Q&A with Emily Meyer and Leigh Rawdon, co-founders of the globally-inspired Tea Collection, discuss the brand’s design DNA, retail community building skills and their commitment to sustainability.
It all began in 2002 with three Pima cotton sweaters and a vision of fusing worldwide culture and modern design into children’s clothing. From the art of traditional Korean patchwork to the graphic boldness of Brazilian street graffiti, Emily Meyer and Leigh Rawdon have used their travel experiences to inspire original, modern and consummately wearable children’s apparel from newborn to 12 years. In fact, it was the mutual passion for travel that originally brought the duo together while their now-husbands attended graduate school together.
“It was that commonality—that one vision we both had,” Meyer says, reminiscing over the times she would spend hours chitchatting with Rawdon at social events.
But why a childrenswear company? “The category aligns with our brand DNA,” Meyer explains. “At the time when you’re buying children’s clothes, you’re in a really open-minded place, a soul-searching place of thinking through what matters to you—what type of child you want to bring up as a citizen of this world.” Appropriately, Tea Collection’s slogan is: “For little citizens of the world.” “Tea was built to inspire global curiosity and connection for people, even when they aren’t traveling themselves,” Rawdon says. “It’s beneficial to have that mindset.” The name of the company actually came to mind as tea is a drink shared across all cultures. “It can be a ceremony in Japanese culture, a pastime in Morocco or even a formal mealtime in the U.K.,” Meyer says. “It’s still the same drink—perhaps with different flavors, spices or nuances—but for all those cultures, it evokes warmth, wisdom and a time of connection.”
Although Tea Collection’s early years consisted of just Pima cotton sweaters, the fact that those styles were a toss-up between practical clothing and a nice gift item positioned the brand well for product expansion in the years since. “We were able to make quality products and get the right values for them,” Meyer says. “We started with sweaters and sweater blankets, and then by the next season we were out there with printed knits.” A few seasons later, Tea Collection introduced its first woven program, including a collection of sundresses, shorts and camp shirts. “We did that all domestically, which was a lot of work,” Meyer says. (The company has since moved manufacturing overseas as it grew into a full collection.) The most explosive growth phase for Tea Collection came when it introduced its red label, Daily Tea, in 2008. The tight collection of mix-and-match knitwear spans casual, dressy and embellished designs. “It’s the print, pattern and texture in the ‘Tea way’ that’s very wearable,” Meyer says. “It brings immense inspirations together.”
For Spring ’18, specifically, Tea Collection is capitalizing on its brand story and marking its 15th anniversary as it launches a collection inspired by global communities in the United States. Meyer says the team has connected, studied, researched and visited loads of neighborhoods and museums, immersing themselves with the extraordinary people and cultures that make up this country. “Starting with the 562 indigenous Native American tribes, we have looked at populations and immigration in so many different ways that I hope we capture the essence of these cultures coming together into one community,” she says, adding, “You’ll see a Creole-inspired print with maybe an African-American graphic T-shirt. It’s about celebrating the innovators, art and aesthetic sensitivities as icons in our nearly 300-year history.”
Tea Collection will pursue this destination story for the whole year. Meyer says development of the fall and winter collection, which represents the Northeast and mountain states, has just begun. “What we’re most excited about is how our marketing message will show how these communities co-exist,” she says, noting the team travelled to Cuba, where it visited Seminole Indian museums as well as connected with the Latin culture of Miami. “We also went to New Orleans to connect with the Creole culture, and we visited New Mexico to do some partnerships with specific Native American artists, as well as take a trip to museums and look at their collection of ancient art and artifacts.” Meyer adds. “We then went to Los Angeles, where we connected with the Asian community—Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Polynesian.”
Indeed, Tea Collection has come a long way since the days Meyer and Rawdon first started chatting about possibly going into business together. Now owning a worldwide entity based in San Francisco with more than 250 retail partners stretched across the U.S. and brand manufacturing partners in Lima, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, the duo never believed their idea would blossom into this business in 15 years. “I never thought I’d be the type of person to even have the same job for 15 years,” Meyer says. “But the truth is, I haven’t had the same job for 15 years—my job changes and evolves as the company continues to grow; that’s what I love: the change, the challenge and the people who work here. Those connections with real people make it truly enriching.”
How’s business been this year so far?
Rawdon: We’re having a great year. We just launched our fall collection inspired by Scotland and are happy with the results. Swim has also been a great category for us. We are known for our prints and colors, and swimwear is just such a great vehicle for that in both boys’ and girls’. I’m really excited for next year’s spring swim collection, which we’ll be showing at Children’s Club in August. Our sleepwear was another category that’s also performed well.
Was there a specific moment that really helped shape the brand?
Rawdon: After many discussions with retailers about the importance of presentation, we realized it would be beneficial to present the power of visual merchandising ourselves to our stores. The moment came when we got space to set up a mock store to show how Tea Collection could come to life in a physical way. We invited retailers to come to San Francisco, took them out to dinner, informed them with an educational event—and most importantly, brought everyone together. The response we got was really powerful. Pictures and images speak so much more powerfully than words, so to see our vision of merchandising the brand together in 3-D was incredibly impactful.
You then expanded on that concept by introducing your Workshop program in 2009. How has that been received?
Rawdon: The community that was built has been really influential. So many boutiques are on their own. They could collaborate with neighborhood shops, but there wasn’t a way for them to collaborate easily with people in the same exact business they’re in. When they shared the common love and partnership with Tea Collection, they could come together and build so many bonds that were far bigger than our brand. They shared opinions around hiring, merchandising, window displays—it became invaluable. After such a positive response, we went on to implement more workshops and then started doing them at least once every year. We’ve even taken the show on the road and have held workshop events in Dallas, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles in order to continue to nurture and build our community with the idea that boutiques are really important in this market. We want to do all we can to help them be successful.
What types of suggestions are offered at these workshops for merchandising the brand?
Rawdon: It comes in tiers, depending on how much each retailer wants to take on. We recommend that you hang it together. We’ve designed it to go together, to wear together, to fold together…so when you hang it together, you sell more pieces. The collection tells a story, and it delights the customer. So while the shop owners provide us a footprint of what they’re willing to take on, we always have suggestions on how they could pull it together. Whether it was paint color on the wall or a certain fixture system or simply a tabletop display and signage—there’s a variety of ways to make it work.
Meyer: I always think back to our brand values where we celebrate differences. This applies to how we approach boutiques. We’re not some big corporation, like a cookie-cutter model where everything looks the same everywhere. How Tea Collection manifests in Berkeley is different than how it’s going to come to life in Chicago. We really rely on our boutique partners to be the local experts.
How big a role does social media play in staying connected with your boutique community and customers?
Rawdon: Social media is very important as it gives us this open dialogue and conversation with customers that allows us to listen and adapt. This feedback comes to life in our product. If anything, to be growing steadily every single year for 15 years is a testament to our ability to adapt and really connect with customers. Ultimately, I think that’s the most important thing for us: really understanding our customer and being where she is.
Care to share any effective strategies to making that connection?
Meyer: Keeping it real. We are very hands on. Our team is engaging directly, and our customer service team is always involved. Our marketing team is very strategic about which messages we want to push out there, but engage when there’s a question and debate to be had. Each channel has its own voice and its own audience, so we must target the effectiveness of different messages via each channel. After all, we’re on 14 different social channels! Instagram, for example, is all about visuals, and our customers love sharing with us. We certainly encourage them to share their kids and their community wearing Tea Collection. It’s an easy way to draw engagement. Our Instagram followers also love sneak previews or product details, as well as inspiration and other brand tidbits. On the other hand, Facebook is more excited about the transactional opportunities, like sales events or new arrivals. We often use this platform to lead them to our site’s blog. We give them snippets of what’s out there so they can click through and learn more. The most impactful effect of social media is the opportunity it gives our followers to converse with others nationwide.
Rawdon: Exactly. We have a Facebook group that is by invitation only for stores that carry Tea. There is a dialogue there that’s so powerful—everything from news to reorders to even comments like, ‘Hey, I need a shoe brand for spring’ or ‘I need a new POS system. What’s working for you?’ It’s basically an extension of our workshops.
Digital is critical these days for brands and retailers to reach customers.
Meyer: Absolutely. The ever-evolving cloud is exactly where they are. They just want to know what they’re engaging with. It’s been said for years how video is more and more important, and it’s just a different version of a story-telling tool people are gravitating to. Not to mention, as new moms come into the pipeline, they’re just that much more digitally native, and you can’t not be there.
Rawdon: Emily actually made a comment the other day in the office along the lines of ‘it’s not that it’s digital first, it’s that it’s people first, and we want to be where the people are.’ However the landscape changes, that’s where we want to be.
Many young moms today are more concerned than ever about the story behind what brand they are buying. How has ethical sourcing helped elevate Tea Collection?
Rawdon: We are extremely committed to having ethical sourcing partners. We’ve gone through reviews of our standards with outside consultants from time to time to make sure we have higher standards than our peer brands. One thing that has been really powerful for us is our strong relationships with partners overseas. For example, we’ve had a partner in Thailand for 12 years. We’ve become so close with them that I took my family there to visit. My 7-year-old, at the time, walked through the factory, and we talked to everyone from owners to supervisors to the quality team and sewers. If you keep it personal, there’s just that much more trust. Standards are incredibly important, but the personal relationship is what builds that trust.
Tea Collection stresses the importance of giving back. How has philanthropy brought you closer to the community and your customers?
Rawdon: It’s been important to us since the very beginning—it’s part of our DNA. Back in the early days, when Emily and I were starting the company while sitting at her dining room table—before we even had an office—we were inspired by all these places around the world, so naturally we want to give back to them. It’s very much a mutual relationship. From the beginning, we connected with their founder of the Global Fund for Children, and a portion of all our proceeds goes to support the charity. We share the same values and vision, which is why that partnership has continued to grow to present day.
Rawdon: We also launched the School Days program several years ago. It’s a way for us to support education in our country. The idea that we’re globally inspired but still celebrate the local community works well.
Where do you envision Tea Collection in five years?
Meyer: I hope that we’re continuing to reach more customers and making more connections—just starting more conversations for families about global awareness.
Rawdon: There are a lot of different ways to do that. One of our initiatives right now is to reach customers with our boutique networks. We’re hoping to start new conversations with new boutiques, whether they’re new to Tea Collection or they haven’t carried us before or perhaps it’s a brand new store. So much is changing on the big box perspective and the shift away from malls, so we need to cut through that and be there for our customers wherever she shops. To be a solution to her desires, whether it’s feeling good about how she spends her money, the quality of the clothing that can be shared with siblings or having a useful context and brand. You want your customers to feel good about buying your product.
Speaking of which, is there anything new in the pipeline category-wise?
Meyer: We’ll be making a huge introduction next year to expand to an older age range. This is a strategic initiative as we’ve noticed the need to address older girls in the market. We’re finally going up to size 16 in girls’ and offering more evolved styles. While many girls may have worn Tea Collection growing up, now they will have garments that provide the right kind of edge and trend-right designs that make them feel like their older selves. It also helps Mom feel great about the choices she’s making and how she spends her money.
Rawdon: In whatever we decide to do, we want to always hold true to our values and make sure that our decisions allow us to stay committed to those values and to stay independent. We don’t want to get into any financially precarious positions where we have to make compromises. We are very deliberate, and that means that we aren’t growing as fast as we possibly can, because we want to always remain independent and have a sustainable business that will last for generations. We want Tea to be something that lasts for a long, long time. •