How I Built A Children's Lifestyle Clothing Brand
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Ahyoung Kim Stobar, founder and designer of Joah Love, a children’s lifestyle clothing brand. We make timeless, comfortable casuals for kids - spirited styles that they love to wear, in buttery soft, no-fuss fabrics their parents will love.
Every garment is preshrunk or garment dyed, which means it won’t shrink when you wash it at home. I believe you should never have to sacrifice comfort for style, especially for kids!
Joah Love is available at Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and over 300 high-end boutiques in the US and Canada, with plans to expand to Europe and Asia. We also recently launched our complete collections direct-to-consumer at joahlove.com, which currently generates more than $40,000 a month and growing. We plan to amplify our online business by launching exclusive products and expanding our adult offerings.
We’re proudly made in the USA, knitting most of our fabrics at local textile companies in Los Angeles - and we have made sustainability a priority for our brand, with plans to release limited edition capsule collections using up-cycled fabrics. I’m very excited about this!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After graduating with a degree in Fashion Design at FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising), working at fashion brands and designing costumes for TV and film, I began developing product for the Wayans Bros., where we created intellectual properties for kids and teens.
I started JOAH LOVE with my friend Joy, who was a photographer. Joy was a mom of three and felt that there were no cute clothes for kids - so we saw a unique opportunity in the market.
The name “JOAH” was born out of the first two letters of our own names, which was especially fitting; in Korean, it also means to like something, a perfect way to start our brand.
From its start, JOAH LOVE was designed as a high-end collection—full of quality, character and buttery soft fabrics. I’ve always loved garment-dyed clothing and the worn vintage washed down look and feel, and saw it as a natural opportunity for children, who I felt shouldn’t be confined to buttons and hardware. These clothes could be simple, they could pull on and off, ad they could be easy for parents who want something simple to throw in the washer and dryer.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I spent most of 2008 reconnecting with my old fabric, dye house and sewing vendors to develop JOAH LOVE’s original sample line - it took six months to sketch out the designs, get color lab dips and work with a pattern maker for the season’s line. I knew I wanted to use the softest fabrics I could find, so I met with a handful of local vendors and ordered sample yardage for the sample line. All of my vendors were welcoming and supportive of me starting my own brand - one of my fabric mills even helped by giving us payment terms when we faced cash flow challenges.
The initial collection consisted of comfy, oversized unisex styles for girls and boys that I could see myself wearing. The look was minimalist with atypical lines and harem pants. Back then, no one in the U.S. made harem pants, and it took some years for the buyers to understand them.
The majority of kids’ clothing back then were made of primary colors and cheesy graphics, and I always thought to myself that I would never dress my kids like that. I loved neutral colors and didn’t see any sophisticated color palettes in the kid’s market. So the first group was a group of mix and match pieces that were interchangeable and garments dyed with a vintage look and feel.
During our first meetings with potential reps, they pointed out that if kids were able to wear the same size for years, it would limit our sales. They also told us that in the kids’ market, buyers order specifically for boys and girls, so the whole unisex idea was not going to work. These were all valid points, so I went back and completely reworked the collection.
I stayed focused on designing the first season and figured I would find a way to produce the line when we get some orders..Manufacturing at this point wasn’t even on my mind. It truly seemed like a dream just to have a showroom that would agree to represent us.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Once we had our inaugural collection, we went to the California Apparel Mart in downtown Los Angeles and showed the line to three of our top choice showrooms; who all wanted to represent Joah Love. I still remember rolling the suitcase out of our last meeting, squealing with excitement in the elevator and hugging each other. We chose our favorite showroom, AB Spoon, owned by two friends who were moms of two young girls. We just had a good feeling about them, and I’m so proud to say that we are still with them today after 11 years.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We focus on creating styles that are timeless over trendy. I’m kind of a hoarder of clothing and love to mix and match styles from years ago with new stuff. I’m like the opposite of Marie Kondo, you never know when a piece will “spark joy” in the future, so I hold onto everything. 😉
I wanted parents to be able to mix and match new pieces with old and pass them down to younger siblings - and it’s wonderful to hear them tell me how their third child is now wearing their first child’s clothes because the quality is great and the styles are timeless. We garment dye and pre-shrink all of our clothing, so customers often return knowing that they’re going to enjoy high-quality product that never shrinks and outfits their little ones for many years.
We have wholesale customers who have been ordering from us since 2008, and our direct-to-consumer customers at joahlove.com have been growing since we launched our online store a few years ago. More than half of the people who visited our site in 2019 alone have returned, reflecting the growing strength of our collections and online presence. Instagram has been a huge benefit for showcasing our brand’s designs and connecting with our growing fan base.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
It’s been a decade since it all started - and through it all, we’ve had a wonderful relationship with small, high end boutiques across the country. They’ve been our bread and butter over the years - and the same boutiques who gave us our first orders back in 2008 still order from us today, for which I’m grateful.
Since we started in my apartment, we’ve outgrown five office locations and we’re running out of space at our current building. I have an incredible team of employees who give JOAH LOVE their all daily and through the years, we’ve become a family.
The future for JOAH LOVE is bright! Customers have been telling us that they’ve been coveting their kids’ wardrobes for years, and this season, we’re going to make a collection just for them with the launch of a new line for adults. It will include Mommy + Me and Daddy + Me collections, complementary clothing for parents and their kids.
We’re also making sustainable clothing a top priority, incorporating upcycled fabrics into a new capsule line. And we’re in the early stages of exploring clothing options for children with special needs. There’s growing demand for sensory-sensitive apparel to help outfit these children and support their parents, and we’re excited to reenvision how our incredibly soft materials can help these families.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Every season brings new challenges, and it’s always surprising to see how strong and resilient you can become through the hardships. Always learn from your mistakes. If you’re starting a business with friends, clarify your roles through a clear operating agreement; and as you build a team as your company grows, don’t hesitate to fire those who are keeping your brand from growing and those who poison the company culture. The most important thing is to never quit, to overcome any doubts you have about building your brand. Just keep going!
Look for the things that continue to inspire and motivate you. For me, it’s the knowledge that some of my customers return time and time again to purchase JOAH LOVE for their kids as they grow, and it’s incredibly meaningful to me that their kids are spending their childhood wearing my brand.
The most important asset in any business is to build healthy, long-lasting relationships with your vendors and your team. Stay curious, and try to learn every aspect of your business so you can be a great mentor to others. Be flexible and willing to try new things. That’s the beauty of having your own business; you can maneuver quickly and try new things whenever you want and see immediate results.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have been using Shopify for several years now and love it because it’s been easily adaptable to our growing needs.
If we need to change our look and feel, or leverage a new technology add-on, we can do that without impacting the front-end experience. Our preferred set of tools is:
- Omnisend for email marketing
- Kit for daily updates and retargeting campaigns
- Product Discount for advanced markdown and sales capabilities
- Shippo + Return Magic for shipping and returns
- Planoly for Instagram grid planning
- Sprout Social for social media scheduling and analytics
We recently made the switch from MailChimp to Omnisend as Mailchimp was no longer supported in Shopify. We really like the variety of templates and campaigns that can be created, along with wheel of fortune and mystery box discount options for customers.
Our retargeting campaigns with Kit have been really successful, with an average of 13x ROAS over the past two years. We started using Planoly when we realized we needed a planning and visualization tool for Instagram, so we could share posting schedules between team members and refine the aesthetics of our brand.
Sprout has been great for finding the best time to post on each social platform, and to manage all our customer feedback in one place. Their analytics have been extremely helpful to us in assessing our competition and identifying which strategies have been working or not working for us.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
In my 20’s and early 30’s, I’ve read so many self-help books but a few that stand out to me are The Four Agreements, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Eat that Frog!.
I love watching TED Talks and listening to podcasts. Some of my favorites are Second Life by Hillary Kerr, who speaks to women who took risks and pivoted their careers into a completely different business to become very successful. How I Built This with Guy Raz, an NPR show who speaks to entrepreneurs on how they started and built their successful companies. It’s motivating to hear their humble beginnings, failures, and how they overcame their obstacles in their journey to success.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be resourceful. In the beginning, I had my friends come to my tiny office to help me fold my clothes. You’d be surprised who will show up for you if you just ask!
Focus on the product first and perfect it. Worry about all the back-end business details later. If you worry about every aspect of the company from the beginning, you might talk yourself out of starting. Just go for it and trust that you will figure it out! When I started JOAH LOVE in 2008, I was a designer. Today, I am a businesswoman who also designs.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’d love to find a young, creative person who is a master at Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and loves to take photos, do flat lays and videos, and create social media content. This position could start out as a part-time contractor and eventually turn into a full-time opportunity based on the individual’s capabilities.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: www.joahlove.com
- Facebook: @joahlove
- Instagram: @joahlove
- Twitter: @joahlove
- Pinterest: @joahlove
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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