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
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)