Seize the Manufacturing Day

No longer a single-brand company, Creations Robo has expanded exponentially, covering nearly every segment of the childrenswear industry.

François Vachon, Managing Director

François Vachon, Managing Director

François Vachon has been quite busy these past seven years. The managing director of Montreal-based Creations Robo has added not one or two but five new brands for the children’s wear company that’s been the sole home to Coccoli, the brand launched by his mother Marian Vachon in 1995.

But Coccoli’s story goes back to 1986. Marian was an English teacher as well as a gifted seamstress with an eye for fashion—she made the clothing that her sons wore throughout their childhood. Marian also had moxie and that trait has certainly been inherited by François, as he has searched for creative ways to diversify and grow the business.

As François recounts the story, he and his younger brother were both in grade school and their mom was ready to take on a job outside the home, perhaps even something that appealed to her innate design sense. While accompanying her husband on a business trip to Italy in the summer of 1986, she was drawn to childrenswear brands that she saw in Vogue Bambini. She simply called the various company owners and offered to become their Canadian distributor. “As luck would have it, they had an extra sample set. She paid for it in cash and left with it that day, in suitcases,” François says. By the fourth season, her success must have shocked the European manufacturers whom she represented; all by herself, she had reached $1 million in sales.

By the mid ’90s, business for high-end European brands slowed significantly, mainly due to the low Canadian dollar. “So, as one does when imports become difficult, one turns to domestic production and launches their own brand.” As a nod to her inspiration in Italy, Marian named her company Coccoli, which in Italian, refers to a favorite Tuscan snack of small balls of fried dough, and it translates directly as  “cuddles.”

After studying fashion marketing at Lasalle College in Montreal, François joined Coccoli full-time in 2000 as the Vice President of Finance. Marian is still working and a daily presence at the office, and it’s an absolute pleasure for her to see the expansion of her 37-year-old cuddly clothing for little ones. Earnshaw’s spoke with Francois about the evolution of Coccoli into Creations Robo, market trends across the industry and between the U.S. and Canadian border, and what the next five years might hold for this manufacturer.

Earnshaw’s: How has the Coccoli brand evolved from its beginnings to now?

Coccoli from Creations Robo

François Vachon: The constant throughout the years has been to present color-coordinated seasonal collections and excellent quality sleepwear. We used to only offer cotton fabrics, but now we mostly work with modal. We only use the Tencel brand of modal, as it is the highest quality, exceptionally soft and most ecological.

Our esthetic used to be much more classic: stripes, color block, fabric washes, and jacquards. Now have a big selection of prints in the collection–it’s fun to design and kids are drawn to them.

Earnshaw’s: How have you grown your business since 2016 and what specialization does each brand have?

FV: Creations Robo designs and produces Coccoli. In 2016, we entered into a distribution agreement with Brand 4 Kids (B4K), a Danish company, which was designing and producing Minymo—trendy, everyday fashion for boys and girls sizes newborn through 12 years—and we launched that in Canada and the U.S.

B4K then acquired four more existing brands over the next five years: Creamie: refined fashion for girls 12 months to 14 years, Color Kids: outerwear (jackets and snowsuits), swim and athleisure; EnFant: urban fashion for boys and girls newborn to 10 years; and Fixoni: layette and knits for preemie to 3 years. That fact that one company supplies five brands is fantastic. The logistical and commercial workload is extremely efficient, and the importance of stability cannot be overstated. Brands 4 Kids is a major player in Scandinavia and an amazing partner. We see a very bright and long future together.

We continue to invest heavily in compliance and sustainability. B4K is especially strong in this area; a substantial amount of their production is GOTS certified, which is quite impressive. GOTS has higher standards than OEKO-TEX.

Minymo from Brand4Kids

Earnshaw’s: What do you think sets your company and brands apart from your competition?

FV: Our company DNA is as wholesalers supplying independent shop and chains. We provide flexibility and support to our clients, based on a foundation of trust and mutual respect. Independent sales agents—showrooms—are key. When I speak to a sales agent, I am speaking to 50 to 100 buyers. They are in the field and have their ear to the ground. They guide buyers, and report back with issues that we can then address and fix.

Our specialty as distributors is we import the merchandise directly from factory. This is standard for brand owners but rare for distributors of European brands. We are bound to minimums, and we must respect early deadlines. However, these conditions were difficult to deal with at first but the advantages are that we can keep prices fair, and merchandise comes straight to our warehouse–it doesn’t have to go through Europe first. Finally, longevity and trust are important for buyers and sales agents. Designs can be up and down, but relationships are a constant.

Earnshaw’s: What trends have you seen in the market over the lifespan of your company?

FV: Buyers and suppliers have developed a cooperative dynamic. I love it. Shops are opening and closing much less than we’ve seen in the past. This allows for stronger and easier relations among buyers, agents and suppliers. We share information freely and can offer solutions with precision and promptness.

For example, if a client is overstocked in pajamas as we near the shipping date, they can request to cancel and replace it with other products that we have in stock. The buyer can do this themselves or with their agent. Ideally, no order would ever be altered or cancelled; but is it better for a client to take in products in that they don’t currently need? A strong IT system is crucial in order to make this possible. We are entering our second year with Nu Order and we love it. Nothing is more exciting than when the programmer makes improvements to our Enterprise Resource Planning!

EnFant from Brand4Kids

Earnshaw’s: What, if any, are the key differences between Montreal and the U.S. markets?

FV: The buying trends I see are more on the urban-suburban-rural level. Urban shops, whether in Dallas, Chicago or Montreal, tend to have similar layouts and product mixes. The same goes for suburban and rural areas. Of course, some cultural trends remain such as softer colors being popular in the south and nautical themes working well in New England.

Earnshaw’s: What significant changes have you seen for your business over the last three years?

FV: Although that period was a massive workload and very tough on margins, it coincided with Minymo, Creamie and Color Kids hitting their stride, EnFant and Fixoni joining in the mix, and Coccoli adding sleepsacks and a stock product range. As a result, the company’s revenue increased significantly. We doubled our warehouse space and distribution capabilities, even during a materials shortage. We’ve had to create new positions and hire and train the right people for those positions. It’s been wild and exhilarating.

Earnshaw’s:  What have been the most challenging parts?

FV: Putting the pieces of a business together and balancing growth/investment while operating the business. Researching and implementing new tools and methods and staying up to date with compliance—all things that don’t come with a guide books!

Earnshaw’s: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

FV: Know when to quit and cut your losses on a project.

Earnshaw’s:  What’s your five-year plan?

FV: Our five-year plan is to implement a marketing plan for stronger brand notoriety. We are going to work with our agents to get all six brands into every store we supply and support buyers and shops in all ways that we can so they can concentrate their efforts on offering attractive and easy shopping experiences to their customers.

Earnshaw’s:  What’s the most rewarding part of being a part of the childrenswear industry?

FV: There’s a few factors. One is the functionality and cycle of our products: we love seeing our clothes being worn and then coming up with new designs every six months. We enjoy being part of the independent community of buyers, agents and suppliers and seeing familiar faces for decades. We value players that keep us connected such as Playtime, who organizes a beautiful and easy-to-set-up trade show; Bruce Scheck, from the Children’s Credit Coop and of course, Earnshaw’s.


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