If you’ve ever shopped for a baby bag, you’ll have experienced the problem that Jem + Bea founders Dominique Hughes and Rebecca Da Silva Lima (a former designer at Anya Hindmarch, Mulberry and Burberry) set out to solve five years ago...
While there’s no shortage of accessories brands in the market, there seems to be a drought of chic baby bags and the majority of these brands forget that new mums need bags too. And that the baby bag isn’t your average bag – it’s far more clever and versatile. You need multiple compartments for storing everything you and your baby needs, but you also want it to look good (newsflash: mums still care about style after they have babies).
The market problem inspired them to launch their luxury accessories brand Jem + Bea and haven’t looked back. Far from it. They’ve since expanded into other categories such as backpacks, weekenders and most recently, as sustainability becomes a key focus for the founders, a new Eco range.
Here, we talk about this Eco range, along with what it was like getting their business off the ground, the thought-process behind their designs and being working mothers.
Jem + Bea founders Dominique Hughes and Rebecca Da Silva Lima
Five years into your business, what have you learnt?
That there was and is still a huge ongoing demand for modern, stylish and functional nappy bags! That building a business from scratch is really hard work. That designing for dads is as important as designing for the mums. That our customers are hugely loyal – we have got to know some by name and love meeting everyone at shows and sales events.
If you could go back to the beginning, is there anything you would have done differently?
In terms of how we started, I don’t think we would because it all happened very organically. Social media, Instagram in particular, was relatively new when we launched. We were a little slow off the mark learning how to utilise the powers it has to promote the brand. We had to learn ‘on the job’ all things social media – honing our brand voice and learning about our audience and how to best to appeal to them. Instagram is now very much our ‘store window’.
What were your values for the business when you began? And have they changed?
We wanted to ensure we were an ethical company that promoted a flexible working environment for parents as we all had young children. This has been hugely successful, and we are all able to be full-time workers and parents around times that suit us individually. Since we have grown, and the world has become more aware of the horrific pollution that plastic and we are now pushing to become as sustainable as possible.
The baby bag is something many women don’t even know exists until they have children – take us back to when you were searching for a baby bag…
Searching for our nappy bag is what gave us the idea for the business. There was nothing on the market we or our partners would have wanted to use. The bags were all dated with the same flip-top ‘satchel’ style in ditsy florals or just plain black. Having had four children between us (now five) we knew if we were struggling to find something we liked there’d be plenty of others who were too. So, Jem + Bea was born! We wanted a range of nappy bags that were luxurious, real leather, modern and functional for both with baby and the years beyond. A nappy bag that didn’t look like a nappy bag.
Running a business can be all-consuming – how do you structure your work around raising children?
In the early days, it was done with toddlers running around our ankles and calls scheduled into their nap times (which obviously didn’t always work out). Now they are at school or nursery for the most part of the week, so we have 3 to 4 days in the office, and one to two working from home. As a lot is missed between 3-6 pm due to school picks ups and clubs, so we often find ourselves working again once the kids are in bed as some things just can’t wait.
We are dealing with all the global time zones now as we have stockists all over the world and our factories are in the Far East, so there is always something to do no matter what day or time it is! We do now have a policy whereby we try not to work over weekends and bank holidays.
Rebecca, you previously worked for Anya Hindmarch, Mulberry and Burberry. What did you learn about what women want from a bag from working for these brands?
Since I’ve mainly worked with high-end brands in my career, I’m a real sucker for beautiful craftsmanship and premium leathers and materials – it’s in my designer’s DNA. When we set up Jem + Bea, I wanted to make sure we didn’t compromise on materials, it was really important to me that the bags could stand up to luxury designer bags – creating bags that I loved to design and that women love to carry.
Looking at the best-selling bags in my previous jobs, I’ve learnt that women appreciate well-made bags that not only to look exquisite but have a certain relaxed feel to them so they can be versatile and slot into daily life. Then it sounds obvious, but the bags need to actually work! There’s no point designing something beautiful that digs into your shoulder or flaps open when you’re least expecting it too! Taking my experience at these luxury brands, at Jem + Bea we thoroughly wear-test our bags and accessories to make sure they survive the rigours of family life.
Interior organisation is so important too – this is something I learnt a lot about in my previous jobs and it’s absolutely essential in a changing bag. Practical details like placement of pockets, key holders, even the colour of the lining all need to be thoughtfully designed with parents in mind.
Staying organised is vital for a busy life, even more so when you’re a parent!
What’s the secret to a successful business partnership with a close friend?
Both our hearts and souls are in Jem + Bea so it’s easy when you are both working to the same sheet. We call each other the ‘work wife’. Obviously, there are disagreements when working together and spending so much time together, but I think we both know when to step back and let something go.
We are lucky to get to go to amazing cities where the kid’s fashions shows are held and where we meet our buyers and show our new collection. We have an absolute blast together at these and (after a very long day’s work) we love walking around the cities and researching new ideas at the markets and stores, and always end the day in a cool local independent restaurant.
Getting a business off the ground is the hardest part – what’s your advice for women who have a business dream in mind, but are not sure where to start?
Research, research and more research. Think about what will make you different from the rest. Branding is so important, from your logo to your website to your packaging. Remember to do everything as sustainably as you can. Your social media presence needs to be strong as depending on your business, this will be your biggest window to buyers/customers. You’ve got to love what you do because running your own business is not a 9-5. Even on holiday, we are working every day.
What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced growing a brand?
The biggest hurdle, as for many businesses is the cash flow. The speed at which we are growing, whilst organic, has in some ways been artificially slow by not wishing to place large orders with the factories. This means we have a quicker turnover of stock, but also that high demand products sometimes sell out quicker than we can make them.
You’ve significantly expanded your range since you began – tell me how the brand has evolved and the new products you’ve introduced?
A lot of our new ideas come from developing our best sellers and looking at colours and trends in the stroller market as customers often like to match their bags to their strollers. We also listen carefully to customer feedback and ideas.
We also try to keep ahead by thinking about what would be useful to parents. For example, our new Eco Mitts are just gorgeous but also super useful. The Velcro to the stroller handle bars so you’ll never have cold hands again!
Shop Jem + Bea
Can you tell me about your Eco range…
We’re so proud of our Eco range. It’s been a real labour of love – sourcing materials that are both fully certified and have a good hand-feel and look can be immensely challenging. Our first Eco range made with regenerated nylon, launched in AW19 – we were amongst the first in changing bag market to do this.
We’ve subsequently grown our eco range to 14 pieces – with everything from Stroller caddies to kids backpacks and have a dedicated ‘Eco Range’ section on our site. Within that range, we are proud to be authorised users of Econyl® – world leaders in sustainable yarns. The yarn is made from both ocean and landfill waste, meaning our eco bags are made without having to use precious new resources.
The popularity of our Eco collection is proof of how now more than ever expectant parents are looking at ways to minimise their environmental footprint whilst retaining their style.
What are your tips for women about to become mothers when it comes to baby bags? What should they always pack in their bag?
Nappies, wipes, change of clothes, milk/formula, snacks, a book and some small toys for entertainment!
What is your advice for surviving the newborn days – what got you though?
Always say yes to a cup of tea or cooked meal if offered. Don’t listen to what other people do/did, it’s your baby and your instinct will tell you what to do and what is right for you both.
Finally, can you share any challenges you’ve faced during COVID and how you’ve overcome them?
Stock management has been our biggest issue during Covid when the factories were closed for manufacturing. Our new season designs have all been months late this year – but so have everyone’s been. Sales-wise we came off relatively unscathed due to having a strong online presence. For that and our customers continuing to support us, we are truly grateful.