The Mini gi­ant that grew

The chil­drenswear branch of the Bo­den em­pire has won over America with its vi­sion of the Bri­tish fam­ily built on fresh air and free­dom. Ju­lia Rob­son vis­its the team be­hind Mini Bo­den. Pho­to­graphs by Anna Huix

The Sunday Telegraph - ST Kids - - CONTENTS -

How Bo­den con­quered the world with its Great Bri­tish val­ues

As the sun rises over the in­dus­trial sprawl of North Ac­ton, west Lon­don, one brickand-glass-fronted low-rise stands out with its man­i­cured roof gar­den and its squig­gly name picked out in del­phinium blue. Ev­ery­thing with a Bo­den la­bel is cre­ated in this vast, 71,495sq ft Bauhaus-style build­ing, which stands six storeys high. In­side are six in-house pho­to­graphic stu­dios, and many more design rooms, show­rooms and tech of­fices. From here de­signs are sent out to fac­to­ries across 18 coun­tries (in­clud­ing Bri­tain) to be put into pro­duc­tion.

Clues to the brand, which is the largest Bri­tish cloth­ing re­tailer in America af­ter Burberry, are in ev­ery de­tail – from the shabby-chic chairs cov­ered in hotch-potch stripes, to the pas­tel-painted con­crete walls hung with im­ages of windswept, freck­led chil­dren rock-pool­ing in wel­lies.

In a frosted-glass show­room a bric-a-brac vase stuffed with corn­flow­ers and cow pars­ley scents the air with a blast of ru­ral Suf­folk, as Mini Bo­den’s cre­ative di­rec­tor, Laura Har­vey, 30, talks me through the lat­est se­cret weapon in the chil­drenswear wars.

Meet Sprout, a waggy-tailed, cocked-headed Jack Rus­sell set against a dark green back­ground. It is the lat­est Mini “con­ver­sa­tional print”, new for au­tumn/win­ter and fea­tured on the miniskirts, pinafores and rain macs that hang on a tiny rail. Sprout is also on satchels and ruck­sacks and is pinned to a mood board.

No­body does Bri­tish­ness bet­ter than Bo­den – ex­cept per­haps Mini Bo­den. The Amer­i­can de­part­ment-store gi­ant Nord­strom sells Mini Bo­den in all its 100 shops; Mini ac­counts for 44 per cent of Bo­den’s Amer­i­can sales, and 38 per cent of Bo­den’s over­all busi­ness; Mini Bo­den sales in 2013 were £100 mil­lion.

Why Sprout? “Any­thing with an an­i­mal on it sells,” Har­vey says. “And it’s John­nie’s dog.” (“It’s a she!”, John­nie Bo­den is said to yell in meet­ings, where his dog is con­stantly by his side.)

“Prints make cus­tomers come back,” ex­plains Har­vey, who de­signed for John­nie B (Bo­den’s nine- to 16-year-olds range) be­fore mov­ing to Burberry and then back to Bo­den, in July 2014.

There is also a leap­ing hare with a sparkly

‘It’s about spirit and at­ti­tude. There’s an ir­rev­er­ence to Bri­tish chil­dren. You can spot them a mile away on Eurostar’

crown (“Be­cause girls love a bit of sparkle”) and “fro­gou­flage”, which is cam­ou­flage with frogs. Ge­nius. But what is this? A di­plodocus T-shirt for girls? And a space print, also for girls? “His­tor­i­cally, this would have been boy’s sub­ject mat­ter,” Har­vey agrees. In Mini’s au­tumn 2015 “pre­view cat­a­logue” – which gives key cus­tomers a taster three to four months ahead of the sea­son launch so Bo­den gets “a read” on what is go­ing to do well – it is al­ready prov­ing a big seller.

Since her ar­rival in the role cre­ated for her, Har­vey has been charged with in­ject­ing a new Bri­tish­ness into the range. “It’s more about spirit and at­ti­tude,” she says. “There’s an ir­rev­er­ence to Bri­tish chil­dren. You can spot them a mile away on Eurostar, ly­ing in the aisles be­ing told off by ex­as­per­ated par­ents, while all the French kids are sit­ting down, look­ing chic.”

For the first time since its launch in 1996 (five years af­ter Bo­den it­self started) boys- and girl­swear will share sea­sonal sto­ries, prints and some prod­ucts. While the Sprout print is aimed at girls, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Bri­tish folk artist Mark Hearld sees the first uni­sex print, of sea birds, rock pools and shore­lines in­spired by Whitby.

Each sea­son starts with a con­cept. “It’s a bit chicken-and-egg,” Har­vey says. “Our de­sign­ers might pick some­thing up on from Rose Bowl [the flea mar­ket in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia]. It might just be a scal­loped trim. Or we trans­late the quirk­i­ness of a street blog­ger in Tokyo – we like a bit of quirk.”

Har­vey sits along­side cre­ative big chiefs on the sec­ond floor. There is the head of graph­ics, vi­su­als, proof-read­ing, art di­rec­tion, shoots and mar­ket­ing, and a ded­i­cated e-com­merce team. With in­creased web traf­fic at­tract­ing 20 mil­lion new vis­i­tors in 2013, on­line now ac­counts for 90 per cent of sales. They have one shop, near Bo­den HQ, where cus­tomers who re­ally want to can touch the prod­ucts or try things on.

Another Bo­den strat­egy, known as “wardrobe vis­its”, in­volves find­ing out what, apart from Bo­den, cus­tomers buy. “We ac­tu­ally visit peo­ple’s homes and they talk us through their wardrobes,” Har­vey says.

Even model cast­ing is part of Har­vey’s re­mit. “We use a lot of friends’ chil­dren,” she says. “Real chil­dren with real bruises. We go for char­ac­ters. I’ve been told I’m ‘creepy’ be­cause I keep tak­ing pho­tos of chil­dren all the time.”

The mez­za­nine floor, or “Mini mezz”, is the en­gine room of Mini – a large stu­dio full of mood boards, rails, sam­ples, in­spi­ra­tions… and mess. Har­riet Earle, 35, a Royal Col­lege of Art knitwear grad­u­ate, heads up the girls and baby di­vi­sion. Theo Ford, the head of boyswear, cur­rently un­der­go­ing a re-vamp, is also here. (Skinny jeans are ar­riv­ing in 2016.) The pat­tern team alone con­sists of 12, not in­clud­ing the design team (which dreamt up Sprout). They are work­ing on bun­nies, fish, whales, ponies and puffins. The graph­ics and a sep­a­rate logo design team cre­ate pic­ture T-shirts; there is even a stripe and check team, do­ing colour wo­vens, ging­hams and stripes.

Each de­part­ment re­searches trends be­fore any vin­tage shop­ping takes place, Earle says. Then loose con­cepts are pinned to a board and four to six sto­ries emerge. “Bo­den has al­ways done the tomboy thing. What’s clear is that sci­ence is on girls’ radars.” And she ex­plains how spring/ sum­mer 2016’s uni­sex Juras­sic Coast story was in­spired by the Vic­to­rian fos­sil col­lec­tor Mary An­ning (“A good role model. Go girl power!”).

When not trav­el­ling (which she does through­out the trade-show months of Septem­ber and Fe­bru­ary) Earle uses her three chil­dren – the youngest is Au­drey, nine months – as guinea pigs. “When my daugh­ter Martha, now six, was at nurs­ery she was re­ferred to as ‘Mini Bo­den’ by the nurs­ery staff be­cause of the amount of Mini Bo­den she wore,” she says. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant that girls can be boy­ish – if they want to. And my four yearold son, Otto, likes wear­ing his sis­ter’s sparkly shoes from time to time. Boys don’t just like mon­sters and di­nosaurs. And it’s not just about princesses and ponies any more.”

Ev­ery Mini item is signed off by John­nie. Does he have the last word? Har­vey points to a T-shirt. “See that splash com­ing out of a whale spout? He’d have an opin­ion on that… in a good way.

“Mini de­signs are very much born out of pas­sion,” she adds. “There’s a huge love for this brand. We have a fan­tasy fam­ily in mind, but equally we like to chal­lenge our­selves… who can come up with some­thing ir­re­sistible to a child and their par­ents.”

Above mood boards and sam­ples in the Bo­den head­quar­ters in west Lon­don

Right the cre­ative di­rec­tor Laura Har­vey (left) and Har­riet Earle, the head of design.

From left Pretty tea dress, from £36, Pretty cardi­gan, from £40, and short leather boots, sizes 22-39, £40; Har­vey and Earl at Bo­den HQ; pointelle Henley shirt, from £16, dun­ga­ree shorts, from £28, and mouse bag, £20. All clothes ages 18m-12, Mini Bo­den (bo­den.co.uk)

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