrepreneurship mentor. We always feel like we are going on Dragons Den when we present an idea or ask advice!
And your proudest moment?
We are still in the early days so we know there will still be many hills to climb (literally) and bottles of champagne to pop! Our two best moments so far were receiving our very first samples and walking out of Selfridges as a new brand, with an exclusive order coming our way. We haven’t looked back!
We have another amazing retailer that we will be working with this winter too that we are super excited about. Watch this space!
What’s it like running a business with a friend?
We are great friends and try to make sure we always look out for each other. We both have always had a very strong and unified vision of what we wanted Love My Smalls to be, and we bounce ideas really well off each other.
We think we make a brilliant team and have very different strengths and skills that compliment well. We have sort of accidentally fallen into roles, but we discuss absolutely everything – including when we can have some friend time!
Em and I are both passionate about design, style and fashion and are both very visual people so that has been the biggest drive for us both. To create something really beautiful, as well as functional.
How do you balance work with your family?
Honestly, this is the hardest thing for us both and we struggle with not being able to give our children as much time and energy as we would like.
We are quite strict on giving the kids special time after work. Concentrating on them until bedtime, then getting stuck back in for the evening. Because we are both still doing everything (accounts, production, sales, PR…) it never stops and we both work until midnight most nights and at least one day of the weekend. We keep telling ourselves it wont be forever!
Both of our husbands have been amazingly supportive and we like that our children see us working hard and creating something really special.
Where would you like to see Love My Smalls in five years?
We would really like to grow our online business and continue to work with some really great retailers. We have just gone in to kids stores Big Dreams in Melbourne for their winter season and so far this has gone really well for us. So we look forward to growing slowly internationally as well as increasing steadily in our home market.
Merino education is our biggest challenge and we are working hard this year with the Campaign for Wool to raise awareness. We really feel there will be a tipping point, it is already beginning to happen and our goal is to be at the forefront of that.
We will continue to grow our range and have lots of exciting ideas in the pipeline!
And what tips would you give other mums thinking about starting a business together?
Do it! Take the step, don’t doubt yourselves. It is true, there is no such thing as an original idea, however, as a good friend told us ‘no one will be doing it the way you will approach it, and that is what makes your idea/product unique’.
It is going to be much harder work than you ever thought it would be! it’s important to keep remembering why you are doing it and it needs to be something you really love.
Also, lay out the parameters for ownership etc legally from the outset so theres never any room for confusion or anxiety. And start as you mean to go on – get your business systems in place as soon as humanly possible so that when things do eventually get busy, you are ready and organised!
Be brave, be prepared and check and check again! And finally, try and keep it fun and make sure you keep laughing together – whatever happens.
You can find out more about Love My Smalls and buy their products on their website.