Launching during a global pandemic made us stronger
I'm Sal, founder of Ducky Zebra, and still on an absolute high that I've launched a brand, selling kids' clothes I love and believe in. Ducky Zebra is a unisex clothing startup, which challenges gender stereotypes with its sustainable, colourful clothing for kids aged 0–6 years.
We launched on social media in April 2021 and began selling our clothes in October. While the launch has been fantastic, we faced a number of challenges to get there, including: learning about a completely new industry; identifying the most sustainable fabric and manufacturing process; designing unisex clothes kids themselves like; homeschooling; factory lockdowns; Covid-friendly (kid) photoshoots; and shipping delays. But while there have been a number of hurdles to jump, I genuinely believe they’ve made Ducky Zebra a better, stronger brand. Couple this with the huge kindness and support I’ve experienced, and I’m flying. Here’s my story ...
My background isn’t in fashion. Nor is it in retail. My experience is in marketing, predominantly for the automotive and rail sectors. So, why Ducky Zebra? I was frustrated by the impact of gender stereotypes on my children. The language they were hearing, the TV they were watching, the games they were playing and the clothes they were wearing. Ever the optimist I decided to tackle one of these areas. The clothes they were wearing.
Often girls' clothes are pink, cute and impractical. They promote kindness, but not always confidence. And boys' clothes are often blue, aggressive and adventure seeking. They promote confidence, but not always kindness. I wanted to bring these two characteristics together and allow all children, no matter what their gender, to celebrate both kindness and confidence.
A few months before the first lockdown, I left my well-paid marketing job to start my new venture. By January 2020 we were busy working on designs, progressing the website and had our mission statement fixed: "to inspire kindness and confidence in children, no matter what their gender, through colourful, sustainable clothing." We had also found a fantastic manufacturing partner in the south of India, who was GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified and passionate about sustainability.
I quickly realised that setting up a kids clothing brand was an expensive "hobby", and so I started to freelance three days a week alongside my Ducky Zebra work.
"And then Covid struck. Before I knew it, I was homeschooling two primary-school children, pivoting the marketing strategy for the company I was freelancing at, and continuing work on Ducky Zebra. As many parents and carers will sympathise, it was a pretty tough time, with many early starts and late nights."
I couldn't praise our factory high-enough during this period. They took the safety of their staff seriously and went into lockdown quickly. Rather than pressing pause on Ducky Zebra, I decided to use 'life during the pandemic' as a source of inspiration. We were no longer able to fly away on holiday or even get in the car and drive away from our homes. And so we completely overhauled our designs - focusing on the simple things we could still enjoy with our families, such as riding a bike or splashing in a puddle - and the end result is a fantastic collection of fun clothes that children can relate to.
Slowly we came out of lockdown, as did our factory, and we progressed work. We still faced a number of challenges though, with size-checks and sampling having to be done remotely, rather than in person, which took more time and effort. By November 2020 our designs were complete, tech packs were produced, garment shapes and sizes were finalised and we moved into pre-production.
Pre-production involves the weaving, dying and printing of the fabric and the creation of every garment style in every size for final quality checks and sign off. Invariably this took longer than planned, with it being my first range, but we finally got there in March 2021.
After which, we moved into production. I began building awareness in April 2021 and was focussed on a June launch. However, while we were moving out of our UK lockdown, the spread of Covid in India had accelerated. And in May (when we were nearing the end of production) our factory went into lockdown for another three month period. I was pleased that our factory had made this decision. But I also panicked. How embarrassing to ‘fail’ so publicly. How was I going to maintain regular social posts when I had nothing to sell? What was I going to tell my followers about the delay? But, it was a brilliant eye-opening experience. Without the pressure to sell, I was able to focus on value-sharing and building a community. I also used the opportunity to write articles for magazines, such as Sonshine, about the challenges of gender stereotypes in early childhood.
Thankfully, the spread of Covid reduced in India, and the production of our clothes finished in mid-August. Our next challenge was shipping. With many industries being affected by lockdown, and many countries still badly affected by Covid, there were delays in most global ports. Rather than a 30-day turn around, we were looking at 60-days. And then there was the challenge of getting the clothes from the port to our house when they finally did arrive … due to the (thankfully short-lived) fuel crisis.
I danced with joy when the 44 boxes, full of Ducky Zebra clothes, finally reached my home. Since launching I’ve opened a pop-up shop for 3 months in the Oxford Covered Market (and taken on a few more challenges with the Omicron variant), won the Oxford Pitch for the Future Competition, was selected by Holly Tucker to be one of her 250 shop independent marketeers, and received Theo Pathitis’ Small Business Sunday Award. I’m absolutely buzzing, and so proud of what we’ve achieved already.
Yes, it may have been a slow and challenging process to get here, but I’ve flipped each hurdle into a positive, and Ducky Zebra is a better, stronger brand because of it.