Happy Birthday, Baby!
Chief Executive Officer Yates Hooper illuminates Elegant Baby’s half century of gifting expertise.
Yates Hooper may just be the closest thing you can get to apparel and retail royalty in the South these days. Aside from bearing the name of one of the oldest families in the U.S.—a great uncle, William Hooper, signed the Declaration of Independence (it’s true, we checked)—Hooper is also named after the one of the most famous retail chains in North Carolina, Belk-Yates, a department store partnership that resulted when Belk divested itself between a number of Southern families in order to expand more rapidly.
Hooper’s father, Fred V. Hooper, founded Elegant Baby’s parent company Baby Needs Inc., in the North Carolinian town of Burlington in 1967, and was a frat brother to Tucker and Ogborne Yates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After Hooper was born, his father named his infant son after the notable family.
This year, under its second generation of leadership, Elegant Baby and its parent are celebrating 50 years in the business. On a brisk evening at the SoHo House in New York City, Hooper sat down to recount his early days at the company when his family deemed him the most appropriate person to helm the business. It was the prospect of leading the company that lured him back to the U.S. from a 10-year textile and apparel export career in Mexico City starting in 2002. Extending the legacy of his father, who passed away in 1999, was another motivation to see Elegant Baby succeed for another generation to come.
And succeed it has. Describing it as a “well-oiled” machine, Hooper says Elegant Baby now relies upon 30 employees and 170 sales reps that have placed the brand in 5,000 retail stores in the U.S. alone and built a strong presence in Canada and Latin America. “For some reason, in Latin America, they love us,” he says. Retailers range from hospital gift shops and stationary stores to major department stores and personalization businesses. They appreciate low minimums and view the company as reliable and able to turn on a dime, according to Hooper. The company also runs a website that caters to consumers directly.
Elegant Baby’s business centers around gift-giving, a gratifying aspect that Hooper describes as almost spiritual. In 2010, Hooper told Earnshaw’s that Elegant Baby guards the pastel business with its life, calling the color palette the lifeline of this business. That is still true today. With the overall aesthetic billed as “where style meets tradition,” products range widely from jewelry and hair accessories to personalized blankets, swaddles, toys and sunglasses. Offerings also include bibs, banks and bath products. Fuzzy socks and Christening gifts round out the pre-packed gifts.
In a world of off-price and big-box baby products, Elegant Baby initially focused on what it called the “upstairs customer” but, in fact, products start at $20 retail and can be combined, color-coordinated and arranged in themed groups in an almost infinite number of ways to reach as much or as little as a parent, friend or grandparent is willing to spend.
This versatility has resulted in Elegant Baby’s almost cult-like fan base. Many people have been buying the brand for 20 to 30 years, follow Elegant Baby on social media and are loyal to the retailers that carry it.
How did you get started in the baby business? I wish my Dad was here to give us his exact rendition of the story because it was always entertaining. He transitioned from being a sock salesman into selling baby hosiery where he detected a void in the marketplace for baby needs. One day when he was fired from that position, he took his life’s savings and began our parent company, Baby Needs, Inc., and later branded it Elegant Baby.
How has the business changed over the years? My dad was always very encouraging, thinking big and shooting high. However, it was more from the perspective of the old paradigm, which was more, more, more, grow, grow, grow. Now, I think it’s about doing well by doing good. Your business should make a positive impact. Having been born in the baby business, I’ve given more baby gifts than I can even remember. The act of giving comes naturally, and I think it’s very important.
What was the biggest lesson you learned early on? I graduated from UNC at Chapel Hill, and it was time for me to find a serious job. This was in 1993, as NAFTA passed. My dad told me, ‘Son, your best opportunity is not in our business. Your best opportunity is doing something else.’ He encouraged me to learn Spanish and look towards NAFTA to pursue trade between Mexico an the United States. So that’s what I did. I ended up in Mexico City for 10 years. It was not until I returned back to the States in 2002 that I took over Elegant Baby. At that time, the business needed my help more than ever. Ultimately, I was the family member who was best suited to take over the business. Working in the textile and garment businesses in Mexico gave me an appreciation and an understanding of working with big retailers. It also gave me the understanding and opportunity to grow our brand.
As Elegant Baby reaches the half-century milestone, what is the company doing to celebrate its anniversary? We’re celebrating by introducing an organic layette and bath collection for Spring 2017. The organic range is very simple and understated, cute and timeless. These pieces make wonderful baby gifts. Our duty and responsibility is to do our part to clean up our supply chains as much as we can. I believe in using less pesticides and less chemicals since I live a very organic and clean lifestyle myself. I believe in the values of organic food and high-integrity organic supplements and taking care of my own body and health. Today’s mom is more concerned about the products she puts on or near her baby.
Has gift-giving evolved over the past 50 years? For me, it’s morphed because I’m more proud of our gifts than ever before.We’re making better products with better quality and design. We always make our best baby gifting statements by grouping coordinating or complementary product in a beautiful gift box to create that ‘wow’ factor.
What are the current challenges affecting manufacturing? I think the challenge for brands today is that we have to be everywhere all the time. The business is literally 24/7. We have to be accessible to brick-and-mortar partners, online partners and our own larger Elegant Baby community. We have to remain available because we’re constantly being tagged in baby gift photos and products on social media. We are blessed to have an active community of loyal Elegant Baby fans.
Today, Elegant Baby is still manufactured in Mexico as well as China. Do you ever envision a time when any of those jobs will move back to the U.S.? As I discuss with my vendor partners in China, they have trouble filling jobs because young people do not want to do these types of jobs anymore. There are better opportunities out there. I think this is also happening with the advent of maker movements across our country. We are embracing the concept of making things again. I think it’s going to take some time, but the race towards the bottom has to stop. There has to come a time where we value quality and not just price.
What are your expectations for 2017? Considering the fact that 2016 was an election year, I feel like 2017 is going to be a banner year. The stock market had another record day and, here in the city, I see a lot happening. It’s very busy, very hectic. It just seems like the mood is positive, and I feel like our retailers are going to show up to market in January and going to need to re-stock.
What’s next for the Elegant Baby business? I really like the idea of collaboration, number one. But number two, I like the idea of evolving the brand and doing pop-up stores or retail concepts. We’ve got such an incredibly loyal fan base all over the world. Everybody wants to know where they can get Elegant Baby and where they can buy the outfits they see in the beautiful pictures we post on Instagram and Facebook.
Do you have a big philanthropic bent to your business? We do but we don’t publicize it. It’s not integrated into our business model. It’s just something we do through local organizations—places for battered mothers or underprivileged babies. We gift a personalized blanket with a baby’s name on it and put it in our signature Elegant Baby box along with a beautiful note that comes from the heart, reflecting the love I want to show someone who’s just been born into difficult circumstances. It’s so heartwarming to touch a young baby and a mother in need of a little bit of love and light.
Personalization is becoming increasingly important in the children’s world. Would you agree? Yes, it really adds so much more to a baby gift when you can take a beautiful blanket and personalize it. Everyone loves the personalized touch in gifting. In the case of giving to a mom in need, it sends the message that it’s okay to be loved and to love. We all need to be loved. That’s all any of us are looking for.
What do you love most about your job? We’re in the ‘stuff’ business after all. That’s why I’m so blessed to be in the baby sector. In the baby gift business, a purchase has to come from the heart. It’s an expression of love through the act of baby-gifting for the birth of a newborn human being. It’s always amazing to start a new day excited about what I do. There’s nothing more special in our world than new life.