When entrepreneurs develop their first business, they often find inspiration from the passions they pursue in day-to-day life. For the founder of Australian knitwear brand I love Mr Mittens, Stéphanie Caulier, she went back to her childhood in Belgium to discover her own place in the fashion industry.
Born from handmade designs, perfectionism and vintage knitting patterns, I love Mr Mittens is the latest homegrown brand to challenge our idea of modern fashion production and give us back a sense of what it means to own garments made with care.
StartUp Creative spoke to Stéphanie about going back to traditional process, the challenge of production planning and her philosophy of ‘heartworking knitwear’.
Why do you think the hobby of knitting is becoming more popular with younger generations and entrepreneurs?
I think people like the idea of making something themselves and being able to wear it. Not many people I know make their own clothing. I’ve grown up in a family where everyone knits or sews their own clothes so it was a normal thing to do. Business-wise I wanted to focus on clothing being handmade and going back to old traditional ways of making clothes. It’s good to take a step back from mass-produced machine knitted clothing.
What gave you the idea or inspiration to launch your company? How did it begin?
Back in Belgium I knitted small items on order for family and friends. It was just something I did on the side. When I moved to Australia in 2011 I felt a little bit lost and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I always worked in fashion and have a big passion for everything fashion. Back in Australia I was working on some knitwear. A store in Antwerp, Belgium noticed my designs on social media and ordered 50 pieces and that’s how the ball got rolling. It was kind of a now-or-never moment to turn it into a business.
Where are you based and where are your pieces stocked?
We are currently based in Perth. ILMM is stocked in our own online store, about 25 stores around Australia and selected boutiques in Belgium, France, The Netherlands, USA, Japan, China … You can find all of our stockists on the website.
Do you have a background in fashion and design or is knitwear a passion you chose to pursue?
My mother and grandmother taught me how to knit at age 6. Also at school we had lots of handwork. I had a few summer classes at Central Saint Martins in London (but didn’t really feel in the right spot) and that’s the only “training”) I had. Just learned more and more as I went and practiced a lot.
What makes your label unique? What qualities or aspects of your own philosophies do you infuse into your work?
I’m quite the perfectionist when it comes to work. So far we are only working with 100% pure wool and 100% pure cotton. It comes with a high price tag but there is nothing worse than acrylic materials. When we create new pieces my team and I take lots of time to make sure we finish off an item as good as it can probably get handmade. The combination of our custom dyed colours, modern designs and materials definitely make it a unique product.
Do you operate as part of a team or do you prefer to work alone? What kind of people do you choose to surround yourself with in business?
At the start it was just me. Over the years the amount of ladies knitting with me has grown. I now have 20 full-time ladies knitting throughout the year. Recently I also started working together with an Italian knitwear designer who helps me with patterns and spec sheets. On top of that I have a couple of lovely interns, a PR agency and sales agents in Melbourne, Perth and The Netherlands.
Where do you gather design inspiration from? Who are some of your own favourite brands?
I have a large stack of vintage 50-60’s knitting patterns that I love. I also love Instagram, it is such a good source of inspiration, especially all of the street style bloggers. I have quite a lot of designers I LOVE. Current obsessions would be Ryan Roche, Ellery, Rosie Assoulin and you can never go wrong with Acne Studios.
What has been the biggest challenge of launching your own company and becoming an entrepreneur?
What hasn’t! ILMM has grown really fast in the last year and different aspects have been challenging. All of these new things were happening and a lot of the time I didn’t know what I was doing. Production planning, cash flow, keeping up with production, dealing with overseas suppliers, managing 20 knitters … but no complaints here I love every day and every challenge!
Social media is a significant part of your advertising – how important is maintaining social media profiles and what is your best tip for great content?
Social media has played a very huge part in ILMM success. Stick to a style of photos you put up. It’s nice to show a little bit of your personal life too but keep in mind nobody really wants to see your drunk photos! When you are passionate about your product you have the best ideas and eye to show it to your customers I think. Having lots of amazing bloggers post great photos definitely helps too!
What is your biggest success within your company so far?
The fact that we are still here?! A lot of amazing things have happened. I love seeing the collection in beautiful magazine shoots or fashion bloggers wearing items during fashion week, stores who want to buy the collection, customers willing to wait a couple of weeks before they get their order … So many great things go on!
What is the meaning behind ‘heartworking knitwear’?
Every piece is handmade. There is no rushing this process, there is no way to speed up this process, you really need to put your heart and soul into each item to finish it just the way it was envisioned.
What do you do to take a break from your business and maintain a healthy life balance? (Travel, exercise etc.)
I have to admit I never really walk away from the business. Even on my wedding day I was answering emails! Just now I started having other girls in the office more involved so I can sometimes take a step back. I also noticed I need to let more people help me to be able to grow the business. (It’s difficult) I travel a fair bit every year, which I love. Always good to see different things and get away from the office. The office has taken over our entire house so I never really get away from it.
What is the best part of working for yourself?
If I decide to travel or meet someone for breakfast or lunch I don’t have anyone telling me I can’t. It’s a sort of freedom but then on the other hand it isn’t at all as there is always something going on. I don’t think I could every go back to a 9 to 5 job in an office working for a boss. I love it just the way it is!
What is your vision for I Love Mr Mittens in the future – new ranges, more locations?
I’m on my way to New York where we will be showing our first Spring Summer cotton collection. We’ve had a lot of interest from the US market so it was the next logical step. We’ll continue to bring out new collections and maybe even look into new materials. We are only just getting started!
How does your creative process develop? What are some essential steps in perfecting a product?
Knitting, knitting it again and again and probably ten times more until I’m satisfied!
Where do you source your materials from?
All of our materials come from Peru, South America.
Many people might have hobbies and talents that they don’t realise can be turned into a successful business or a creative hub – what is your advice for them?
Make sure you have a clear vision of what you want to do.
Having the finances to back it up most definitely helps.
Get advice from experts.
Be ready to face some big challenges.
Surround yourself with good people.
Stick true to your own ideas but don’t fear to accept criticism.
I Love Mr Mittens