Deborah Medhurst is the founder of The Middle Daughter, which if you haven’t heard of before, you’ll fall madly in love with. Deborah creates the kind of kids clothes you can only dream of – beautifully designed and made to last, they’re forever pieces to pass on. Sadly, they’re just for your kids. And while we’ve long loved her collections, we’re also inspired by her approach to entrepreneurship...
For 17 years, Deborah ran a childrenswear label No Added Sugar (it was stocked by prestigious retailers such as Harrods, Barney and Alex & Alexa). The company went into liquidation in 2018 after an investor pulled out. It was the end of a significant chapter, and ever the entrepreneur, a year later, The Middle Daughter was born. “On our life journey, things don’t go to plan and we have to change course, often many times, and in doing so we experience new things that would not have come our way had we stayed where we were,” she says. “I truly believe that suffering can be transformative if we allow it. To stay open-minded to the possibility that this could be a brilliant new beginning; when all seems lost and you begin again from nothing, the opportunities are infinite.” Here, we learn all about the business of childrenswear– and get a peek at the brand new autumn/winter 23 collection, which as we expected, is heavenly.
What’s the best advice you could give to anyone who was looking to enter the childrenswear market?
To really consider what your point of difference is. The market is very crowded which doesn’t mean there is no room, but it does mean that in order to stand out you need a point of difference.
What are the benefits of wholesale versus direct to consumer?
The reach. Getting your product into the right stores will allow consumers to discover your brand. There is also the added, and important, endorsement. Wholesale will also help to meet the numbers required for factory minimums.
What is your wholesale strategy and how has it impacted your growth?
To be a stockist to credible global stores that carry similar level (in the market) brands. This has accelerated awareness of the brand. We generally see an uplift in direct sales from a particular territory when we enter into a new market.
How do you approach growth in a sustainable way?
I am a firm believer in offering a considered size of a collection. I can’t help but feel that huge collections can be unnecessarily excessive, wasteful and ultimately unsustainable. Our current collections are circa 40 pieces. We believe that number allows us to convey what we want to say in a season. However, for AW24 we have added outerwear and for SS24 we have added swimwear, but these additions are in new category’s which is what we consider as a more sustainable approach to growth rather than increasing our dress offer for example. That all said we have to be honest and acknowledge that fashion is not a sustainable industry. But by sourcing materials more intelligently and producing more locally, and in countries that respect their workers, which is Portugal for us, we can minimise some of the damage. We are always curious and exploring how we can do things better.
How do you put together a collection – and how do you know when a collection is finished and ready to take to market?
I always go away for about 10 days and live a solitary existence. I love it! No interruptions and it allows me to immerse myself in the season. I set myself the goal of coming back with print briefs, all styles sketched, sourcing requirements and the colour palette. Once I am back in the business I play with colour-up’s (choosing prints and colours for each style), and we create the Technical Packs for the factories. But once outside of that design space and being back at my desk, I find it difficult to progress creatively so the time away is invaluable. We are a tiny team, so my attention is needed in other areas. The Critical Path ensures we get the collection complete and ready to take to market in time. Because I follow a process against the calendar, there is no option to wait for that magic moment. I also think you can fiddle with something too much and lose the vision.
Childrenswear is very different to womenswear in terms of trends – do you follow trends?
I feel it is a much free-er space. Generally, the trends we see on the catwalk take a little while to filter into kids wear and they definitely hang around much longer than one would expect! I have experience of designing styles that are inspired by the catwalk but found buyers not ready to embrace so timing is key. We certainly look at trends but are not governed by them. I feel in the kidswear space we can be what we want to be. I love art, prints, colours, travel, people-watching, and also time alone, all these things provide inspiration to me.
What is the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
Setting your own schedule, not being answerable to anyone and the power to implement ideas. I have a slow morning routine of yoga and meditation, so I am always grateful for the freedom I have to start my day in this way (without rising at too early an hour!). So in summary just having the licence to do things your own way is the most rewarding. And of course, receiving appreciation for what we do is always immensely satisfying.
And what is the most challenging thing?
Finance. Not having enough money to do all the things you feel the business would benefit from. And time, not enough. However, I am an advocate for a 4-day week. We almost do that now in that it is only Ric (my partner) and I that work Fridays. And we see Fridays as a flexi day, work from home, personal appointments, however we see fit to run it. I like that our team have their Fridays to do the same. And finally, Brexit. The EU have certainly succeeded in making trading with them difficult. Seems small minded to me.
In terms of marketing your brand, how important is social media?
I think it is extremely important. I am not a natural social media supporter (I don’t use personal accounts). In the early days of TMD I was reluctant to embrace it, but I now see the value. Reaching your audience in this informal way feels warm, and right. My posts are very spontaneous, I write them the day of, or night before, and I never have them planned. I select the image then just write whatever comes to mind. I also love writing the posts so that helps me to ensure they happen!
Your imagery is always so beautiful – do you think brands underestimate the power of investing into your imagery?
Quite possibly. We certainly believe images are gold. It allows a brand to say what it is that they are about in an instant. As we all know, pictures speak a universal language, and louder than words.
How did COVID impact your business?
As a husband-and-wife business we carried on working throughout. We walked each day to our studio, and it was more-or-less business as usual. Our assistant worked from home. The biggest impact was with our Portuguese factories, workers were staying home so our deliveries were late. Most of our wholesale customers were understanding in that things were just beyond our control but it was very frustrating. The other downside was not being able to get to trade shows to showcase collections, but you use what you have, and our digital marketing tools did a fine job. We are just about to return to Florence for shows after a 3.5 year break.
In a saturated market, your brand is so unique and stands out – how did you make sure your aesthetic was different to what was already in the market?
That’s very kind of you to say that. The aesthetic is driven purely by what I would love to see my daughter in (I don’t have one, only 2 boys). I design for the older girl in mind but are always delighted to see the small sizes come in – they are surprisingly so sweet! I do have a tendency to want to create stand-out pieces, styles that turn a head, but fundamentally the ethos is to create beautiful well-made pieces, as sustainably as is possible, and that endure in performance and love. I remember some of the clothes I wore as a child, wearing pieces that made my heart sing. I believe that magic stays with you. I like to think some of our styles will be recalled fondly by tomorrows mummy’s!
Finally, what’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
I honestly don’t recall any. I started working for myself at 24 years, with Ric, creating extravagant one-night parties but before that I did train and work in interior design. I worked for an amazing woman, who has been my career inspiration. Her love and respect of young people (as I was), and the intention to make the working day as much about fun as productivity was such an inspiration. She was my boss and inadvertently set me up to be the best boss I could be myself. I think that’s a powerful metaphor for ‘advice-in-action’!