Meet the MD: Tracey Samuel


Hove-based Tracey Samuel runs Bonnie Baby, a luxury children's clothing label beloved by celebrity mums including Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Schiffer. The label's first stand-alone store recently opened in Hong Kong

Bonnie Baby is nothing if not a family concern; designer Tracey Samuel started working on her collection while pregnant with her daughter Alice. Her husband Gareth – a furniture designer – now works in the children’s clothing business too. And of course, the children at the nucleus of this international business (Tracey and Gareth now have a son too) are some of the best dressed in Sussex.

After a degree at Glasgow School of Art, Tracey went to St Martin’s to do an MA: “I was quite fortunate to be there at the time all the names were leaving, like Stella McCartney and Lee McQueen. It was a really good time to graduate.

“I got my first job working for Coats Viyella, who at the time were the biggest knitting company in the UK. They had just invested in about £10m worth of new knitting machinery, so for a knitwear designer it was a dream job.”

After 18 months, Tracey was headhunted by Sonia Rykiel. The house was in the process of re-launching its second line, Sonia, and Tracey joined as the knitwear designer.

It was a glamorous, if hard-working life; half of Tracey’s eight-and-a-half year tenure was spent living in Paris, while the last five years were spent between Brighton and the French capital.

Then came marriage and family-planning, and jet-setting became rather less practical.

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“Being pregnant sparked an interest in children’s clothes. At the time there were very few good quality, especially knitted, pieces that I wanted to buy for my baby.

“I started working on 10 or 12 pieces, including machine washable cashmere, and had some samples made very quickly.”

Then came an extraordinary piece of good fortune.

A friend in music PR sent a sweater to Gwyneth Paltrow, who had just given birth to daughter Apple. The actress wrote back to say she loved it, and would like the whole range. “That was just great luck and great timing,” says Tracey. “The press got hold of it and it catapulted us from a cottage industry into a bit of a business.”

Now Tracey has another designer and a design assistant working from her studio in Hove and the clothes are manufactured in Asia, mostly China. “These are fair trade factories who work with a lot of the big names,” says Tracey. “A lot are contacts from my womenswear days, so they manufacture for the likes of Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, and the quality is very good. I think a lot of people think China isn’t the best quality, but there you can go from the highest of high quality to the lowest of low.”

Currently, the label sells about 10,000-15,000 pieces a season. Business is booming in the Asian market; the company has recently started working with a distributor in Hong Kong and China, and one in Japan. “We are seeing quite nice sales coming in from that side which is great because the UK business is tough,” says Tracey.

“In terms of the recession, we had – touch wood – got away with it up until the past few months where we have seen it kick in a lot more. I think that’s because we have seen such a decline in small independent stores who are just struggling so much. They can’t compete like the big guys, so they can’t do massive reductions or sales every five minutes. We are seeing that part of our business really struggle and we are trying to support them as much as we can.

“A lot of the challenge for childrenswear is price. Getting people to understand that for good quality you have to pay that little bit extra is the challenge. We are constantly trying to offset the quality against the price. The equivalent garments in womenswear would be about £250 upwards, whereas ours sell for about £40. Our motto is ‘Buy once, buy well, pass it on.’”

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