COBBLE HILL — It was while watching how much her daughter Opal loved to play in her pretend kitchen that Odette Williams realized her daughter's apron could use some serious sprucing up.
Opal's vinyl kids apron, which the family had been given, looked "cheesy" to Williams, a 38-year-old Brooklyn mother of two. Nevertheless, her daughter practically lived in it, stuffing its pockets with toys, Williams said.
"What if this product was just rethought — the concept was the same, but the design was better?" she recalled thinking.
This lightbulb moment led Williams to develop her own kids apron line that's now in 38 stores in the U.S. and overseas, and has been sold online by retail giants like J.Crew and Anthropologie.
In case anyone mistakenly thought it all happened overnight though, Williams will assure them: "It's a lot of hard work."
Looking back on the last three years, Williams shared her advice on how to go from a half-baked idea to fully-fledged brand that parents can find at local kids shops across the city, and beyond.
Having a Connection Helps, So Survey Your Network
As a stay-at-home mom, Williams would indulge her creative side during naptime and after her kids were asleep. The Sydney native's animal collage creations sparked the attention of a friend who suggested she show them to her friend, Karin Schaefer, the co-owner of the heirloom toy store Acorn in Boerum Hill.
"I was definitely nervous. I had been doing it as a private thing. When you put your work out there it’s a little bit daunting," Williams said.
Williams was relieved that not only did Schaefer like them, she said she'd sell them in the store.
With the collages selling well, Schaefer then suggested Williams consider putting her artwork on other items, like clothing.
Williams took this encouragement and began conceptualizing a line of custom aprons made from 100 percent cotton fabric, with a sophisticated design that parents would appreciate, she said.
Schaefer placed one of Williams' first retail orders for Acorn, which gave the apron-maker leverage to approach other stores.
Manufacturing: Expect to Pound the Pavement and Try to Engender Good Will
At the beginning of 2012, Williams set out on a journey that involved going door-to-door to find potential vendors who could offer the materials and services needed to produce her aprons at a fair price. It was a lengthy process she wasn't necessarily prepared for, she said.
Her first stop was the Purl Fabric Store in SoHo, where she found a cotton fabric she liked. She then got in touch with the fabric wholesaler about a potential order. Next, Williams located a friendly screen printer in New Jersey and then set about knocking on doors in the Garment District to find the right "cut and sew" manufacturer.
"You'll hear a lot of no's," but it's important to be persistent, as well as friendly and good-natured, she said.
Williams was able to get her manufacturers to do a run of only 200 aprons — 100 each of two designs — which is a lot fewer than a typical order, she said.
You can do a better job persuading manufacturers "if you’re polite and nice and kind of don’t mess around in terms of being honest," she said.
Do Low-Risk Product Testing Before You Go Heavy on Branding
With those 200 aprons in hand, Williams decided to sell them at the Brooklyn Flea over the summer of 2012.
Setting up a booth gave her a chance to talk with potential customers and get honest opinions she could use to improve the apron design.
"You want to test the product. If the product has traction, that’s probably the next point to worry about your branding and spend the money on all the labels," she advised.
Based on feedback from the Flea, she added a baker's mitt and a few wooden utensils to the apron pocket to make it into more of a complete gift set, she said.
"Unless you’re super confident, you could spend a lot of money [on branding] upfront, and then the product could change slightly," she said.
Pick Trade Shows Wisely
Rather than get lost at a large trade show among thousands of other vendors, Williams applied for Playtime, a show with only about 100 other booths. The show is targeted towards high-end children's clothing and toys, the niche Williams was aiming to join.
Her first show, in March 2013, helped expose Williams to stores from across the country and to bigger buyers.
"It really was a great launching pad," she said.
She admits that capturing the attention of J.Crew's children's line, Crew Cuts, was extremely lucky.
Don't Rule Out Cold Emailing Stores
Arriving at a store unannounced or calling them out of the blue will just make everyone uncomfortable, Williams said.
"I feel like it’s putting people on the spot and they’re busy," she said.
Instead, Williams will write an email to stores she's interested in, including details about her line.
"If the fit is right, they get back to you ... just have confidence in that," she said.
And in Williams' experience, word of mouth spread without her having to lift a finger. Shop owners who had similar shops in other boroughs, neighborhoods and cities called each other to inquire about her line, she said.
Invest Time Online
For 2015, Williams said she's going to invest more time in her online presence — through social media, her blog and her online store. She misses the connection she had to her customers at the Flea and wants to hear from them more.
Even as her company grows though, Williams' fears about her ability to move her product have quieted, but not entirely subsided.
The terror that comes with increasing production — "I don’t think that ever goes away," she said.
"It motivates you even more."