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How Tootsa turned the tide on gender neutral clothing for kids...

Please tell us a bit about the nature of your business...

Tootsa is an award winning ethical and unisex children’s fashion and lifestyle brand. I launched the brand in 2011 to offer a stylish, quality and directional alternative to the traditional boy-girl clothing often seen on the high street. We are now sold in retailers in 11 countries across the globe and operate a busy online shop. Our collections remain gender-free and on our website we don’t separate our collections into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ wear, Tootsa doesn’t want a child to feel limited by their Gender. Every collection has a a theme and features gorgeous, vibrant colours, prints, playful details and quality, hardwearing fabrics are at the core of the brand’s values.

What inspired you to start your business?

I had been a womenswear designer for 12 years in France for some of the world’s most successful sport and street wear brands including Tommy Hilfiger, and Quiksilver when in 2009 I had my daughter and became a single parent. I moved back to the UK to be nearer to family. This was the catalyst for Tootsa . When looking for clothes for my baby I was shocked at the limited choice of colour, and particularly the gender stereotypical and ‘little adults’ designs on offer. I set out to create an alternative and the idea for a collection of cool, stylish unisex clothing that reflect a child's imagination was born. Further more I was appalled at the throw-away fast fashion culture the high street was pushing and worked hard to make Tootsa as sustainable as possible, quality clothing that could be handed down from child to child whatever the gender. The sustainability aspect of the brand is something I have continued to develop and focus on. We have only ever worked with small factories that treat their employees fairly, we use organic cottons and linens which are sustainable fabrics and we now offer recycling services for pre-loved Tootsa clothes in aid of The Royal Trinity Hospice London.

What was the most challenging aspect of building your business in the beginning?

When I started out I had support from my parents and with my families help we cobbled together enough money and I worked hard - all day and all night. While my daughter was in nursery, I worked and then when she was in bed, I worked. I had to juggle all the jobs that needed to be done from designing the collection, sourcing the fabrics, liaising with factories, building the e-commerce site and dealing with customer orders and queries. But I had a lot of enthusiasm for the work too and it was great having a brand new project and seeing it take off. Of course it’s was and still is extremely hard work, but most things that are extremely hard are also extremely rewarding and this is no exception!

If you were to launch your business again, would you do anything differently?

I launched Tootsa as a single mother with a newborn from a tiny flat in London. Although this also was my motivation and kept me going it was an enormous challenge and added another layer onto what was already very stressful. Looking back I feel incredibly proud of this but my goodness there are easier times to launch a business.

What keeps you motivated?

I get an enormous sense of achievement when I meet happy stockists at trade shows or when we receive an email or DM via Instagram from a parent thanking us for creating clothes both their children and themselves love, this encourages me to keep designing. I also have a passion for being creative and I can’t imagine doing anything else - I feel very privileged to be running a business doing what I love. I always have ideas and I will never tire of drawing them, then exploring ways to make these ideas become something beautiful for someone to wear and enjoy. My daughter , who inspired me to launch Tootsa, continues to be my motivation and the reason I don’t give up when things get tough - the same goes for the amazing support I get from my husband.

How do you balance work and family life?

I love my work but I also adore spending time with my family. Running my own business means I don’t work a normal five day week and I am never really not working however it also means I can be flexible with how I use my time for example - I can be there for school pick-up’s or taking my daughter to horse riding lessons . We now live in South West France, near to Biarritz, and I am lucky that my husband works with me. Our office is in a friendly business complex with lots of surf brands, a gorgeous cafe/bar and it has a very laid back vibe meaning, when needed, our daughters can spend the day with us drawing and playing (as we don’t have a nanny this is quite often). I also make sure I go surfing with my family a few times in the week and we have dinner together every night.

What’s your proudest business moment?

There have been many! In the second season John Lewis bought the collection - as a new brand, that was very special. Winning the prestigious UKFT ‘Best Childrenswear’ award and seeing my designs in Selfridges was incredibly exciting as is seeing them in international magazines, and most recently on ITV as one of the ethical and gender-free brands Meghan Markle and Price Harry would choose for their baby . However, and this is a cliche, spotting children out and about wearing Tootsa is the best feeling in the world.

What’s been your most successful form of marketing and/ or brand awareness?

We don’t have a big marketing budget and we have worked hard at building a community through platforms like Instagram where we can talk directly to our customers as well partnerships with like-minded influencers, charities and companies who genuinely love what we do. The most important thing for Tootsa has always been to communicate honest opinions and authentic beliefs through our own social media platforms and the press. We have never been afraid to say what we think and start conversations that engage people - we’ve been vocal about gender stereotypes, sustainability, single use plastic and our feminist values - many big brands would not do this in fear that they will ostracise a significant percentage of their potential market but as a small brand this is how we stand out. However, we have always been genuine and made sure we back up what we are saying by doing. For example, we are currently working with the environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage - not only does this give us something to be proud of and shout about but we stand by our words with actions. Before we launched the project we got rid of the plastic packaging used in customer orders and we regularly go on team beach cleans - we always walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Do you have any positive habits or routines that you feel have attributed to your success?

Self-care is essential when running a business, otherwise you risk making poor decisions and burning out. I’ve learnt that it is important for ‘self’ to take a step back and let others help you. I love to spend time outside and most mornings I go for a long walk through the pine forest near my house with our hilarious dogs before going to the office. Laughter and open air is fabulous medicine for stress and helps to clear my head before starting my working day. I also run which is a natural high, getting the endorphins going and releasing anxiety I may have. And I am a passionate surfer . For me there is nothing more therapeutic than spending an hour in the water, the connection to nature is grounding and helps me get some perspective on life and see what is truly important. Taking time out on a daily basis helps me to reflect and relight the fire in my belly that I need to keep Tootsa going.

What's your favourite business app/ tool/ book/ podcast etc?

Book - One of the most inspiring books I have read is by the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard “ Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman”

What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs just starting out?

Before you start question whether your idea has longevity (can it grow?) and then make tiny steps towards making it happen. Take it one step at a time. Give yourself a break. You cannot do it all and that’s OK. Listen to others, don’t let your ego take over but also follow your gut - it’s usually right. Be proud of the small things and learn from your mistakes. Because you will make them. There is a lot of help out there if you go looking. Government schemes, free courses and organisations to help and don’t dismiss people in your own circle of friends & contacts: if it’s a good idea people will be enthused to help. And then pay it forward: it’s always nice to give the knowledge you’ve received on to the next.

If you want to get in touch or see more of Kate's adventures, head over to her website or social media:

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