Hands up if you've searched for the perfect nappy bag - only to be bitterly disappointed by the lack of fashion forward options, or complete disregard for practicality?
Yes, my hand is up too.
You’d assume that having three babies under my belt, I’d be an expert in packing the all-important nappy bag, and that I’d landed on a bag that was both style-conscious and versatile. Alas, I have not. For far too many years, I have put up with bulging totes, canvas bags stuffed under the pram, and of course, numerous near-misses where a nappy, wipe or snack has not been available at a critical time.
Until Toots + Co, that is. Founded by an Australian mother, Toots + Co has set about creating simple, impeccably designed pieces that are highly practical. Meticulously designed, the bags focus on functionality, with each detail having been created with deliberate intent and purpose. Case in point? The bags have clear divisions between a mother’s items and her child’s, meaning that there’s less time spent fishing around for keys, and more clarity when determining what’s missing from the bag. Using full-grain Italian leather to ensure uncompromising style and quality, if you’ve been searching for the perfect nappy bag – you can stop hunting now.
We spoke to Emma about her chic baby bags and all that’s ahead for Toots + Co.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your family?
My family is a tight little unit of three, my husband and little boy Vaughan who is 4. I grew up in Bendigo and my husband in Melbourne. After a lot of driving back and forwards and a seven-year long distance relationship, I made the move to Melbourne for a couple of years. It was a great experience to relocate to a big city, however after just a couple of years, an opportunity came up to join a great business in Bendigo so we made the move to back Bendigo. We now live on acres and really embrace the rural lifestyle. We have had a goat, sheep and cows, and have so far planted over 100 extra trees on our property.
In the summer you’ll find us waterside, soaking up the sun and the river, and very occasionally, hanging out in my most prized possession – a vintage speed boat! We are lucky enough to have a very close extended family, and we really embody the ethos of, “it takes a village to raise a child.” When I’ve got a bit of spare time, you’ll find me sneaking out for dinner with girlfriends, tending to my indoor plant collection and huge greenwall, or sipping coffee. Unless of course I’m designing bags, in which case, I’ll still have a coffee in hand. Actually, whenever you see me, I’m likely to have a coffee in hand.
What did your career involve prior to Toots + Co?
I have an accounting degree, and utilised this working in medium-sized businesses over a range of sectors and in public practice. On reflection, it’s interesting as in the sorts of roles I had, I always worked closely with senior management or the owners of the business, which made for incredible learnings over the years that I didn’t really even know were happening at the time! The exposure to how and why people do business and make decisions has given me a great basis to start my own business.
What inspired the launch of Toots + Co?
I have always just adored leathergoods. I can even remember all the details of my very first little handbag I received in primary school. And I think when you’re that passionate about something, you always have something in the back of your mind that you might turn your career towards it.
I had an idea for a bag rattling around in my mind for a long time; I just always thought I could do it better. I thought there was a need for a better baby bag. This was long before I had children, when I saw the functionality of baby bags and more importantly, their appearance as the people close to me had children and I very quickly knew how I could make them better.
Did having children shift the way you felt about your career? If so, how did this manifest itself?
Completely, in every way – even though I didn’t want it to! I still can’t decide if this is good or a bad thing! To be honest, the reality is now so far removed from what my expectations were that I am not even sure of what they were before I had Vaughan. It’s a complete game changer once your child arrives and you start to see what may and may not work for your family and child.
And my thoughts on this are constantly evolving, as are my career expectations and goals. I remember starting to do a day a week from home once my baby was three months old in a very basic accounting role. I enjoyed doing the work, the escape from the domestic side to motherhood! But then this started to evolve in my attaching some sort of worth to needing to have ‘a role’ of a certain standard and then feeling that my role wasn’t aiming high enough – that I was wasting my previous skills, even though I felt like they were evaporating!
But these thoughts have continued to evolve and I can see how lucky I am to be able to work in a flexible role where I can put my child first if he’s sick. I’ve realised it is all about how you frame it in your head. Once you realise and embrace the advantages of any change in your career motherhood required, or you just choose to do, you realise that in fact there are benefits, some of which – such as flexibility – you start to be very grateful for. Even though sometimes you may like to return to your previous roles, you just have to realise it might not be realistic ‘at this time’. The flexibility of my part-time role also meant there would be much more time for Toots + Co, so that was obviously a huge bonus!
Now I balance a part-time accounting role with my work on Toots + Co. This can be challenging at times, but I’ve learnt not to put too much pressure on myself, particularly with Toots + Co. I’m only accountable to myself and my own deadlines and objectives. Once I realised I could be a little kinder with myself, it’s been a lot better balance … WIth less working late into the night, and a little more downtime.
What was the process like of starting Toots + Co? Did you start with investment?
No, I didn’t. I started with a small run which was self-funded and chose to do everything myself, from registering my own business name to coordinating my own photo shoots and creating the website. This meant that I could keep set up costs very low, but I did realise six months in that it resulted in a very poor work/life balance! It required a lot of time and upskilling to complete some of the tasks, and I was spending every spare minute until late at night on the business. I’m sure many mothers launching their own business can relate.
I think it’s important to be honest that it’s sometimes not as glamorous as it seems, especially in the start-up phase! That being said, working on everything yourself means you are incredibly proud of what you have created – but at the same time more critical. I don’t think I’d sit there and pick holes in a website or marketing copy in the same way I do to my own work if someone else had done them … I would just appreciate what they had done and move on!
After that, I invested every cent straight back into the business – of revenue, not just profit! This went right from the first bag sale, to fund the next production run, and so on. Unfortunately, this didn’t and still doesn’t allow me to pay myself a wage, but it does allow me to grow a business that I’m so passionate about.
How did you go about the design process, sourcing the right materials and working with the right suppliers?
This process was incredibly long and arduous, and I like to forget this time ever existed! It involved endless emotions and frustrations, ups and downs and constant setbacks. The concept came to me quite quickly, as did the initial design. I am very proud to say I have designed and specified every single centimetre of my range, and so they are truly unique pieces. However finding someone to manufacture this with the finish and quality I wanted was definitely not, especially without any industry knowledge or contacts. I did undertake a course at RMIT which helped enormously.
I initially started with one manufacturer (after searching for the right one for 18 months), after presenting them with pages and pages of sketches and specifications, as well as a full cardboard mock-up to bring the design to life. They completed seven rounds of samples over about a year, each one refining the design further. This sounds simple, but often samples would arrive with mistakes or misinterpretations of my requests and it would take time for each style to be checked and measured, with every panel and specification, and then to document all of these and send the feedback back to the manufacturer.
On one hand, this was incredibly frustrating, but on the other hand, this time allowed for some of our best design features to evolve. All the while, I was using each sample with my son, which allowed me to iron out impracticalities and refine what I needed as a mum.
I think that’s what makes them so great; they have had literally thousands of hours of thought over years and years, to create truly thoughtful pieces for motherhood!
Working alone on something means you don’t have a sounding board, so my husband would often be called upon (at what I’m sure he thought were the most inconvenient times!) to provide his thoughts and critiques on design issues. Funnily enough, these were usually quite good. As someone who had been buying me leather bags as gifts over the years, he seemed to have an eye for it! Many a girlfriend would also be called upon to give their opinion while we were at a park date.
In the end, it didn’t work out with my first manufacturer, as they couldn’t meet my incredibly high standards, so I went about finding a new one. They brought the vision to life perfectly, but I just didn’t feel that the quality of the leather was high enough. So at the last minute, I halted the production run and we sourced our own Italian leather. It meant huge delays at the last minute, but it was one of my best decisions. I followed my gut even though it meant delays, but in the end, we produced a range that I feel proud to put my name to. I tested literally 100 black leathers before I found what I think is the perfect one!
One thing I find incredibly heartwarming is that throughout this time (which I think was about two and a half years), I had incredible assistance from people. Without all these people and their nuggets of advice, I would have either not succeeded, or would not have the brand and products I have today, The journey has been shaped by all these people. I like to think of them as the ‘Co’ in Toots + Co!
What has been the most challenging part of business so far?
Not being an expert in the field. I struggled with this practically and mentally, as someone who comes from a background where study and research could solve any issue. It was incredibly difficult to enter a field where there were no resources or expertise, unless you knew someone. It’s definitely a difficult industry for people who tend to self-research and problem solve, as it’s more suited to networking and calling in favours… Which just isn’t what I feel comfortable with.
Working alone and being in your own head is also hard. I’m my own worst critic, so I’m free to overthink everything without someone to snap me out of it!
I’ve also been constrained by my tight start-up journey; not having a huge marketing budget to splash around to gain exposure. We would love to have our bags all over Instagram, but the reality is that influencer market is becoming more expensive, especially for the genuine people we are drawn to and would like to work with. But we just can’t afford to have our bags swinging from every influencer’s shoulder. So we have built our business largely through word of mouth. In a way, this is a great thing, as people who come across our bags purchase them because they see advantages and make their own decision to buy one, rather than simply seeing an influencer.
And what about the greatest highlight?
Opening samples and finding them perfect in every way (finally!) is incredibly satisfying. After such a long journey to bring them to market, being able to finally press “go” on production was great!
One other moment that sticks out was early, when I was fortunate enough to have a local businesswoman (with an excellent eye for detail and a sound knowledge of the retail market) test out the bag. When she turned to the side I thought, “Wow! That looks amazing!” Anyone walking past would have seen me beaming from ear to ear. My feeling of accomplishment was so strong in that moment.
I also have friends who spot what we now call a ‘Toots in the Wild,’ where I receive a message or a sneaky photo of someone using our bags – it’s so exciting and so nice to have others share in my excitement.
Another highlight is when people come back to order more from us – that’s just beyond incredible! That’s a great validation and proves they are just as good in real life as they are online!
Can you tell us about your different styles?
Our bags are designed to suit the many stages and facets of a woman’s life.
I have taken an innovative approach based on a simple concept, with a clear division between items. We have a smaller bag – our Orbit Cross Body – to house small personal items such as your wallet, phone and lipstick which is then paired with a larger bag – our Pinnacle Tote or Everything Backpack. The Orbit attaches to the front as a pocket, which can be attached and detached as required.
Together, the pieces make an incredible team for any woman, but are perfect for motherhood. In the newborn days, a mum’s possessions live on the front in the Orbit, while the baby’s are organised inside the roomy tote in multiple pockets. The best bit? At a moment’s notice, a mum can detach her Orbit and head off without worrying that she has grabbed all her things as she would with a traditional baby bag. Because let’s face it, who hasn’t finally ducked out to the supermarket alone, only to find you’ve left your wallet in your baby bag?
If you’re commuting to work, the set also has your back. You can fill the tote with your lunch, spare clothes, novel and more, then you can simply detach your Orbit to be ready to duck to meetings or lunch, without dragging unnecessary things with you.
The pieces are also amazing for travel. I’ve personally carried the backpack all day, and then have dropped past the hotel, detached the Orbit and have carried it out to dinner. It means you can be organised in seconds, with no need to swap or repack bags, and less chance of heading out missing something important.
The bags have also been designed for versatility, with a multitude of pockets in all bags. They also have a variety of ways to be carried. For example, The Orbit Cross Body also has a clutch strap to take you through to dinner, with no need to swap bags. Our Totes and Backpacks can be also carried by their straps, as longer cross-body styles, or hung from a pram using D-rings.
What dreams do you have for Toots + Co?
I’d love to think that we could become known for quality leather goods that make women’s lives that little bit easier; to move from one aspect of life to the next seamlessly, without wasting time packing and repacking bags.
I’d also like to be a go-to for considered, practical designs. As many people start to move toward slow fashion and move away from one-season-wonders, I think Toots + Co can do this. I think the fact that we have a defined, unique aesthetic – which we don’t intend to alter season to season – will help our customers to understand that we create bags for a journey, not just for a season. Even if that journey is just to the supermarket, health centre nurse and back!
Talk us through what makes for a well-packed baby bag.
The philosophy I take when packing a baby bag is to pack it so that nothing can occur (within reason!) that would make me need to head home earlier than planned. When babies are young, getting out of the house can be hard… So needing to retreat home earlier than expected was never an option for me! So that means a couple more nappies than you think a trip would require, a change of clothes and a spare zippy, a second dummy, and so on!
My biggest tip would be to empty your bag and re-top it back up when you get home. So take out any dirty bibs or clothes and top it back up with fresh ones. It’s so much easier to remember what you have used and need to restock if you do it straight away, and when it’s time to leave the house again, you don’t need to think much!
This means that if there is a sleep time to be taken advantage of, or if a friend extends a last minute coffee invitation, there are no barriers in that hectic newborn life. Your bag can always be ready to go, and it’s one thing you don’t need to worry about.
Another great tip is to always store the same items in the same pockets in the bag. That way, if dads or other people look after your child, you can always point them to the same pockets.
How do you style your bags? Do you have a go-to outfit?
I usually style my bags with more amazing leather goods! So in winter, quality leather boots are on repeat, and year-round, a chic leather jacket completes any outfit and elevates even the simplest clothing. (I love a good leather jacket and have an extensive collection!)
In years gone by, my winter staples have been jeans and long sleeve tees all day every day, simply throwing on my leather jacket when it’s time to duck out. This has allowed me to move from childcare drop off, to the office and even out to dinner without doing much else – other than adding a statement lipstick and a scarf.
This year, now that my little boy is a little older (and hopefully less messy) it’s time to graduate back into all the amazing knitwear I’m seeing this season. I’m also loving leather pants – how much leather is too much?!
Come summer, it’s all about sandals and dresses, and again adding in the leather jacket when it’s cooler. Like my bags, I look for practicality, style and quality when I purchase clothing.
What's next for you and Toots + Co?
I’d love to expand our range. We have a lot of requests for a camel colourway, so that’s definitely on the cards.
Before that, I have been hard at work on a new nylon range which will be launching soon. It’s lightweight with a sports luxe vibe. Excitingly, this will include a mini backpack edition, which will be amazing for toddler mums who carry less, and it can also be adjusted to fit kids, which allows them to match their mum, which I am very excited about! It will just be too sweet. I’m so excited at the thought of children with baby brothers or sisters being able to match their mum’s bag, as we all know how much children enjoy being just like mum or dad! My little boy has been testing the bag since the start of the year. This week, he’s been packing it himself and heading out into the backyard with binoculars and his camera on little adventures exploring, which has made me very happy!
Long term, I’ve got my eyes set on what I think will be the piece that completes our concept, a work satchel. I can just envision on a Sunday night, a Mum unclipping her Orbit from our Tote and attaching it to her work satchel, slipping her laptop inside for the week ahead – I couldn’t think of anything better!