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Mogens Jepsen, CEO of Molo, elevates the Scandinavian brand’s unique identity with cutting-edge designs and global appeal.
Regardless of the challenge, Mogens Jepsen believes there’s always a path to success. No matter the potholes, roadblocks or detours, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even in today’s rockiest of retail landscapes—where some roads have been washed out entirely—Jepsen finds a way to lead his Copenhagen-based apparel company to where it needs to go, which he has done since launching in 2003. Known for its bold colorways, prints and silhouettes, Molo fuels children’s imaginations as well as retailers’ bottom lines worldwide. “Our prints give character to even the smallest personalities,” Jepsen says. “Each season is urban, funky and colorful with a twist that’s just quirky enough to get noticed, while never sacrificing quality.”
Exactly how did Jepsen lead Molo here? Is he in possession of some secret retail roadmap? Is he a savant of corporate strategy and forecasting? Might he have some sort of GPS-like device embedded in his brain? Actually, it’s much more realistic than any secret Molo mojo. In fact, Jepsen’s approach to business is stripped down and very Scandinavian-like. “We all just have to get up earlier in the morning,” he says, believing the recent market turbulence is not leading the industry to a dead end or, worse, off a cliff. “It’s not retail dying; it’s the industry learning to adapt to what once may have come easy,” he says. “We must actively discuss what can be done to support the new landscape because those who ignore what’s in front of them aren’t going to survive.” Jepsen, as always, is looking for the path to success.
An avid soccer player growing up, Jepsen compares trying to win at fashion retail to his days competing on the pitch. “If you wanted to make the Champion league, you had to practice every day—run that extra mile,” he says. “The same goes for running a business—going the extra mile to support a customer as soon as they walk in, listening to your partners, acting quickly on feedback—that’s how champions are made in retail.” Jepsen’s strong work ethic stems from a childhood of toiling on his parents’ farm in Varde, Denmark. “I still remember the scent of the meadows when my family would collect hay in the summertime,” he says, adding, “Lots of hard work and never anything to do with fashion!” (Laughs)
A career far-removed from fashion had seemed exactly the plan for Jepsen. At age 18, he enrolled in Up with People, an organization dedicated to introducing young adults to international cultures and customs. Jepsen traveled the world, including spending more than a year in the U.S. where he lived with more than 50 families nationwide. It was a crash course in cultures, opening Jepsen’s eyes to the world around him—how people lived, loved and laughed. “It was an extraordinary experience that taught me the outstanding power that comes from building relationships,” he says.
Upon returning to Denmark in 1991, Jepsen first entered the work force in food retail. It’s where he learned the business of fast-moving consumer goods. But Jepsen lost his taste for the business about a decade later. Fashion seemed far more appealing. The product, the speed to market, the creativity. Step one was landing a position in the Scandinavian division of Esprit, where Jepsen worked for two years before being recruited by IC Companys, one of the Nordic region’s largest apparel businesses. “I was retail director of over 50 stores worldwide, however I didn’t agree with some strategies being implemented,” he says. “I probably was too nice of a guy for that role, and eventually they decided to kick me out.”
It was a serendipitous sacking, however. Schedule cleared and generous severance check in hand, Jepsen switched gears—thanks to the encouragement from his wife, Rikke—to follow his entrepreneurial dreams. Focusing on what he believed to be a golden opportunity in children’s casual playwear in sizes 2-8, Jepsen and design partner, Louise Frederiksen, got to work. The year was 2003, and it was a corporate culture shock at first. “I went from sitting in a big office to working from a tiny office set up in the bedroom of our apartment,” he says, shrinking from an environment of 2,500 employees to two. It didn’t matter though. Jepsen believed he was finally on the right path. “For the first time in my life, I really loved going to work,” he says. Personal satisfaction quickly translated to profession gains. Molo grew steadily out of the gate. “We sold out immediately,” he says, noting that when his second child was born, his team surprised him with a baby collection. The gift would go on to pay big dividends for Molo as the brand quickly extended into that size range. “Seeing that little collection come to life really got us excited and sparked more years of development,” Jepsen says.
Since the salad days, Molo has mushroomed in terms of number of categories, breadth of selection, age range (baby to age 16), market expansion (more than 700 leading specialty and department stores, including Harrods in London and Barneys in New York) and employees (130 worldwide, at last count). Fusing out-of-the-box Scandinavian design concepts with superior customer service, the company operates sales offices and showrooms in England, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Hong Kong and the U.S., as well as distributor agreements in Russia, Spain and the Far East. It has also introduced 11 concept shops run by its own staff in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Hong Kong. “It’s been a crazy ride, but it’s been fantastic,” Jepsen says. “We feel privileged that we’ve been capable of hiring some of the coolest designers on earth.”
For Fall ’19, Molo is embracing global diversity with messages of respect, kindness and friendship. “The concept is ‘let’s be different together,’” Jepsen says, noting that inspiration usually comes from the ongoing dialogue the Molo team has with its retail partners. “We are focusing on the respect between people, between kids, between beliefs—an important lesson delivered in a creative and fashion-forward way,” he adds. The collection promotes togetherness in all corners of the world (and beyond) with sports to space-themed graphics and phrases like, “Wonders of the Universe,” “Good Spirit” and “Love is Real” in a range of streetwear silhouettes. Jepsen says expect a few collaborations to roll out later this year that include themes of friendship, self-love and world peace. “Collaborations are becoming a big deal in childrenswear—it’s a great way to leverage creativity and promote a fresh perspective,” he says. “When you work with new partners, you can always learn something new. That’s the best part.”
Reflecting on the tremendous growth and success Molo has experienced over the past 16 years, Jepsen emphasizes that he couldn’t have done it without his “amazing” retail partners. “They are just in another league,” he says, reiterating how their talents and ambitions energize Molo season after season. Then there’s the dressing as well as addressing the needs and concerns of children aspect to the whole Molo equation. “It’s the most gratifying feeling for all of us to be a part of the next generation’s development,” Jepsen says. “Now that’s something worth getting up early for!”
Where does the name Molo come from?
Funny enough, there are actually two versions to this story. The first is that Molo is an abbreviation of the first two letters of Mogens, and the first two letters of the designer’s first name I started with, Louis. That’s the simple version. However, the one we like to tell is that Molo is French slang for ‘relax’ or ‘be cool.’ When we originally looked at trademarks, we were thinking of calling the brand something with ‘cool.’ But lawyers told us to forget about it—it won’t work. So it’s sort of serendipitous that we ended up with something that has that original vibe in French slang.
I’ll buy that. What has the brand done to live up to its ‘cool’ identity?
We’ve built our own DNA since day one. Of course, we’re inspired by what’s happening in pop culture and adult fashion, but we’re not the type of brand to pick and choose aspects of other collections and put them together as our own. We take pride in coming up with innovative prints, colors and shapes each season. I think it also helps that we are solely a children’s brand. Unlike many labels that are takedowns of adult brands—often licensed out or put together in-house as a side project—Molo is focused on delivering to only the kids’ market.
Having solely focused on kids, how would you say childrenswear has evolved since Molo first launched?
Kids’ clothing went from being a product to being something that has a story. This is particularly true in the American market. Everything has a deeper meaning. I think this is wonderful, and something that is much easier to integrate into kidswear than the adult market. Ideas, good faith, friendship, humor, respect for one another—that’s all great stuff that’s easily absorbed by the imaginative and wholesome nature of the children’s market. At Molo, we have a team of incredibly talented and experienced designers—they are the ones who bring our stories to life.
Where do you recruit most of your designers?
Most have high-end experience in the adult market. We always look for top-level talent. That’s something we invest in heavily, and I can proudly say it’s paid off. That said some designers are hesitant to crossover to childrenswear, but usually a conversation about the tremendous creative freedom we offer at Molo is all it takes to change their mind. Most of our designers have been with Molo for a very long time now. Our employee retention is quite high, in general.
Is there any secret formula to hitting on trends that resonate worldwide?
It’s actually become a little easier. In the past, the difference in preferences from each region was enormous, but now it’s significantly less due to social media. You always have to pay attention to climate and cultural influences, but overall, news is spreading faster and kids like the same things.
The social media age/rage is reinventing every facet of this industry.
It’s certainly shaking things up. Globally, there’s been a higher degree of turmoil. A lot of changes have been made to the direct-to-consumer (DTC) buying model, which has certainly altered the attitude of consumers. Online is eating a bit of the cake everyday, if you will, but that doesn’t mean one day people won’t want to go out and shop in stores. We’re social creatures and shopping is a psychological way of behaving—it gets us out of the house, and everyone needs that from time to time. Generally speaking, some markets have been affected more than others.
Who’s being affected the most?
The European and American markets, since their retail is centered on downtown areas and malls—two areas significantly impacted by online shopping. On the other hand, China hasn’t been impacted as much yet, because the shopping environment there isn’t built around those formats to the same degree. It’s all a matter of adapting to the wants and needs of your specific market. Everyone is figuring it out and trying to see where they fit into the big picture. It’s surely not easy, and not everyone will survive. But that’s always been the nature of any business.
How are your American partners holding up in current shakeup?
Many are doing a fantastic job. Sure, we all read about the difficult times in the news, but there are many retailers out there who are fighting the online pressures and winning. For example, you used to see a much narrower selection in stores with brands that were a lot alike. Now successful retailers are expertly curating an assortment that fits the needs of their unique customer. It’s not the same stuff from store to store. And of course, maybe there’s a little extra chocolate somewhere for the kids or coffee for the father that doesn’t want to be there in the first place. That’s all part of delivering superior customer service.
In addition to experiential perks like in-store book readings and music classes, retailers still must deliver on the basics.
Precisely. Know more about the products you carry—where they’re made, how they’ve been tested, what celebs have worn that label, etc. All these aspects are important. You have to be more prepared to be worth the customer’s time. We all have to get up earlier in the morning.
Does this advice play into how you manage Molo’s 11 concept stores?
Definitely. Beyond offering an assortment of unique product, it’s all about training, training, training. Every customer deserves the best possible service—no matter what time they come in, no matter how long you’ve been at work. The same idea applies to brands supporting wholesale customers.
How do you foster your wholesale relationships while also selling DTC?
Brands are going to operate web shops, that’s just a fact of business today. Brands have to be on social platforms and stay in touch with the market by running their own e-commerce sites. And all this can be done intelligently in a way that doesn’t compete with those who support you. For example, we never launch anything on our site before sending it to our retailers. We also have a ‘where to buy’ link that we keep updated with our partners. I seldom have a negative response to any of our online activities. At the end of the day, our retail partners are also our friends, so treat them right!
How was business this past year?
Excellent. Just before you called, I was looking at our selling performance and how much it’s grown just between Fall ’18 and this coming fall. I think that has a lot to do with how selective we are in choosing our partners. We don’t want to have distribution on every corner. We work with only the most dedicated retailers, and those customers are not always easy to find. From mom-and-pop shops with great taste and a well-curated selection to bigger operations with the same passion and standard of quality, we hunt for the best of the best to represent Molo.
What are some key goals for this year?
As a company, I look forward to refreshing ourselves with new adventures in product categories. We also want to come up with new product faster and be able to express newness to our retailers and meet unexpected demands or needs. If a retailer, for example, needs a cardigan made for her summer shipment because it’s particularly rainy or cold, we’ll aim to make it happen. Personally, I hope to spend more time with my wonderful family. It’s easy to get caught up in running a business, and it’s particularly eye-opening when someone asks you—like you did—what are you currently reading and my answer was the emails on my computer! There’s just never enough hours in front of us, but I’m going to do my best to make more time. There’s always a way. Got any good book recommendations?
Where do you see Molo in five years?
We ’ll continue to build our brand globally. That means a lot of constructive dialogue with our retailers to really understand the needs of consumers. We’ll be scouting more unique outlets to pick up worldwide and, of course, continue to design collections that reflect our unique attitude. We no longer focus on selling in, but rather it’s all about selling through. We want to be a core brand to our partners, one they can count on for an even better collection than the last one. I also look forward to years of more emails from parents telling us how their child refuses to take off their new Molo T-shirt, so it has to be washed at night while they’re asleep! (By the way, those are the type of emails I never tire of reading!) That wonderful feedback helps justify the number-crunching, travel and long hours spent in the office. It’s our reward, as well as verification that we’ve made the Champion league!