Does the world really need another cute onesie or wood rattle? That might depend on how it looks — and what it’s made of.
At least that was the thinking of Anna Schwengle, the founder and owner of the Fairfield-based Finn Emma, who has found a way to capitalize on the booming $23 billion baby market by going green.
Schwengle, who was born and raised in Germany until she moved to New York — and eventually Montclair — in 2003, has long worked in kid’s clothes, previously as a designer for OshKosh B’Gosh, J. Crew and private label brands. Eventually, she left corporate life to open her own design studio and serve as consultant in the industry.
During that time, Schwengle became more focused on living a more natural, greener lifestyle. In her ecofriendly shopping experiences, she took note of how brands were interpreting “green” for babies and she did not think it was cute.
“I saw brands offering organic products for babies, but they were always so brown and boring and granola,” Schwengle said. “While I appreciate organic, if I had a kid, I could never dress him or her in any of that.”
Schwengle said she identified two problems in the organic babywear market that no one seemed to be addressing.
“One, organic products are ugly looking,” she said. “And two, the baby market, in general, was stuck in a rut. The clothing designs were either super sweet with duckies, bows and tutus or they were extremely bold and graphic with in-your-face color. There was no middle ground between giant dump truck patterns and little yellow duckies.”
With this in mind, Schwengle, who had no prior business experience, wrote a business plan, learned what “P&L” stands for and found some investors.
The DIY business education paid off.
What’s in a name?
Anna Schwengle is not what you would expect from a green children’s wear designer. For starters, the founder of Fairfield-based Finn Emma not only does not have a son or a daughter named Finn or Emma, she has no children at all.
Recently, Schwengle found inspiration for her latest line of pajamas and play mats — the hipster collection — in Brooklyn.
But cool factor alone was not enough for Finn Emma to grow so quickly. According to Schwengle, consistency and reliability in delivering product set the business apart from competitors.
“This is an interesting industry,” she said. “It is like a giant revolving door. When I had my design studio, a lot of the people who contacted me for help starting their brands were people who wanted to do this on the side as a hobby. Then, they would realize you can’t run a business as a hobby, and so a lot of people come and go constantly in this market.
“When retailers see we are a real, serious business, they want to work with us because they know we are going to stick around. When retailers know that you are a brand that delivers, they are pretty loyal.”
Style and reliability are important. But for Schwengle and her legion of mom fans, which includes a couple of Kardashians, selling a sustainable product is paramount.
“We cannot cut corners,” she said. “To be real about what we do, we can’t just buy organically grown cotton and say we are organic. Technically, all cotton is organically grown, and then it’s treated with chemicals. And the label ‘natural’ means nothing, either. High fructose corn syrup is technically natural, but you shouldn’t eat it. So, we want to make sure our quality is 100 percent, our brand reputation is 100 percent and our sustainability is 100 percent.”
But, as a famous frog once said, it ain’t easy being green.
Finn Emma’s best-selling products are its infant play gyms. However, the business spent most of the last year without the gyms in stock because it could not find a supplier that met its sustainability requirements and could also produce on schedule.
“We have had significant challenges finding the right suppliers,” she said. “We started out with suppliers in Peru, but that proved to be very expensive and they were not be very reliable in the sense that they worked on their own schedule, not the schedule that the products needed to be delivered.”
Schwengle also said she was wary of working with suppliers in China because of scandals involving fake organic cotton certificates and poor factory conditions for workers. Today, only one part of the Finn Emma line is made in China, because it could not be sourced elsewhere.
While the company is based in New Jersey, Finn Emma follows the European consumer product safety standards, which are more stringent than the U.S. standards.
“My belief that people wanted something different from the baby market was right,” Schwengle said. “We take a theme that is baby-appropriate and put a Finn Emma spin to it and that works.”
From a humble startup of just Schwengle, a partner and a sewing machine in 2011, the organic baby clothes and toys company now has nine employees and sells to about 600 retailers, including high-end boutiques and national chains such as Buy Buy Baby and Anthropologie.
Finn Emma products also are sold in Japan, England, Australia and Canada as well as through a flourishing e-commerce site.
“We want to make sure our play gyms, for example, are free of heavy metals, VOCs and formaldehyde so moms get products they can trust and can be comfortable with their babies chewing on it,” she said. “Wood toys can have toxic lacquer, formaldehyde and VOCs and be totally legal because that doesn’t violate U.S. standards.”
Today the company works with a factory that is STeP certified, which means it produces truly organic textiles and follows other ecofriendly codes, such as recycling wastewater and providing fair conditions for factory workers.
While the decision to start her own brand of children’s wear has had its challenges, Schwengle says entrepreneurship suits her.
“You either are born to be an entrepreneur or you’re not,” she said. “You can’t turn yourself into an entrepreneur. It has to be in your blood. Being an entrepreneur is the perfect job for me because you never sleep and you have to do a million things at once.”
E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @dariameoli