We love Belle & Boo (a little girl and her adorable bunny, for the uninitiated) here at W&W. The sweetly retro prints have become a wonderful collection of to-be-treasured treats – from books, stationery, craft and homeware to the sweetest printed frocks. It’s a big hit with my little girl – and her mama (there’s nothing brash or garish about these beautifully-drawn illustrations and products; pretty much anything you choose from the website makes a gorgeous present.
So we were thrilled when Mandy Sutcliffe, the incredibly talented and multi-tasking co-founder and illustrator who conceived Belle & Boo – and grew it from a tiny Etsy shop to the thriving business it is today – agreed to chat to us about how she does it. ‘It’ being running her own company, being a creative maven, sponsor of the crafts and a mama to twin two-year-old boys. Phew.
Can you tell me a little about the history of Belle & Boo?
Whilst I was at university in Leeds, I spent some time drawing in Paris on a university exchange. The Parisian children had such an elegant, old fashioned charm about them, very classic clothes and hair styles. I remember hearing one of the little girls being called by her mother on the park and her name was Belle. As for Boo, it seemed the perfect name for Belle’s curious companion, and being a visual person, the name Belle & Boo looked harmonious when written together. The Parisian children’s also reminded me a lot of the characters from my favourite childhood story. I am heavily influenced by the story book illustrations I grew up with. My particular favourite was Milly-Molly-Mandy; the map at the beginning is etched on my brain. I think E. H. Shephard and Cicely Mary Barker are absolute genius. Other favourites are Bonnard, Vuillard, Degas, Maurice Sendak. Contemporise I admire are Jen Corace and Mark Rydan.
In 2007 I launched Belle & Boo via craft website Etsy.com where I sold illustrations of little children and soon found myself inundated with orders. Kate, a friend, saw an opportunity and a gap in the market for the style of artwork and suggested that they build the world of Belle & Boo beyond art prints together. Under Kate’s direction the brand has gone on to have its own online shop, secure licensing deals with John Lewis to Churchill China (amongst others) and produce an award-winning range of homeware and gift products distributed across the globe!
And how did you move from characters to brand?
When Kate joined forces with me she brought with her a great deal of experience about branding. Kate previously worked as Marketing Director at a retail design agency, where she worked with brands such as Disney and Warner Brothers to help them deliver stand out in store. Kate recognised that my style of artwork offered simplicity and a nostalgia for parents that is often missed in high tech mass manufactured brands and together we wanted to build on the success of the characters thus far. As our licensing portfolio grew we appreciated that Belle & Boo had the potential to become a much loved British children’s brand.
Now, you have a thriving company – and twin boys…. . Um, how do you do it?! Please can you talk us through your average working day?
I am not going to lie: it is exhausting, but I have a lot of help. I have a wonderful partner who shares the tears in the night (one of our twins suffers from eczema so he is awake a lot in discomfort) & we alternate the early starts, although both of us are normally clutching a coffee by 6.30am. We have a wonderful nanny who has looked after the boys since they were seven months old. She is with them on average thre days a week and lives just around the corner. She is very flexible, so my working week is geared around the twins social life! I live five minutes from work, so I’m normally at my desk by 9.30am and finish up at 5pm. I feel very fortunate to have such flexibility and a wonderful team to support me.
How do you manage the family/work balance?
My boys turned two recently and the balance is still definitely tilted in their direction, I am not planning on having any other children and they are growing up so fast I am reluctant to miss too much of their childhood. Saying that I love my work and really look forward to the days I can create and have a cup of tea in peace.
How do you negotiate childcare/domestic admin?
My wonderful nanny cooks and does laundry; aside from that I muddle through. The house isn’t as clean as it could be, but I like to remind myself of a quote I read somewhere that said mothers of older children regret how much time they spent doing housework rather than playing with their kids.
What do you like best about you current set-up? And what do you find the hardest?
I like the balance between being a mum and working. If I am having a bad day with the kids, I know tomorrow I can work; and if I am having a bad day at work I know tomorrow I can cuddle my boys all day. It makes me a better mum. The hardest thing is lack of time for my relationship and myself: I look forward to when the boys sleep better so I have more energy to fit more into my day.
How much time do you have for your relationship? And for yourself?
None at all really: my relationship with myself has been very neglected, although I am slowly trying to get back to the gym and eat a bit more healthily. It’s hard when you are tired. In turn this doesn’t make you feel the best around your partner. However, we have two gorgeous boys and they won’t be little for long.
If you could choose, what would be your perfect family/work divide (ie what’s your idea of a balanced life)?
I think I have it pretty balanced in the right direction at the moment considering the age of my boys.
Can you give us a sneak peek as to what’s next for Belle & Boo?
The future of Belle & Boo is very exciting as interest in the brand is growing from all ends of the spectrum. 2014 will focus on international growth as well as a focus locally on Belle & Boo at retail with the aim to deliver the essence of the brand via customer experiences, showcasing products together. Hopefully by the end of this year you will see a Belle & Boo pop-up shop pop up with a view to more permanent retail prescience in the following years.
A personal favourite project at the moment is the Belle & Boo Boo-tique, an online shop offering the work of independent designers. Designed to be an online gallery Boo-tique will offer a unique range of handmade pieces that I have personally chosen.
I have also just recently enjoyed designing a Belle & Boo bath time range and a bedding range, which launches in the Autumn.
And who knows perhaps one day you may just see Belle & Boo hop and skip onto your TV screens.
The Boo-tique (which launches this Friday) sounds like a wonderful idea – can you tell us more about how it will work?
The idea for Boo-tique came from my admiration for other artists as well as my passion for beautiful and unique things. I am always on the hunt for hidden gems and it is always exciting to discover wonderfully crafted pieces by talented designers. I launched my career making and drawing from my home and so I have an appreciation for the handmade and exceptional craftsmanship. Through the Belle & Boo website I have the opportunity to share my finds and raise awareness of wonderfully talented designers.
Each designer or artist has been invited to create something unique, which will then be showcased in the Boo-tique. Each piece will be presented with the designers own label, and a note from Belle & Boo, with the words “We found this together, love Mandy”. For the home there are designer pieces including Adelaide Wood’s beautiful vintage style hand knitted and crocheted cushion covers and Kate Penrose’s, stunning hand painted and restored children’s furniture. Smaller gift items include a unique collection of exquisite silver by Sarah Hartley who has put a contemporary twist on the classic charm bracelet, with Belle & Boo characters to add and collect. In addition there is a Belle & Boo necklace. Other affordable pieces include Lollipop’s hand crafted hair bands inspired by Belle and a collection of fun pirate eye patches by Frances Chalet of Half Pint Home.
New designers will be discovered and added over time but all will create beautiful, unique pieces which sit perfectly beside Belle & Boo’s own range of collectable gifts and homeware.
Do you think appreciation for craftsmanship seems to be on the rise?
I really do and it’s great! Nowadays it’s so much easier to explore different crafts whether that is through joining local craft groups such as Knitting groups or popping along to a ‘craft café’ where you can join in lessons or just have a go! It’s also much easier to teach yourself aided by the rise in internet tutorials and also there is so much inspiration on sites such as Pinterest and Instagram.
As Belle & Boo began life on Etsy, I am so keen to stay true to our routes and as we are developing more and more products with a craft focus. Over the last year we have increased the number of fabric designs we have on offer, created downloadable Cross Stitch patterns, posted wonderful craft projects on our blog that our customers have created and are talking with a prospective new licensee called Trimcraft who offer a wide variety of craft products such as paper craft and scrapbooking as well as beautiful pins, charms and buttons so hopefully we will see many more Belle & Boo craft creations.