Lucy Wildman and Fran (Francis) Frost’s line of merino clothes ‘for little monsters’ is catching on fast in the US. So why did they succeed, where other brands have failed?
Ask Lucy Wildman where the idea came from for her Little Flock of Horrors merino children’s clothing, and you’d better make yourself comfortable. The answer could take a while.
First, wind the clock back to the mid-90s when she finished her MBA and headed off to the US for some work experience at a ski resort. That quick trip turned into a 9-year stay.
Lucy met husband Fran on the slopes in 1999, and it was during the many hours spent snowboarding that she became aware of the benefits of technical fabrics.
Merino fabrics were only just getting started back then, she remembers, with polyesters and other man-made fabrics ruling the slopes. But when they both moved back to New Zealand permanently in 2008, and had two children, their appreciation of the temperature-regulating properties of natural fibres was quickly rekindled. Their little boy Iggy experienced febrile convulsions on three separate occasions – therefore the importance of temperature control through fabric was heightened considerably for the couple.
“We became really aware of the fabrics he was wearing,” recalls Lucy, “and began thinking how we could apply this awareness into our everyday lives.”
Frankie, their somewhat high-maintenance daughter, brought additional stress to an already stressful parenting environment, and ultimately would bring the ‘attitude’ to their brand of clothing, says Lucy, while Iggy’s experience would contribute to the brand’s technical side.
Needless to say, Lucy was keen to find a solution to the temperature problem, and began checking out fabric stores and picking up merino fabrics. Working off Butterick patterns, she started sewing up pants and tops for Iggy.
The idea for producing their own cool kids merino clothing came following a trip to All Baby & Child, the largest kids trade show in the US in 2011. Lucy and Fran had developed their own export marketing consultancy business and took some of their clients and various other New Zealand brands to the New Zealand Pavilion. Lucy remembers a Kiwi merino childrenswear brand pulling out at the last minute, and that prompted her and Fran to consider the opportunity of establishing their own brand seriously. Some positive press coverage came as a result of attending that show and the couple made a decision to target 25 retailers in the US with their own brand – including the iconic luxury specialty retailer Barneys New York.
Lucy had some serious research to do. Luckily she had an American husband who could ‘speak the language’; who understood how business was transacted in the US; and it was a market they were both familiar with and travelled to regularly.
“It’s not like New Zealand where you can just pick up the phone. You can spend so much time over there trying to get in touch with buyers. Extracting a business card from a US buyer is like extracting gold.”
She says it took a lot of ‘blood, sweat and tears’ to build up their network in the US.
Today Little Flock of Horrors is pushing its presence in New Zealand while expanding its global distribution. There is a showroom in LA; representation in New York; a warehouse on the US East Coast; a distribution partner in London; and a showroom in Australia. Europe is next on their radar Sixty percent of turnover is from offshore markets. Manufacturing takes place in both New Zealand and Fiji.
Lucy regularly attends trade shows, including ENK Children’s Club, which is staged four times a year in New York City and is her launchpad for the next season’s clothing.
Lucy explains that the official launch for Little Flock of Horrors didn’t happen until 2013, after two years refining their strategy. That was the year of the Barneys deal. “Finally we had something to hang our hat on.”
Barneys New York had been one of the 25 retailers in their sights. Lucy believed that merino clothing for kids would be a great fit. But how to capture their attention?
Getting in front of the Barney’s buyer would prove a mission. Lucy spent up to eight hours a day just trying to find the buyer’s email address. Finally she struck pay dirt, and the buyer returned her email almost immediately, expressing her delight in the Little Flock of Horrors brand name. “She told me it was a very Barneys kind of brand,” recalls Lucy.
Back then Lucy naively thought a first-time brand could get through a US retailer’s door straight away – in reality it took a few attempts to meet up. One was Playtime New York – where Lucy fronted up with her suitcase of samples. Unfortunately the buyer was a no show.
Lucy surmised she probably walked past her stand and saw that her presentation wasn’t where it needed to be. Having flown all that way, it was a disappointing outcome, but Lucy vowed to plough on.
Six months later at another trade show, Lucy finally met the Barneys buyer, but it took another six months and yet another trade show before a purchase order materialised. Looking back, she thanks her “pitbull” attitude for getting her through.
The key to Little Flock’s success in market, says Lucy, has been their knowledge of building brand presence and the importance of creating a multi-layered brand.
“We created a brand before we created a collection, not the other way round – which is where some people go wrong.
“You have to live and breathe your brand, and be its biggest advocate,” says Lucy.
Another point of difference, she believes, is their honesty towards parenting, and the fact that people are now comfortable talking about how hard it is to be a parent. “Because let’s face it, it sucks at times!”
“We’re not fashion students, we simply wanted to create a brand out of three years deep in the trenches with two very challenging children.”
Looking to the future, Lucy says the key to building the band is educating people on merino’s qualities. Americans think wool is scratchy, and not an all-seasons fabric. They are pleasantly surprised.
Securing Barneys New York was validation of merino’s increasing popularity in the market. However, there will be many more trade shows for Lucy. She knows how to work them. “I never sit down; I never have my phone on the stand, Instagram’s a distraction.”
She has also made some good friends across the US through the shows – which she says are much more collaborative in nature for exhibitors than shows and markets in New Zealand.
Making Little Flock of Horrors a global brand is the ultimate business goal of Lucy and Fran – which ties in with Lucy’s personal goal of seeing merino garments in more kids’ wardrobes. “Once they’re in there, the benefits are obvious and people just keep coming back to buy more.”