13 Questions With Abi, Founder of Claude & Co

Abi decided to start her small business for gender-neutral baby clothing after spending her career in kidswear buying and noticing how much of the clothing was quite gender-stereotypical when it came to colours and designs.

First off, how are you and how is your 2021 going?

Great question, thank you for asking. I have found 2021 really eye opening, from a personal perspective I think I have done a lot of reflecting on 2020 and the injection of serious growth we saw as a business and that I had to handle on one pair of shoulders. I stepped up but felt quite burnt out, so I feel like this year has been a lot about my personal growth and practising some self-mastery, as much as the business growth. The business has had some brilliant moments this year but the last two months have been tougher, we were hit hard with the impact of COVID in India for our production, and sales naturally took a little wobble when retail and life has opened up slightly. All in all it’s been quite the year so far, I thought 2020 was wild … but 2021, wow! 

Can you tell us about your journey to start Claude & Co?

Claude & Co (named after my first cat) was a combination of my foundations in fashion buying, feeling Children’s products really resonated with me and my style and that you could have fun with it, and they’re tiny…who doesn’t love tiny things. I love women’s clothing but it’s too personal for me. I think having no children (as yet) helped me a lot…though it does seem to shock most people! A lot of Children’s brands are started by mums noticing a gap or giving it a go on mat leave, and it’s become the norm. 

I noticed a gap in the market for a really well-rounded Unisex clothing brand.

During my career, and endless design presentations I noticed a gap in the market for a really well-rounded Unisex clothing brand, that was sophisticated and cool, appealed to parents, at an achievable price point. Really key though was having those small brand ethics that big corporate companies are rarely held accountable for. Fabric sourcing, Organic materials, sustainable packaging but with that wow feeling when your order arrives. A lot to ask of myself but I felt it was worth it! 

I started slow, and had other toy and interior brands on the website. Selling those whilst working on my brand behind the scenes, I knocked on a lot of doors and previous contacts from my buyer life until someone listened. I knew what I wanted I just needed help to make it. I still work with the factory now and they make the most incredible clothing. I am so proud of the quality and level of Claude & Co. Now we’re five years in, and the brand has grown and the awareness too, we’re stocked in most countries around the world – all pretty much from my front room. We have a warehouse based in the U.K (as we used to pack and send everything from home eek) and the collection has grown steadily to where we are now and with I believe a strong future ahead. 

We know you previously worked in buying, what steps did you take in your education/early career to achieve that role?

I started my career in fashion buying very young, I was really thrown in at the deep end. During my first year at uni, I took it upon myself to get some work experience in a buying office. I was offered a job after around a month of clearing the rails, sorting folders and asking the right questions. I left university that same day and gave it my all. For me, four more years made no sense when I had these big plans. 

I was pretty determined from around 14 years old that I wanted to be a fashion buyer. I loved art (I still do, painting is my solace) I loved creating and I knew fashion was something that got me excited. I had a career day at school and they gave me some guidance on the idea of being an architect or a fashion buyer, which I had no idea even existed but sounded better than an architect because well…too mathematical. So that was me. Fashion Buyer in the making. 

I worked my butt off and climbed that ladder fast in my career– I ended up as a buyer on Childrenswear for NEXT and I whilst I felt very “successful” having become a buyer and travelled the world turning left on the plane at 25 years old, doing what I felt was seen as a “dream job” I just was not satisfied. I was pretty sucked up in the corporate world and I think I burnt out pretty fast. I just could not relate to the people and attitudes around me and felt I was destined for something else. I had thankfully built myself a strong base to take time out, keep my home and invest some savings into giving something a go that I’d had the idea of for a while. So there we go, I leapt…with a lot of blind faith and a LOT to learn but with some good experience under my belt. 

We love your gender-neutral clothing, why do you think it’s so hard to find on the market?

I have no idea; I think especially for baby clothing…there is so much gender stereotyping and it’s such a shame. When I am designing, I never consider the gender of a child it doesn’t enter my head. I just think whoever they are, will look so great in this and it can appeal to anyone. I try and keep to neutral earthy colours and interesting fabrics, focusing on something a bit more sophisticated.

I try and keep to neutral earthy colours and interesting fabrics, focusing on something a bit more sophisticated.

I really think it’s just ‘how things have been’ which I like to think Claude & Co will be at the forefront of a natural edge towards being different. I lived in Amsterdam not long ago, and I think there was a welcome and different approach there which I’ve absorbed. The clothing for Children centred around a lot more independent brands and less high street retail which was far more open to unisex and ethical fashion. I think indie brands really are at the forefront of championing this, it’s just reaching people that’s the challenge! 

What is the process like for designing products and picking out your slogans like “Milking It”? 

I am quite dry in my sense of humour, and I knew that slogans had to play a part in the brand to stop things being too cute and serious. We’ve had a few along the way and Milking It – has really stuck. So much so it’s now trademarked in the U.K, the USA, Europe and more to come…safe to say we’ve had a few copycats along the way! I heard a friend say something along the lines of “you spend your years building a brand, then years protecting it“ amen to that.  

Milking It is what we are most recognised for now and I just never get bored of it. I can just picture every parent smirking when they change their baby into it, who no doubt is 100% milking it. In every sense. 

I love the design process; I think that’s where I find the most validation in my business and happiness. Something coming to life from my head is the best buzz. I normally consider what I feel is missing or I’d love to see out there. Seeing little ones, and matching parents in the ideas from my head is the best feeling. I tend to start with a sketch, and I brief the factory to do a toile (a mock up) on that and we put it with fabrics and get samples made. I love all those little attention bits, the labels and stitch colours, button placements etc. All makes such a difference to the end result. 

Can you tell us about some highs and lows of starting your own small business?

Five years in, I can say there has been some extreme highs and lows. In every decision you make you either learn or you grow which is important to recognise. There really is no “how to” guide. Every decision big or small has been totally on my shoulders. Which some days I find easier than others! 

High points, those ‘pinch me’ moments when you curate and dream of a brand and see people wearing or loving it – Zoe and Alfie the exact example here! Seeing them receive their order, watching as a fly on the wall, was one of my proudest moments. I have imagined that moment for expectant excited parents so many times but never witnessed it. I imagine how many people have had that feeling through buying something I created, that’s a high. 

A big positive is flexibility! Your time is your own, which works well for me. I like to structure my days, but I am so unproductive from 11am-2pm so I normally allow myself some time for exercise, a great lunch, meeting a friend etc but I get up at 6am and work, because I love a peaceful morning and I find my work is better that way. 

Flip side is, you must be so driven to keep getting up and going day after day. No one else is pushing, so you have to bring that energy. It’s tough, especially when sales aren’t as positive, or the delivery is missing somewhere between India and the U.K and no one knows where, or your website crashes when launching new product (all things I’ve had to handle). With that, I find there is no off button. When you’re on holiday and not relaxing because you just need to send that email, post on instagram, I feel like I need to learn to be more present which I think a lot of small business owners can relate to. 

Skies the limit. I love that feeling when it’s my own company. It comes with the fear factor but there is no ceiling with your own brand. I love that the future is in my own hands. 

I think all moments of validation are really personal to the business and person behind it. Everyone has their own dream, and vision to tap into. The high points totally outweigh the low, which is the reason we do it! 

What’s the best advice for someone wanting to start a new business?

You need to align your mindset and motivation to get moving. Be totally sure that you are passionate about what you want to create or sell. Either a service based or product-based business that applies. Someone’s passion for their brand or profession shows and its infectious. I think it helps people connect with you. You can tell when something is half hearted! 

I’d also say, spending your time looking too much at your competition is dangerous. Be focused on your own mission, people will come and go. You will think everyone else has something you don’t but all journeys are different. Someone can turn over a million pounds and make no profit, it’s all relative to your goals…! 

I’d also suggest getting advice and being clear on areas that make you feel nervous. I always found figures and accounts daunting. Turns out I just needed to find the right fit for me with my accountant, she is the best decision I made last year! I am growing more and more confident, and I feel like we’re a team. When you work on your own it’s so important to find that support.  

I’d always recommend for someone to go for it with starting their own business. There is always room for what you want to create, and I think if you have that idea and passion then you’re so much further than most people. Get your plan in place, get your people in place, and be brave. No growth ever happens in your comfort zone. 

What are you currently working on?

I am working on newness for next spring and I am really feeling a bit of 70’s styling and some country and western details. Tricky as I never like to be too “trend” led especially with unisex baby clothing, but a little nod won’t hurt. I love working really in season, I cannot hold onto ANYTHING If I love it, booking too far in advance just doesn’t work for me. So If I am working on something it’s likely to launch soon. Nightmare to manage but it makes me happy!

I have been trying to look at refreshing our Milking It collection to grow it a little more with some new fabrics and sleepsuits. I hope I’ll be able to launch them this Winter, so eyes peeled! I keep trying to think of the friend of “milking it” as another slogan, so if anyone has any great ideas let me know! 

What are some of your other favourite small business baby brands?

Oh so many. My dearest friend Eleanor from Nellie Quats – we’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders and I don’t think I could do this without her. She has the most beautiful girlswear brand. Totally different to Claude & Co which I think helps our friendship. I have a great relationship with Bethany at Ando Stores, and we’ve worked on some collaborations together to sell exclusively across our stores, and there’s more to come. Her eye for product is like no other, and I think when I have a baby (one day) I’ll be shopping on there 24/7. Some brands I love, Silly Silas (dreamy combination with Claude & Co) Artipoppe carriers are so hot right now and I love them. I’ve always really admired Gray Label for their simple design and clean lines for baby clothing. I like Garbo & Friends and Konges Slojd for interiors and accessories. Olli Ella have always been a big support to me as a brand and I love their entire process and success, they’re wonder women. It’s so inspiring. Not strictly Childrenswear but ‘Mustard Made’… those girls are incredible as are their lockers. The independent childrenswear market is so huge, and I am proud to be in the mix. 

What does your perfect weekend look like?

I’m such a brunch girl. Meeting a group of friends or family for slow brunch in the sunshine or by a cosy fireplace is heaven to me, maybe a walk and little shop around. We live in Winchester and it’s great for independent coffee shops. We have an allotment and love spending time there during the summery days, it’s so peaceful. An evening date with my boyfriend, a nice meal somewhere and a great bottle of wine…clearly our life revolves happily around food and socialising. 

I love to paint, they keep getting bigger and bigger and we have zero wall space! I have a thing for still life painting with oils, and it’s how I zone out. So taking Sunday to paint is my happy place, preferably with a historical romance tv show on in the background. Bridgeton five times now. Help. Haha! 

What do you always carry with you?

My backpack, with so many half used lost and found Mac ‘faux’ lipsticks that it’s a crime. I always have my glasses as I am pretty blind without them! Otherwise I travel very light, I think a year of lockdown has meant it’s normally phone and mask in one hand and glasses in the other.  

What would your last ever meal be?

I love good food; I don’t eat dairy now…so I think last meal ever I’d be all over the cheese! Pasta is my go-to, and as basic as it would be…mushroom pasta loaded with a MOUNTAIN of truffle would see me off nicely with a good bottle of red wine. Preferably sandwiched between some crisps and dip and some passion fruit cheesecake to finish thank you! My mouths watering. Ha-ha. 

What is one positive piece of advice you could give to our audience?

It’s so exciting when you realise that there is no limit to what you can achieve. Learn about practising manifesting and mindset. Might sound totally woohoo to some people, I hear you. But try to read or listen to books about it. It really has changed my approach to business and life a lot. Learning about being aware of your own power is so addictive. You can take responsibility for the world you create around you. ‘Thoughts become things’ people! 

One thing that really helped me align with my ambition, I wrote down moments in my past where I’ve felt validation, whether that’s work or personal, really describe them and be aware of that feeling. Then write, picture or just imagine how they might show up your future. Let yourself go there and get moving towards it.