All Alyssa Kerbel wanted was a plain black t-shirt for her baby. But ten years ago she couldn’t find simple, unisex baby clothes that reflected her personal sense of style. The lack of choice inspired Kerbel to start her own line of kids’ clothes, Mini Mioche, which offers kids’ clothes that are made to last with eco-conscious fabrics manufactured on Canadian soil. Kerbel tapped into something lots of parents wanted, and after building her brand for a decade Mini Mioche has two brick and mortar stores and a thriving online shop filled with gorgeous kids’ clothing. We chatted with Kerbel about the line, and how she juggles entrepreneurship with raising her two kids, now six and 10.
Tell us why you started your own kids’ label.
I’d just had my daughter and found a void in the market for simple, unisex baby clothes. I was looking for premium fashion basics — a plain black tee or sweatshirt with nothing on it — clothing that was clean, simple, and could be passed down. That was my initial inspiration, because there wasn’t anything to be found.
I went to the One of a Kind Show (a huge craft show held in Toronto) at Christmas time, and was having a really hard time finding the casual style of clothes I like. There was a brand making those basics but they had a graphic on them, like a monkey or a bear. I asked if they’d ever considered doing it without the graphic, and they said, “No, that’s the whole point. People buy our stuff because of the prints.” I felt somebody should do this, and the idea came about. I had a wholesale fashion agency prior to doing this, so I was already in the fashion industry.
Why the emphasis on eco fabrics and local production?
At the time, one of the brands I was selling through my agency, Covet, was an eco-friendly women’s collection that used a lot of organic cotton, bamboos, modals, and other eco-fabrics. It was selling well, and there weren’t a lot of brands doing that at the time, so it inspired me. I realized plain basics might not be enough of a draw and the more I could do to stand out from major brands the better. So, I did it that way. Having the clothes made in Canada was really the most important part for me, that and keeping it local and having control over how things were made. That’s how those three elements came together; style, eco, and locally made.
So you started this business with a new baby, and another business to run?
My daughter was 12 weeks when I started. I was still managing the other business too, representing 12 brands. I planned my pregnancy around my off-season, which I know sounds crazy but when you own your own business, it’s just a thing that you do depending on your situation. A lot of women are fortunate now that in Canada you can take a whole year off, and that would be amazing but I never got to experience that! So I planned the pregnancy as much as I could.
In that time, before I did go back to work, I was feeling that as much as I loved the business, I was feeling less passionate and inspired. I’d had it for five years and been in the industry for seven. I wasn’t creating anything. I didn’t have a lot of control because I was selling other people’s brands. If the brand came in, and it was ugly and I didn’t like it, I was still expected to sell it. That was really hard for me. It was a lucrative business, but I had an itch for something else.
At what point did you know this is going to be a success?
Not quickly. It was a slow build and a grind. We weren’t really profitable for years. I still had the other agency for the first seven years I was running Mini Mioche. Eventually I ended up selling it. I think that unless you have a lot of venture capital and money to do marketing and big flashy social campaigns so you can send product out to lots of influencers, or you open a store right away then it’s a slow, slow build. It takes a lot of time, energy, and hustle before it starts to happen.
I did feel there was promise early on, because a lot of stores I felt would be interested in the brand did pick it up. That was a good sign. The problem was there just weren’t many high-end kids stores. I didn’t do enough market research and I certainly wouldn’t recommend anybody else start a business like that! After the first year and a half we probably had 20 accounts across Canada. And we were never going to make much money like that selling wholesale.
Were you worried that people were too addicted to cheap fashion to pay more for quality children’s clothing?
I do find that is shifting. For the last couple of years there’s been a move away from throwaway fashion, and people have an awareness of the actual societal cost of a $7 t-shirt. With campaigns like Fashion Revolution and the unfortunate incident in Bangladesh all over the news, people realised there’s an impact to buying cheap fashion. Now there are a lot of people willing to spend more when they know they’re supporting local manufacturing and ethical fashion, especially when that garment is made well enough they can pass it down. We’ve had customers tell us their kid is wearing a piece that has been through five kids already. The thing about slightly more expensive stuff is you don’t tend to discard it, right?
A lot of your clothing is in gender neutral colours. That must help with passing it on?.
Yes! We get a lot of feedback from people who say they like that, and we get a lot of people buying for baby showers when they don’t know the sex of the child. Plus, colours are becoming more gender neutral anyway — plum looks good on everybody now.
How do you manage all this while raising young children?
Honestly, I don’t really know. It’s really hard but you just kind of plough through. Now they’re older and it’s still hard — there’s something going on every night after school and on the weekends. I think if you like what you’re doing you just figure it out.
That said, everything is a a trade off. I think the key is — and I am still really working on this and have by no means nailed it — is just to be present in whatever moment you are in, with whoever you are in it with. That’s good as you’re gonna get. I’m on my phone all the time and my daughter will be like, “You’re always working,” so I definitely haven’t figured it out but I’m working on it.
It’s not all bad though — your kids are watching you hustle.
No, I think it’s a good thing they’re exposed to that, that they see you can do your own thing and build something yourself. They’re learning that when you work hard there’s a reward. I’m glad that my daughter understands that if you want to have a lifestyle with nice stuff and trips this is what you have to do to afford it.
I can’t go to everything at the school, and I have to be on my laptop working some evenings because that’s the way it is, but I’m also fortunate enough to have the flexibility to take off in the middle of the day to take her to a hockey game. I’m at home way more than if I had a corporate job, but the difference is I could probably turn it off easier if I wasn’t self-employed. When you own your own business you’re never done work, and I can’t imagine not having it always there. I always check my email when on vacation. I have to be able to check in and respond to stuff or people can’t move forward.
You love it though.
I do. This is challenging and it’s hard, but it’s interesting and fun, and I have a great team. My team at Mini Mioche are young and bright — they bring great energy to me. I love being around them. Right now I don’t see ever not wanting it to be like this.
Do you have down time that isn’t work or family?
Every Friday in the winter we go to Collingwood to ski, and I get to hang out with my friends and go for a snowshoe, so I make sure I have lots of fun on the weekends. In the summer we get away to cottages. I make sure that I get to spin class a couple of times a week and that has been really good for my mental state — I really enjoy that loud and dark environment, it’s like a rave and I like that vibe.
It sounds like you’ve created a great life for yourself.
It’s a definite work-in-progress and a challenge. Everyday is up and down and today I feel pretty good so it’s a good day to talk to me! What also makes it a little easier is my husband is great. He’s very involved and supportive of my business, and he works from home too so it’s easier managing the kids. We both work a lot but we have flexibility to balance each other’s schedules.
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