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How small business owners are changing the Canadian fashion industry and coming out on top
As I sit with Alyssa Kerbel, owner and operator of “Mini Mioche” children’s boutique, it is a cold February day. We sip tea and coffee as I nervously shift, trying to make it not so obvious that this is my first interview I’ve ever done. She doesn’t seem to notice, she prepares herself, and is all smiles, which is comforting. Unlike the weather outside, Alyssa has a warm aura about her, but still manages to come across very business-like. She is the type of person who would be a great friend or boss, but could be hard as nails when she needed to be. Nonetheless, she is open and willing to talk about the Canadian fashion apparel industry and provides some great insight on the importance of buying and manufacturing the Canadian way.
To preface, Alyssa has owned and been the CEO of “Mini Mioche” children’s boutique for 8 years. Over those years, she has expanded her store/office from her original home of Queen Street West in Toronto, Ontario, to the Distillery District. With two stores to work out of, she has been successful in providing mothers, fathers, and children with eco-friendly, organic kids clothing. Made and manufactured right here in Toronto, Alyssa is definitely an entrepreneur with a bright future still ahead.
Alyssa: “I actually had another business prior to this, I had a wholesale fashion agency so I was selling mostly adult brand of clothing, some of them Canadian brand, some of them international that were distributed to Canada. It had been about five years since I started it and I had my daughter. I took some time off, because you know when you run your own business you don’t get a maternity leave…”
Alyssa’s personal style is reflected in her boutique children’s line. What she has on, a plain white t-shirt and dark denim skinny jeans, are a staple that can be found in “mini” versions throughout her two stores.
Alyssa: “I just found it, I just dress a certain way – I am very casual, I just found it very hard, you know, I wanted to dress her [my daughter] in a certain way…unisex, layers, soft stuff, and I just found it very hard at the time (which was eight years ago) to find that for her. And so I decided to start this brand. Initially it was very small and the basics, which was the ten styles that came in a bunch of colours, and was just for infants…
…I decided that I really wanted it to be made in Toronto, in Canada, and be organic. I was selling products that were eco-friendly and organic at my other business and customers were responding well to that. I wanted to stick out from the other baby companies and brands.”
Being and entrepreneur and full time mother sounds tiring does it not? Alyssa makes it seem effortless though, and proving that she is willing to take time to sit down with a student makes her all the more wonderful. As we all know, the fashion industry has no standard workday, every day can seem like a completely different challenge. Kerbel takes these challenges head on in her own business.
Alyssa: “Honestly there is no typical day…it really depends on what’s going on that day, and what time of year it is, which is something I really enjoy about the fashion industry. Most of the time now, we have our office where about eight employees work. We do the online photo-shoots, website, everything through there. And so most days I work out of that and just oversee, and make sure everyone is doing what they need to do…
…I also oversee the production side as well, sometimes I will go to the dye houses and manufacturers. I do most of the buying for the stores, so this afternoon I will sit with my colleague and do the buying for the fall/winter orders.”
In this day and age we know it almost impossible to survive without our phones and social media. A blessing or a curse? Alyssa devotes ample time to, and dedicates her boom in sales over the past year to Instagram alone.
Alyssa: “My focus right now is definitely on our online business…there is a ton of opportunity still there to grow. We have all of our clothing made in Canada so it is NAFTA approved, meaning we can ship to the USA and do not pay duty or brokerage. Plus right now with the U.S. dollar, it is way cheaper for them. Our online business has doubled from last year and Instagram has been a huge driver for our sales…
…We’re redoing out entire website for this year, so that is one of our main focuses. The next thing would potentially be to open up another store, and if I did that, it would be Vancouver. I’m not rushing into anything as I have my kids and it is a little daunting to open up a retail store across the country. I would say it would happen in the next 1-2 years.”
As I am currently in a fashion education program, I wonder sitting across from this small-business owner, what education is the right education? Do you have to take a business program to start a business? Alyssa’s Queen’s University Sociology degree with post grad studies in Public Relations may surprise some, but shows that it only takes a good idea and a lot of drive to succeed in this dog eat dog industry.
Alyssa: “My whole thing is that if you are passionate about what you are doing, you’re going to be good at it. I was always very passionate, even as a child, about clothes. So I worked at an agency, which was my first job in sales/fashion. I had no previous experience, but I could sell…that was always kind of a skill I had. I then left and started my own agency after two years, and then started this. I don’t do well working for other people [laughs]. That was something I learned very early on.”
Before concluding my teatime with Alyssa, there is one more question burning on my mind. As an aspiring entrepreneur, I want to know her advice. What tiny bit of information can she give to students in Canada that want to someday do exactly what she did, start a business from absolutely nothing and have it remain successful in a world where most fail.
Alyssa: “A few pieces of advice; one is that you will always have people telling you that you’re crazy, and that you’re going to fail, but don’t let that deter you. You have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot, and you have to live it and breath it. It’s not going to work otherwise. If you’re not 100 percent in, an super passionate about it, and don’t love it, it’s probably not going to work out…
…I sacrificed a lot of things; putting off kids, putting off marriage. Planning when I was going to have a kid so it that it worked around my business. It’s hard, but, extremely rewarding, when it works. Extremely rewarding, even when just little things work, and that’s what keeps people going, is when you get those little hits.”