Boden’s colourful clothing has been sported by little ones for more than two decades now. Danielle Wilkins meets the brand’s head of childrenswear design, Harriet Earle
“Ah, now here’s a cardigan inspired by a big-top tent. There are spots. Some jacquard stripes and bows. Oh, and here’s a circus horse print with a tassel mane. This is supposed to be a novelty shark hood, but it needs a bit of work,” says Harriet Earle, Mini Boden’s head of design, a wry smile on her face. She knows how bonkers it all sounds, but her words perfectly capture the joy of Mini Boden – it’s playful and fun, and really, anything goes.
I’ve come to meet Harriet at Boden HQ – a 90,000 square-foot office building in North Acton, outside of which a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer reads: ‘Ugly building. Nice clothes’. Mini Boden is located in a separate building down the road, where we sit in a room surrounded by moodboards and cuttings, fabric swatches and rails of kids’ clothing, as the designer talks me through the new collection. This season’s theme is Treasure Island, with the first drop this January featuring travelling circus inspired prints (think horses, acrobats and jugglers), while ‘drop two’ will see the more traditional ships and pirates.
“Our conversational prints form a really big part of what we do here,” says Harriet. “The whole story element is something I feel is unique to Boden – it’s a huge part of every range.” And something that has ensured Mini Boden’s enduring popularity over the years.
After all, despite launching the mail-order brand in his Bayswater flat with just eight menswear products in 1991, Johnnie Boden has become best known in the UK for dressing women and children. Womenswear launched in 1992, and the Mini Boden line, which followed in 1996, has become synonymous with childhood nostalgia – quintessentially British storytelling prints, colourful appliqué and, most importantly, exceptionally well-made pieces that stand the test of time. Baby Boden was a later addition, in 2007.
“Johnnie loves this idea of a wholesome childhood; adventure, the seaside, being outdoors, he loves that stuff and it stays at the heart of what we do,” says Harriet. She reveals that the founder is also very involved in the design process, even during those early stages.
“He casts his eye over absolutely everything,” she says. “We have to present the storyboards to him – child engagement is something that’s really important to him, so he’ll often challenge us, asking, ‘how is this going to appeal to a modern-day child?’”
So how does the team come up with ideas for its vast collection of prints? “For a typical piece, like a dress, we take a lot of inspiration from vintage pieces,” reveals Harriet. “Right now we have been working with Angela Lynne who lives at the amazing Shropham Hall in Norfolk. She wrote a book called Nursery Days and has the most incredible vintage archive of children’s clothing, furniture and dolls – everything you can imagine – which she has collected over decades. For us, it’s the most amazing source of inspiration, particularly for Baby, because nostalgia is something that’s so important for us to convey in the baby range.
“We always show Johnnie the prints separately first. We’ll lead with a conversational print and then a small-scale floral. Spots are a part of our brand DNA too.”
This year, Boden has launched a cashmere range for Baby, which the team will add to in conjunction with the new royal birth in the spring. The range features the most beautiful, super-soft pieces, including leggings and tops. In addition, Baby Boden’s range of newborn clothes will all be organic from this year.
Harriet works primarily on colour palettes (“that’s generally my creative job at the beginning of the season”) and admits she’s always been artistic. After studying for a knitted textile degree at the Chelsea College of Arts, the designer attended the Royal College for her fashion knitwear MA.
“Actually, I wish I’d appreciated my time there a bit more,” she recalls. “Looking back, it was an amazing couple of years and it opened so many doors for me. The people they have there are so inspiring.”
Following that, Harriet worked at Pringle for three years, where she designed for the brand’s runway collection, before joining Boden as a women’s knitwear designer. It wasn’t until she had her second child (of three) that she moved on to Mini. “Having my own children definitely sparked a passion for kidswear,” she says. “I still love womenswear – and knitwear – but I absolutely adore it here on childrenswear. It has a slightly less-serious side. You can try more fun things.”
Her children are eight, six and three now – two girls and a boy. Have they always been guinea pigs for her designs? “Absolutely!” she laughs. “In fact, Martha – my eldest – used to be nicknamed ‘Baby Boden’ at nursery because that’s all she was ever dressed in!”
When the designer came back from maternity leave with her third child, that was when she was made head of design for childrenswear, a moment she cites as one of her proudest: “I wasn’t keen on the direction Baby was heading in – I wanted to make it softer, more nostalgic, more premium. And when that season launched it did brilliantly. That made me extremely proud,” she recalls.
So what’s next for Boden? This year the office buildings are being redeveloped and merged into what promises to be an even more fascinating and thriving hub of activity and, of course, the empire has launched its brand new store on Kings Road in Chelsea, which includes a whole floor of Mini and Baby Boden. More than 800 staff are employed at the label now – it’s come a very long way from a one-man band in Bayswater, that’s for sure.
“It’s really clichéd to say ‘all the people are amazing’ but they do make coming to work a pleasure,” adds Harriet. “And of course, I love having the opportunity to create lovely products that I can see my children in. When people say, ‘Oh, your children look lovely, is that from Boden?’ it doesn’t get better than that. Unless, of course, it’s my kids saying, ‘I absolutely love this. Well done, mummy, you’re amazing!’” she laughs.
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