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Color Me Zutano

Michael and Uli Belenky dish about their 24-year-old childrenswear label known for bright hues and modern prints, and how they’re keeping it fresh in new markets season after season. By Jennifer Cattaui Nearly 25 years ago, Uli and Michael Belenky ditched their jobs as a creative director and freelance photographer and dove into something new. […]

Michael and Uli Belenky dish about their 24-year-old childrenswear label known for bright hues and modern prints, and how they’re keeping it fresh in new markets season after season.

By Jennifer Cattaui

Nearly 25 years ago, Uli and Michael Belenky ditched their jobs as a creative director and freelance photographer and dove into something new. “We were thinking about babies at the time, knew professionally we wanted to work together and we saw a void in the market,” Michael says. Their vision was an out of the box baby apparel company with a strong point of view and aesthetic, swimming upstream from the sea of pastel pinks and blues that had saturated the market. They up and left New York’s Garment District only two years into the business, and relocated to the idyllic village of Cabot, VT. “It was pre-e-mail and pre-Internet, and we moved to this hilltop farm. It was a really great move, as we know now, but was pretty ballsy at the time,” Michael laughs. They had already cemented a relationship with producers in Macao who continue to manufacture the line, a partnership that gave them the confidence to make the move. “We met them early on through a former business connection. It’s been a dedicated relationship ever since; we’re their only customer and they’re our only production facility,” Michael says. “It’s also a personal relationship as we’ve seen each other’s children grow to be young adults,” he adds.

Today, there is not a person in the children’s apparel industry that doesn’t know the name Zutano and what it represents: a vibrant palette and a wide array of fun prints for babies who, incidentally, look great in color. The brand has such a strong reputation in the children’s apparel market that over the last few years Zutano has expanded its reach into bedding, toys and most recently, furniture. We got to sit down with Uli and Michael and find out more about the future of their “business baby” and what they’ve learned along the way.

You’ve been expanding quite a bit into lots of new categories—what’s that experience been like?
M.B.: It’s a really exciting time for us right now and we’re enjoying developing strong partnerships. We are ready to expand Zutano beyond clothing to a real lifestyle brand. Along with the bedding collections that we have been doing with Kidsline, a really great partner for interpreting our aesthetics into bedding, there are more things coming. We have a new partnership with Storkcraft where we are working on bringing some color and new ideas to children’s furniture, so we’re looking beyond cribs. I think children’s furniture is an area where there’s been a lot of traditional thinking and the market is ready for a little twist—bringing an element of surprise and wonder. We like to speak to the imagination of children and embrace play.

How did you know your brand was ready to be translated into these new markets?
M.B.: I think the brand has matured and Uli has strived to bring freshness and relevance to the market all these years. We built a strong brand and brand following. We’re seeing value and our partners are seeing value from the pillars of the brand. I think all of Zutano’s core elements translate well to other markets when we have good partners. We know the specialty children’s retail market well, and now it’s a really great time to bring new product to market. It’s been a wonderful way to extend brand reach and help new customers gain the knowledge and develop curiosity about the brand.

Uli, how have you evolved as a designer over the years?
U.B.: Art is like everything else in life. You have to keep practicing to get good at it and I have a lot of practice. I try to stay in touch with my inner child and have fun. I keep at it and embrace change.

When do you feel most creative?
U.B.: Definitely in the evening . . . late evening. I am such a night owl with my creative work. The mornings are for coffee and e-mails and planning meetings.

Have there been any changes to the market that you think have significantly impacted Zutano’s business and the market in general?
M.B.: The thing that is really important for our market is the advent of social media and the Internet, and this is a really strong part of the future of the specialty children’s market because when you sit and type things into Google, you type in things you are obsessed with and are on your mind. There is nothing we are more obsessed with than our babies—people love to go online and share that excitement. It’s perfect for the children’s market. We love this opportunity to speak directly to the end consumer and get feedback. We developed a strong community around [Zutano’s] Facebook page. A specialty company like Zutano or a specialty store has a great opportunity here that should not be ignored. Years ago, it would have been impossible to connect with your audience on such a personal level. Your customers have the ability to help you go viral and you can get feedback instantly that you couldn’t have done before without conducting a study or focus group. This change has been challenging and exciting, as we all have to rethink ways to connect.

How are you harnessing this opportunity?
M.B.: In the coming year, we are putting more focus on our new web platform for the brand that will have a lot more tools and make the brand experience better. Our line is vast with a lot of color and prints and there are a lot of different ways people can navigate. We’re all learning and it’s one step at a time with the web and we have to continually adapt. You’re never there. It’s important that you continually evolve.

We are also working on the Zutano B-2-B to give that dynamic shopping and brandability to our retailers so they will have better access and understanding of the brand. We’d love to get to the point to allow our wholesale accounts to have access to our live inventory and have the ability to get things as they need them. We love when people buy the season before but we also have two of our own retail stores as well (our company store in Vermont and a store-within-store in FAO Schwarz) and we know you start a season not really knowing what will be selling and it would be great to have the ability to restock and change course to maximize your season. We’re definitely a company that ships 12 months throughout the year and we love having the product on the shelf and keeping it going.
Zutano is a major player in the U.S. children’s market—what about internationally?
M.B.: For many, many years we’ve had a strong following in Asia particularly—a strong brand recognition in Japan and Korea. They say there’s Zutano mania in Korea when the boxes come in. I’m always fascinated with the Japanese market. Especially with the way that the public in Japan is so open to trends and is able to reinterpret them for their own market. It’s about their global openness and clear design vision and aesthetic. We do also have great accounts in Europe, but the European market is much more traditional, and often there’s not as much global curiosity. In Asia there’s more openness and curiosity about the rest of the world.

What do you think has given Zutano such staying power?
U.B.: It’s the lifestyle that sets Zutano apart from everything else out there: from our location in the green hills of Vermont and the babies that come with the moms to the office and the farmers’ market that is held at the office weekly in the summer, to the Skype conferences and intense planning and merchandising meetings. Zutano has obviously grown much bigger and is recognized worldwide for its unique sense of color and whimsy, but from the beginning, I always thought of Zutano as a lifestyle brand. As the brand has grown, especially into home products and nursery, it has been a natural and fitting transition for us. Our vibrant colors and inspired prints are ideal for cribs and other nursery pieces.

I think the soul and energy of Zutano have captured the attention of new mothers. Today’s young families are searching for modern looks that capture the sophistication and unique qualities of their personal style. Zutano goes so far beyond the heirloom looks of the past. It represents a continual rebirth of fresh, modern design.

What about your business are you most proud of?
M.B.: I think Zutano has had an important role in changing the baby business in the U.S. When we started in 1988 it was a really different market and I am really proud to see the influence that the brand has had on the market and on the way we think of dressing babies.

U.B.: I’m also proud of every aspect of the business that we have created over the last 24 years. Seeing Zutano expand and mature has been like watching the stages of a growing child—you take the good with the bad and wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. It has been an indescribable learning experience. I am also continually proud of the product we create. We are always adjusting, refining and reworking our designs and our strategies in order to improve the product and the process. All the while Zutano has been accumulating a fan base of happy babies and happy parents that finally feel like they’ve found, in Zutano, a reflection of their personality and originality that they couldn’t find anywhere else. I just love that.


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