What does it take to go from business idea to lady boss?
This new column features an entrepreneur, who happens to be a mom, each week—walking us through the process of how you too can take your ideas from dream to reality.
If you missed our last article featuring Lorene from Glitter and Spice, a teething jewelry company with wicked growth, on how testing and prototyping helped her hack her success, you can read it here. This week, we’re discussing the third step every entrepreneur needs to make on her journey: Building a supply chain.
This week brings something special: Two generations of lady bosses, a mother and daughter, working together to create a business that’s uniquely theirs.
Cynthia Bennett, and her daughter Meera Bennett, have created Devon’s Drawer, a children’s clothing line that combines old school whimsy with high-quality craftsmanship, while honoring the working families their company employs.
With looks like that, what’s not to love?
Cynthia has a long personal and professional history with textiles; she learned the art of clothing design from her mother, great-aunt, and grandmother, and has a degree in Costume History and Textile Arts.
Her daughter Meera works on marketing and communications within Devon’s Drawer.
Devon’s Drawer (named after Cynthia’s grandson, Devon), began four years ago when Cynthia went home to take care of her own mother.
It was there Cynthia discovered a closet chock full of the most beautiful clothing. There were wool dresses from the 1950’s and 60’s, sequined cashmere sweaters made in Hong Kong, and custom made dresses made by local dress makers. The fabric, the textures, the quality of craftsmanship stunned her. It was a type of beauty that was missing from the current world of throwaway fashion.
And it inspired a children’s clothing company based on the values of timeless quality (and adorable styling.)
What began as up-cycling items for her grandson has grown into a brand that values quality over quantity, and clothing that tells its own story, woven through the very fibers of the fabric.
And from the inspiration of Cynthia’s mother’s wardrobe to dressing little Devon—That’s three generations represented in the business, if you’re counting.
Isn’t that magical?
Today, Devon’s Drawer is carried in a dozen retail locations across North America. The brand is cherished for its beautiful fabrics, unique cuts, and commitment to ethically produced products. This year their sales are projected to grow by 40% over last year—powerful stuff, especially considering the business began with zero startup capital.
I chatted with Meera and Cynthia about how and why they created the brand, and the work that was involved in creating a supply chain they could be proud of—
What does Devon’s Drawer do/make?
Cynthia: We make children’s clothes and we use natural fabrics to do so.
Meera: My mom does all the design, and I’d say she does most of the grunt work. I help with the branding and communications. But my mom’s clothing line was really inspired by her family. She had to fly home about five years ago because her mother was sick. She started finding all these beautiful baby clothes –
Cynthia: No! It was her clothes! In her closet! Not baby clothes.
Meera: Right. So then she started using them as inspiration for making clothes for my son, Devon. Now I have two kids: Devon, and then Emily who just turned one. But back then it was just Devon.
Cynthia: I had already decided a long, long time ago to design clothing for women. But it got really complicated, really quickly, and I couldn’t find the balance. Meera was a young baby at the time and it was really hard. After a couple of years I just couldn’t find a way to make it work. At that time I lived on Saltspring Island, which was two ferry rides from Vancouver.
Meera: Mom was a total back-to-the-land hippie.
Cynthia: And, Vancouver didn’t even have a design scene back then, so I was literally doing this on my own. And I had NO idea what I was doing. So at that time I said, “I’m choosing motherhood.” These days there’s a lot more information out there for starting a business. As well, I was really young, and back then I didn’t have the “Why?” at that point.
Did the two of you start the business together?
Cynthia: Well Meera was the one who kept telling me that I should be doing this. She was there from the beginning, along with my other kids, but she’s really come into the foreground in the last year. She’s worked hard to create a warm voice for Devon’s Drawer that had been missing.
When your company needs to grow, what do you look for in a good fit employee?
Cynthia: Somebody has to really get what we’re doing, and they have to have the right skillset. For example for us, we make wool coats, and sewing woolens is a dying art because most people these days like to make clothing out of knits. They also have to LOVE the stuff. They have to take pride in their work, and want to share in our success. We are looking to create a real connection with our employees.
We are looking to create a real connection with our employees.
We spend a lot of time together so we have to not only enjoy each other’s company, but also work efficiently together.
Communication both verbal and written is actually huge as well. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s not. With things being so fast moving, and me travelling often, understanding each other becomes a priority.
Meera: The other thing I’ve really noticed with those who you’ve created a long-term working relationship with, mom, is that you guys really build a community with Devon’s Drawer. They’re really invested in your success, and you’re likewise invested in their success. You’re both building each other up.
Cynthia: Absolutely. Community is really important in everything we do. Our employees are part of our community. It’s not a one-way street.
What are all the components of your supply chain, and how does everything fit together?
Cynthia: For me, the biggest focus is the actual fabric, and I spend a lot of time, more than I should, on sourcing fabric. Because for me, that’s where the inspiration for the pieces comes from.
My background is in textile history actually so where the fabric comes from is a priority for me. So if I’ve got someone who’s doing organics, I have to know where it comes from, who grew the cotton, and where is it being processed, all the way through.
I like to work with people who have more vertical supply chains so I feel confident about the fabric.
To me that’s key. It’s the basis of what we do, and in fact, “the Why” of what we do. The textile industry is one of the biggest polluters of the planet. I could go on about this topic but I won’t.
I spend a lot of time on buttons, too. Where are they from? What country? If they’re made of shells - how were those shells collected?
Meera: Were shells are happy? Did they have friends?
Cynthia: And sometimes plastic is a better option! It’s true! I spend a lot of time trying to balance it all out.
Meera: You spend endless time sourcing fabric mom, but I feel like once the fabric gets to you that your supply chain is fairly tightly integrated. You have the fabric arrive in LA, have it dyed in LA, then it goes to your factory, also in LA. And then they ship it from the factory.
Cynthia: Yes. There’s also a couple of other things that have to come together before the pieces head to the factory for manufacturing. First we have the patterns. The idea for the pattern goes from me to the pattern maker, and then we test out that piece. Then, it gets graded – which means sized. Once that’s completed then everything gets cut, again here in LA. Meera’s right; once everything’s here in California, it does all get done in a two mile radius. It’s a huge unique point for us.
Meera: It’s really important to us to have pieces that are, as much as possible, made close to home.
Cynthia: It’s funny; it’s sometimes like a game of telephone, you know the children’s game? Every time you let go of something and let someone do something for you, they add their own little bit. So I’ve kept it really tight because I don’t want things to vary to any large degree. Like, a quarter inch difference on a collar, on a kid, makes a huge difference.
What would you say is the biggest difficulty in creating and sustaining your supply and manufacturing?
Cynthia: It actually has a lot to do with confidence. I need to have confidence in my work, all the way through the process, and not give up on my vision. Several times I’ve had the thought, “Oh they must know more than I know.”
So my biggest difficulty is believing in myself, while not being stubborn. It’s a fine line.
What process do you take to vet your suppliers and manufacturers?
Cynthia: I look to see what work they’ve done. And instead of going on what they say, I call up their other customers and ask them about their experience. Because people tend to tell you whatever they think you want to hear. I want to know if they were reliable, if they were on time, and equally as important, how did they treat you, as a contract? How was their communication, and how organized were they? I have to make sure they’ve worked with people that I respect.
Meera: And I know one more thing you really look for is having everything made in America as much as you can.
Have you ever had any major manufacturing disasters?
Cynthia: We had a problem with one of our coats last year and didn’t notice until one of our stockists mentioned that there was something wrong. I really respected him—the store owner—and he sent the coats back. We looked into them when we received them back and the sewers had sewn the collars on a quarter of an inch off. That makes a huge difference on a child’s coat.
My production manager wanted to know if I would continue to do business with that particular store and the answer was, of course, yeah! He spent a lot of time going back and forth. He really worked through the issue with me. Those are the type of partnerships I’m looking for. He’s basically at the end of my supply chain, but so essential to our success.
How important would you say confidence is in creating a product line and starting your own business?
Cynthia: It’s really, really important. And there’s a really fine line between confidence and vanity project. I can’t tell you which we are yet.
Someone said to me recently, “That sounds like a wonderful creative outlet.” And it’s not. It’s not a creative outlet, it’s a business, that happens to be creative.
The confidence I have in my design is there. The confidence I have in developing a business is there. But I can’t do it alone, and that’s where community comes in.
My kids are the closest I have to remembering what I said when I’m feeling less confident. They remind me of where I am going, and what the company is about.
Meera: As an entrepreneur, you will get told “No.” over and over and over again. But sometimes people say yes.
Mom: As an entrepreneur, you’re constantly creating your own world.
How does being a mother impact the way you run your business?
Meera: It’s made me much better at multi-tasking. Although sometimes I worry that I’m too good at it and I’m doing too many things at the same time – not putting enough attention on any one thing. I feel like I’m doing a lot of things off the side of my desk. Which is good and bad!
And the other thing is, that being a mom has given me a lot more sympathy towards other moms that I’m working with.
I understand if people don’t get back to me right away for example – I get it.
Cynthia: I’ve been a mom for so long now! I remember when I was at Meera’s stage, multitasking all the time. I found that now I really enjoy doing one thing at a time. I got so into multi-tasking at one point that I almost couldn’t do anything unless I was doing ten things at once. Now because I don’t have kids at home any more I’m finding it really great to be able to focus on one thing at a time.
I also have a lot of empathy for people who have working families. I know what that’s like.
Is there any one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring lady bosses?
Meera: Mom and I were talking about this question before the interview and kind of laughing about it.
Because if we can do it, I think literally anyone can.
My mom made all of our clothing growing up, so she already had the skills. But she had zero start up capital. She had an idea of what she wanted to do, but she had no money to do it. So she got very clear about her vision that she wanted for the business early on. She had to!
So I think anyone can do it, but you need to have a very clear vision of what you want. There’s going to be so many things that could potentially sidetrack you.
Cynthia: I agree. Having a very clear vision, and maybe, don’t quit your day job until you have to. At one point you’re going to be so crazy busy that you can afford to let that job go. But at the start you’ll need some way of funding your vision.
For me, it took a long time to come to the “Why.” I’m not talking about superficial things. I mean really - Why do this as opposed to anything else? Knowing that early on is important.