We were thrilled to have caught up with Laura Tenison, the CEO and founder of Britain’s favourite maternity and kids fashion label, JoJo Maman Bébé. JoJo Maman Bébé recently launched in the USA and their products are now available for our North American friends from www.jojomamanbebe.com. Laura’s story is an inspiring one and she grants us an insight into her journey and what inspires her to keep going.
How did you into fashion and what led you to launch JoJo Maman Bébé?
I had a small menswear business started in my school days, but wanted to move away from making all the garments myself so I launched a little company in Brittany, France which I expanded to a level where I could sell it as a going concern. After three years of very hard work I finally had my start-up capital to launch JoJo. I was not planning on launching a children’s brand but following a head on collision car crash just before I left France, I ended up in hospital next to a young mum. She was long term sick and was buying for her baby and toddler using mail order catalogues. The choice was awful; I had found my niche and gap in the market. JoJo launched offering a small range of maternity and baby clothes, we have grown organically ever since.
What’s the story behind the name?
I love the name JoJo and thought it was a good idea for a children’s wear range. However, it was not obvious that we specialised in the mother and baby field and since we have a Breton style influence I added the Maman and Bébé (which means mother and baby in French, as I’m sure you all know!)
With 71 stores in the UK and Ireland, you are clearly a hard working lady. What drives your work ethic?
The most useful thing I can do with my life is to create good quality, sustainable jobs. We believe in putting people and the planet above profit, within the confines of being a commercially viable company. Each time we open a store we achieve three things: 1) We offer great quality jobs 2) We generally help to regenerate local high streets and 3) We help to support our customer base locally – preventing the need for them to drive long distances to reach a baby store. We are firm believers in trying to keep things local and are proud that we are the largest independent mother and baby brand on British high streets.
How have you been able to balance family life while growing your brand?
It’s always tricky and in the early years I’m not quite sure how I managed. In some ways I did not manage very well since I had to come back to work soon after my babies were born, the company being in its infancy. However, my boys are huge teenagers now and they love the fact that their mum works, so I think the sacrifices I made were worthwhile. When they were tiny I brought them to work with me, then when they needed more stimulation they went to nursery. I tried to pick them up from school and work from home in the evenings to make up the time. I have always worked full time and it’s been a struggle. If I had my time again I think I would try to work part time, but being able to juggle my hours has been a huge help.
How does the European fashion style compare to the American?
America is a vast market with all sorts of tastes – some of which are pretty shocking to our sensitive creative souls. We will not lose sight of our ideals and brand. JoJo will be JoJo wherever we sell it. But our cousins overseas love our quirky British prints teamed with French nautical styling, so we won’t be changing anything too much. Our designs may not appeal to all in the USA but there are plenty of people who do love us. Much of the competition in America offer a lower quality level than JoJo. This was one of the first questions we received via social media when we announced our launch; “Many British brands drop their quality when they launch in the USA, will you be doing this too?” We were able to reassure this customer that our high standards will be maintained wherever we sell. We need to be proud of what we do now and in the future, or else what is the point?
Why the USA and why now?
My kids have grown up and I can now leave them alone to look after our dogs! Plus the business was at a stage where we wanted to keep expanding gently but did not want to lose sight of our small company values. Rather than grow in to a business we did not like in this country, we thought we should start again with a small business in another country. The USA customer base begged us to open up over there, so we are.
How involved are you in the creative process of the clothing?
In the early years I worked on all the design, garment tech, factory sourcing and visits. But as the company has grown we have been fortunate to bring on board some fantastically creative and talented heads of department and teams. These days I am more involved in the general business growth and management – but I still pop in to the design team most days to see what everyone is up to and occasionally make a suggestion! I remain ‘brand custodian’ so get involved whenever we move things forwards – we must never lose sight of JoJo and our brand identity across all our channels. This is why we only sell direct to the public in the UK and stay well away from trades sales, franchises or Amazon. The truth is that we now employ people who are much more talented in their individual roles than I ever was.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Everywhere. We love seeing what children are wearing in the UK and across the world and the designers make trips to get inspiration from across Europe. I still get a thrill when I see little customers wearing JoJo in the street. We love continental design but we want our styles to be ultimately practical – so machine washing and a comfy, easy to dress cut is essential. Childhood should be celebrated, so we revert back to old fashioned values time and again. Inspiration comes from classic story books like Alice in Wonderland and Paddington Bear but with unique JoJo quirkiness added in.
Where are the clothes manufactured?
We used to make most of them in Europe but over the years the introduction of the Euro has out priced us from many of our traditional factories. We now make in the Far East, India and Turkey; We can get great quality without imposing ‘designer’ price points. Working mostly with factories that we have built up a very longstanding relationship with, we audit them regularly to ensure they meet our strict rules and try to work long term so they can invest in their people as we do.
Will you be offering maternity as well as children’s clothing in the USA?
Yes, we have a great following for our maternity wear; it is stylish and practical without being too expensive. Our customers generally prefer to spend on their children and like the fact they can look good at a great price point. Our basics and jeans get fantastic reviews time and time again, yet by working directly with the factories and selling directly to our customers (cutting out all the middle men), we can offer them at an incredibly reasonable £29.
Goods designed in Britain are synonymous with high quality and style, would you say the Americans have this perception of JoJo?
Yes, I think so. Most of our customers both sides of the pond consider JoJo to be gorgeous designs which are good value for money. We call our customers ‘thinking parents’ because they know when it’s worth investing in something a little more expensive like an heirloom quality cot, but don’t want a baby basic to cost a fortune.
How much of a role does sustainability play in your business?
Sustainability comes into everything we do. It is always high on the agenda. We try to make a sensible difference and are one of the largest kids wear brands using 100% recycled fibres in our Polarfleece production. We also look at the best ways to fit out our stores, ship our stock and get our teams to work. We offer bicycle bursaries, have company gardens and even recycle our food waste to make compost! Plus our From a Mother to Another environmental initiative encourages our customers to gift their outgrown and unwanted baby and kids clothes in order that we might repack them into sensible emergency packs which are handed out to parents in need across the UK through the Barnardo’s family centres. Last season we saved up to 50,000 pieces of clothing from going to landfill.
Tell us about this season’s collection, where is the inspiration from and what story of any does it tell? Do you have a favourite item or design?
Our new collection for Autumn is totally stunning – combining really fun, imaginative design with our staple Breton style. I love the Dinosaur range – which covers everything from Pyjamas to a Rocking Dinosaur Ride-on. Our girls Elephant collection is so sweet. Pretty quirky classics which will be loved by little ones and parents alike.
My favourites are the little Halloween leggings sets, our classic baby layette and the amazing 4-in-1 Recycled Polarfleece Jackets. Plus of course I love our maternity wear and will be wearing a few pieces myself (not that I’m pregnant) because they are stylish enough for everyone.
Where can JoJo Maman Bébé products be purchased?
JoJo is available at JoJoMamanBebe.co.uk or through our 71 stores across the country and Ireland – literally from Cork to Aberdeen to Truro. We offer a one-stop shop for thinking parents from pregnancy to pre-school. Shoppers in the USA can shop from our dedicated USA online store at www.jojomamanbebe.com