We sat down with founder, Theresa May to learn about the story behind her company, Inchworm Alley.
“One of the best compliments we’ve received is that our styles make excellent hand-me-downs, which is completely in line with our vision.”
Why an organic kid’s brand?
Like so many baby apparel start-ups, I was inspired by the birth of my son. Up until then, I had been designing women’s wear with my partner but a major part of our disillusionment came from having a clearer picture of the waste created even by an independent brand as small as ours and feeling like we were contributing to environmental issues by choosing to design and produce clothes.
It was around this time we were talking about all the elements of our newborn’s clothing that we would change or improve, so it just seemed like the logical next step to try designing baby wear with a focus on sustainable fabrics and manufacturing. People seemed to really love what we were doing and things ramped up steadily to the point where it made sense to focus exclusively on the baby collection.
We knew we needed a workshop partner that was committed to sustainability. It took a while to find the right factory, and ensure GOTS Certification to guarantee that essential social and environmental criteria was being met.
That was almost three years ago and we’re still exclusively using 100% Organic Cotton in either interlock, jersey, or terry fabrics, now that we’ve expanded to children’s wear.
What’s behind the name?
Back in the summers of 2011 and 2012, we would pack up our car with camping gear and leave Vancouver in search of off-the-beaten path camping spots. One morning we were meandering around old forest service roads about 2-3 hours east of Vancouver when we came across a dirt path that looked promising. We followed it until it opened up to this hidden gem of a hideaway.
There was a makeshift table, a bucket for washing dishes, some pots to cook with and a fire pit. On the other side of a small embankment was a spectacular view of the mountains and a private beach that slid into a rushing river. At the top of that embankment was a bench that was perfectly positioned to watch the sunset, flanked on either side by planters filled with strawberries that someone had lovingly planted there.
We noticed a weather-beaten sign that was barely legible which read, “Welcome to Inchworm Alley – we hope you enjoy this spot but please leave it in the condition you found it”. It was the greatest score of the summer and we went back to Inchworm Alley as much as we could before leaving BC.
That name has always held a special meaning for us. We hope producing Inchworm Alley brings happiness to our customers and leaves as small a footprint as possible too.
What was the need you found in the market?
It’s no surprise that baby and kid’s wear can be highly segmented along gender lines and consists of achingly cute designs that sample from the same playbook – pink bunnies for girls, blue trucks for boys – and while it can be adorable, we wanted to design something different.
From our experience in women’s wear, we loved developing prints, so it was a natural fit that we’d apply custom prints to our baby designs. Rather than the typical motifs we opted for photo-realistic prints and themes that were unconventional, often representing the person who bought the item, rather than the baby that would wear it.
I think that’s why we have so many young, male customers because they are looking for a baby gift that represents their style and something that stands out.
What is the goal behind Inchworm Alley?
The goal is to create something that will stop people in their tracks and say, “WOW” but that also leaves our Earth unharmed. One of the best compliments we’ve received is that our styles make excellent hand-me-downs, which is completely in line with our vision.
Our special dyes also mean that not only are they the safest to have against babies’ skin, but also they resist fading and can be passed on to younger siblings that come along and friends with newborns.
Name 3 things you think fashion entrepreneurs need to focus on for success.
First, it’s important to focus on finding or creating a niche that you can make your own. Competition is fierce and the market is saturated with products created by incredible independent makers and big brands, so it’s critical to do something different and directional.
There’s a fine balance with incorporating feedback from retailers and sales teams while sticking to your vision and it’s important not to get sidetracked by all these points of view. If things become watered down, you won’t enjoy the process, so stay focused on what you want to put out there and why.
Second, I’d say it’s essential to diversify where and how you market you products. Finding that right combination of wholesale and retail will put you in front of a wider audience, strengthen brand recognition and increase sales. It’s always a work-in-progress to find that sweet spot each season but the more you refine who your customer is, B2B and B2C, the better you’ll do.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the details. Shipping, warehousing and logistics have big price tags attached to them that can easily undermine your bottom line. Make sure to account for all these expenses when you’re setting your prices.
Knowing your impact
You’re someone who was really keen on knowing your impact, working with the factories to learn about it and finally with us to measure it. It’s a bit unusual in the fashion field and I’m sure you had some push back. How did you overcome those challenges?
It’s becoming less and less unusual, I think, as consumers, designers and brands are more aware of the massive environmental impact attached to textile and garment production. When I first started doing women’s wear, the factories I was reaching out to had a hard time understanding why I had so many questions about things that didn’t relate directly to the designs and finished product.
Some were forthcoming, others less so and it took a lot of research, factory visits and time to learn about what I needed to ask and what things to look out for.
How hard was it to find the right suppliers? How did you go about securing them?
It was incredibly challenging! It took a few years and three different relationships with manufacturers before I found the workshop I’m working with now.
In the beginning I connected with factories by word-of-mouth since I was fortunate enough to have some designer friends located in India. I also attended trade shows where I could speak with these manufacturers en masse and ask all the questions I had, as well as make appointments to visit their facilities, which is an absolute must.
What kind of checks and balances do you have to make sure you’re using organic cotton?
The workshop I contract with assists me with sourcing Organic Cotton thread locally and regionally. It comes direct from the facility where it is processed and spun. We have a shortlist of vetted suppliers we work, all of whom maintain GOTS Certification and who undergo regular inspections. After the threads are acquired, my workshop weaves it into fabric according to our weight specifications, so we have a lot of control over every aspect of the final product.
Walking the talk
People think that green fashion is expensive. How do you respond to that?
Fashion in general shouldn’t be cheap, or, at the very least it should be priced in a way that adequately represents all of the hands its gone through in order to make it to your closet. It’s a complex process and if you’re paying a ridiculously low price for something, it’s more than likely because someone or many people down the line haven’t been paid or treated the way they should have.
Green fashion is sometimes more pricey because it takes into account the money paid to farmers and skilled labour who have played an essential part in bringing it into existence through fair wages. You’re also paying for the overall quality of every element that has gone into it, so it makes sense that green fashion may cost a little more. You get what you pay for and if we’re truly more interested in being socially conscious about what we buy, knowing who made it and where we buy it from, that cost should be something we’re proud to invest in.
What is the effect you want to have on your customers and peers?
I’d really like Inchworm Alley to inspire people to dress their little ones in a way that isn’t dominated by gender or traditional colour palettes. The way you clothe your baby is as much a reflection of you as it is of the wee one and they’re only young once, so don’t put restrictions on it and have fun. There will come a time when they most definitely will not let you dress them!
In terms of sustainability, I hope people see their impact of choosing Organic Cotton and make a habit of getting more in touch with how, with what materials and where all their clothing is made in order to make better, more earth-loving buying decisions.
As for my peers, I think they’re doing an incredible job of getting the word out. Inchworm Alley may distinctive in our appearance but we’re not unique – there are many environmentally friendly children’s brands in the market who are raising awareness of the multitude of benefits of buying Organic.
Consumers are more likely to buy Organic for their children because they don’t want to inundate their brand new little human with harmful chemicals. As a result, this segment of the apparel industry is a significant leader in effectively educating the public. Hopefully that has a trickle-up affect when it comes to children’s, teen and adult clothing.
If you want to follow Theresa’s footsteps, here are a couple of things to get you started: