Clothing the gender gap

Tootsa

Kate Pietrasik is founder and designer at unisex kids fashion brand Tootsa MacGinty. Here she talks the problem with pink and blue, being a single parent and starting a unisex fashion kids business from scratch, with a baby in tow.

I’ve always been a bit of an adventurer. When I was seventeen, I travelled to Australia in search of something different. I grew up in north London, but moved to Scotland with my family when I was a teenager. The sun and surfing in Australia were certainly different from life in Edinburgh. I stumbled across Byron Bay and loved it, so I set up a cafe selling organic food and juices. It didn’t seem hard at the time; I suppose I had plenty of energy and not much fear of failure. Soon, though, I decided I wanted to continue with my studies, so I sold my shares in the restaurant and did an art and design degree—first in Australia, and then at the Pratt Institute in New York.

After graduating, I spent a year in New York, and then moved to France. I started designing for surf-wear brands, and travelled a lot. I was doing art for a surfboard manufacturer, and just painting and drawing in my own time. I was a fresh student, really. I worked for about eight years between Billabong, Roxy, Quiksilver and O’Neill, all of which were great gigs. At the time, the surf-wear industry had a lot of money, so every season you’d be sent to New York, Sydney, LA, and then to see the manufacturers, who could be in Thailand, China or Portugal. At a young age, it was brilliant. Then, after a while, it seemed like we were doing the same thing every season, so I negotiated a freelance contract with Roxy and carried on working with them on a freelance basis.

In 2008, I was really happy to discover I was pregnant with my daughter, Ruby. I worked right up until I gave birth; in fact, I was still working on the day she was born. I remember one of my clients calling when I was in hospital. I told them I was in the middle of working on “another project” (neglecting to mention it was a baby), so I wasn’t in the office.

I separated from my partner when Ruby was eight months old. I headed back to the UK to be closer to my family. It was a tricky and worrying time in lots of ways; I couldn’t travel as a single parent with a small baby to care for, and it was just around the time of the financial crash. I had worked for companies in the UK, so thought I could easily get a job, but people weren’t hiring. Suddenly, as a single mother, I found myself at home—a lot. After being used to such a busy life, I was getting a bit bored.

I was shopping for baby clothes when I had the idea to start my own brand. All the gendered aisles were shocking: I hadn’t noticed it before having my own child, but in the UK there was a real genderisation of kids’ wear. Girlswear departments were bland: aisles of pinks and purples, fairies, princesses, sparkles and fluffy baby animals that dangerously stereotyped girls—pigeon-holing my daughter before she could even talk! And boys’ stuff was really masculine and aggressive. It got me thinking there was a real gap in the market for some really cool design for kids. I knew it existed in Sweden and places like that, but it wasn’t easy to find, and it certainly wasn’t affordable. 

Our basic philosophy is to make unisex children’s clothing that allows children to be children. It allows them freedom of movement, comfort and to express themselves with colourful, non-gendered outfits. One of my main concerns is the increased sexualisation of young girls, and I see a lot of ‘sexy’-style clothing for tiny tots, toddlers and right through to young teenagers. It’s very worrying. 

My family chipped in and backed me financially, and I had some savings from a house sale. I got in touch with the manufacturers I’d worked with when I was working for the surf-wear companies, and then, through a friend and her production manager, we went down to Portugal and basically made the first collection. My design history really helped, because I already had the contacts. I don’t think I’d have been able to do it if I hadn’t had a trusting relationship with the factories I’d used already. It was important to me, too, to use the factories in Portugal that I knew would produce good-quality clothes in fair circumstances.

In 2011, I launched Tootsa at a trade show in London. Ruby was a year and a half, and it was only six months after I’d had the idea. I had absolutely no expectations. I was certain there would be a doppelganger—somebody doing exactly the same thing as me. It began to dawn on me that, aside from one other brand that was touching on what I was doing, other people weren’t actually doing it. My clothes were unusual. So many people told me how refreshing it was to see a unisex label that I started to realise I was onto something.

My parents really helped me emotionally and financially, and my brother was around at that point—and I worked really hard. While Ruby was in nursery, I worked. And then when she was in bed, I worked. I worked nights a lot. Part of my drive was the boredom of being a single parent: you can’t go out, and I wasn’t a big fan of TV (though now I love Netflix). But I had a lot of enthusiasm for the work, too. My routine was to put Ruby to bed, get my headphones on and get a lot of hours done. It was great having a brand-new project and seeing it take off. Early on, the apartment store John Lewis took my collection. When we started the brand, my mother said, “Imagine if you get stocked in John Lewis!” and here we were, in the second year of business, being stocked in John Lewis. It was so exciting. 

Starting my own brand was easy because I had no one to answer to. When you design for other brands, you’ve got to present it to the sales team, the product manager and then, quite possibly, the CEO. And they all have their opinions. I remember when I worked for one label and their target customer was the seventeen-year-old girl. I’d be in meetings with fifty-year-old men and they’d all be saying, “Well, I don’t think that,” and I remember thinking: This is actually quite tough. I became really good at being thick-skinned and not too precious about my designs. Then I started Tootsa and was like, “Oh, do I like this design? Yes, I do. Let’s just do it. Wow! This is so quick. I don’t have to have meetings.” Designing the logo took me half an hour. Normally you’d have to design twenty logos.

It was hard making sure everything was ethically made. First, I wanted to be affordable but I started out too cheap. I got some amazing stockists on board quickly, but I wasn’t making any profit. My idea was to sell loads and then produce more, and then we’d make a profit. We sold loads but it was still not enough. The obvious people making mega bucks are Gap and H&M and Primark. They manufacture literally thousands and thousands of the same thing. The most we manufacture is maybe 300 per colour. It’s not very much at all. Because of those small minimums, our profit margins are tiny; we’re paying quite high manufacturing prices. My policy was to keep it in Europe, so we have our knitwear made in Portugal, our jersey wear in Turkey, and the best denim wear manufacturer I’ve ever worked with is in China, and he’s brilliant. It’s a very ethical factory, and I’ve visited him several times. We’re just tipping over into profit now, but our margins are minute. It’s not until you manufacture thousands of something that you can squeeze the prices down—particularly because I like all of the little bits of trim and details.

There’s so much to do in a business that isn’t designing. When I started out, I imagined I’d spend all my time designing. But it takes about (gasp) a week or two to get it done. I bang it out. Otherwise it’s all spreadsheets and emails, phone calls and more emails. Design is now squeezed into two weeks, when I reach panic mode on deadline. I work well to a deadline; I sort of thrive on it. I like the panic. When it actually comes down to doing the design, it’s all up there—

it just comes spilling out. 

The kids’ fashion industry is collaborative. We’re not too serious. I used to go to a lot of adult tradeshows, in Paris in particular, where everybody would wear their sunglasses inside. Kids’ wear is not like that at all. People are friendly. People are breastfeeding as they’re walking down the aisles. Kids are wreaking havoc at people’s stands. There are bowls of sweets everywhere. There’s a lot of swapping of not just ideas, but also contacts. “Do you manufacture in Portugal? Would you mind”—even so far as that. I guess when you become a parent and you run a kids’ wear brand, you become a little bit less precious about everything. We’re little brands clubbing together, because we all know how hard we work, especially as parents, as well. You’re juggling kids and family and money. 

Ruby is seven now, and she’s grown up seeing me do only this. She still thinks I make the jumpers (which would make me some kind of wonder-woman knitter) and calls photo shoots “boo boo shoos”, from when she was very young and couldn’t pronounce the words. Now that she’s getting older she likes to help with design, and if she sees me drawing, she’ll request certain animals. She’s also a dab hand at packing boxes and helping out at sample sales.

Things are getting a bit easier as Ruby gets older. The tricky times are the school holidays. She’s great at amusing herself independently, and she is used to me working a lot. When I’m with her, I try hard not to work. I have an office space now, so I can shut the door and be with Ruby after school. Also, getting a lot done in the day means I often don’t have to work nights now. It’s good to have that separation between work and home. Alongside my family, we are now a team of four working together in the office, which really makes a difference.

The dream is to open our own flagship store. And extend our ranges beyond two a year. We’d also like to do a babywear range, for people who don’t know if they’re having a girl or a boy, and for grandparents, uncles and aunts, when they want to buy gifts. It will make it easy for them, and they don’t have to freak out about whether it’s a girl or a boy. 

The whole business has been built by learning on the job, and so has my parenting. My own parents were really helpful and gave me confidence on that front: my mum is a midwife and my dad a teacher, and both of them always told me that I would just know what I was doing with Ruby. I think parenting alone can be easier in some ways, because there’s no conflict of opinion: what I say goes, because I’m my own entity. I try to make things as simple as possible—taking care of Ruby, bringing everything back to basics, trying to be as easy on myself as possible. I’m really proud that, in the last seven years, I’ve been able to enjoy raising a daughter while creating a business.

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For more great parenting, head over to our article on How Not to Raise a Jerk by the very funny Zoe Foster Blake, or check out How to Talk to Kids About Climate Change

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