Image: Tom Pietrasik
Kate Pietrasik, founder and designer at unisex children’s clothing brand Tootsa MacGinty. She talks single-handed parenting, relocations and starting a business from scratch, with a baby in tow
I suppose I’ve always been a bit of an adventurer. When I was 17, I took off to Australia in search of something different. I had grown up in north London, but moved to Scotland with my family when I was a teenager. The sun and surfing in Australia was certainly different to life in Edinburgh. I loved it. I also found a little niche in Byron Bay, and set up a café selling organic food and juices. It’s funny to think now, but it didn’t seem hard at the time: I suppose I had plenty of energy and not much fear of failure. Soon, though, I decided I wanted to continue with my studies, so sold my shares in the restaurant (which is still going!) and did an Art and Design degree, first in Australia, then at the Pratt Institute in New York.
After graduating, I spent a year in New York, and moved to France. I was designing for surfwear brands at that point, and as a freelance, travelled a lot. I held a senior design position in a company in Amsterdam, and the rest of the time was living in France by the sea. It really felt like the ideal situation. In 2008, I was delighted to discover that I was pregnant with my daughter Ruby. I worked right up until I gave birth – in fact, I was still working on the day she was born. I remember one of my clients calling when I was in hospital. I told them I was in the middle of working on “another project” (neglecting to mention it was a baby), so I wasn’t in the office.
The thing is, if you are an employee in France you are really looked after when you have a baby. But being self-employed in France means forfeiting the rights to certain state support including maternity leave. I had to keep working right through the early months – I have a lot of memories of breastfeeding with one hand, and working with the other.
Although work was going OK, things were difficult with my partner, and we separated when Ruby was eight months old. I headed back to the UK to be closer to my family. It was a tricky time in lots of ways. I couldn’t travel for work now that I was a single parent with a small baby to care for, and it was just around the time of the financial crash. I had worked for companies in the UK, so thought I could get a job, but that turned out to be very tricky, because people just weren’t hiring. Suddenly, as a single mother, I found myself at home – a lot. Having been used to such a busy life, I was getting a bit bored, too.


Part of my drive was the boredom of being a single parent – but I had a lot of enthusiasm for the work too

It was when I was shopping for baby clothes that I had the idea to start my own brand. All the gendered aisles were pretty shocking: I hadn’t noticed it before having my own child. Ideas began to spark, and I decided to design a unisex clothing line. Just at the right time, I bumped into a friend from France who is a product manager. She set the ball rolling with the manufacturers I used to work with. My design history really helped, because I already had the contacts. I don’t think I’d have been able to do it if I hadn’t had a trusting relationship with the factories that I’d used already – they need to have confidence in who they’re working with. It was important to me, too, to use the factories in Portugal that I knew would produce good quality clothes in fair circumstances.
Before I knew it, in 2011, I launched my brand at a trade show in London. Ruby was a year and a half old, and it was only six months after having the idea. I called it Tootsa MacGinty because that was the nickname Ruby’s dad gave her when she was born – he’s Scottish – and it was a name that holds great fondness.
At the trade show, I had absolutely no expectations. None. I was convinced somebody else would be launching a unisex childrenswear brand there too. Slowly it began to dawn on me that, aside from one other brand that was touching on what I was doing, other people weren’t actually doing it. My clothes were unusual. So many people came to my stand to say saying how refreshing it was to see, and what a new concept unisex was, that I started to realise I was onto something.
I managed to create my first collection because of my family. We cobbled together the money – my parents really helped – and I worked hard. While Ruby was in nursery, I worked. And then when she was in bed, I worked. I worked nights a lot. Part of my drive was the boredom of being a single parent – you can’t go out, and I’m not a big watcher of T.V. – but I had a lot of enthusiasm for the work too. My routine was to put Ruby to bed, get my headphones on so I didn’t disturb her, and get a lot of hours done. It was great having a brand new project and seeing it take off.
In the second year of the business, John Lewis took my collection. It was so exciting. Getting orders from a department store really helped. My brother’s girlfriend, who had helped me out at the trade show, helped me celebrate with a bottle of prosecco. Like I said – it’s a family business.
We’re still operating on a shoestring, really. Luckily, my brother Tom Pietrasik is a professional photographer, so he comes from New York to take the pictures when I’m having a shoot. Most of the child models we use are actually just friends’ children. We haven’t made our fortune yet! I really enjoy that aspect of it though – it feels very collaborative. It fits with the ethos of the brand too – I don’t want the children all coiffed and made-up. I want them to look like children, not posing, just caught on film looking natural. That comes across because the shoots with friends are always so fun. Of course, they’re stressful in the build up, but we always enjoy it on the day.
Ruby is five now, and she’s grown up only seeing me do this. She still thinks I make the jumpers (which would make me some kind of wonder woman knitter), and calls photo shoots “boo boo shoos”, from when she was very young and couldn’t pronounce the words. Now she’s getting older, she likes to have a hand in the design, and if she sees me drawing, requests certain animals. She’s also a dab hand at packing boxes and helping out at sample sales.

From the outside, we are doing really well – in the everyday business though, it is sometimes hard to remember the success

I think everything I’ve been doing for the last five years has been about learning from mistakes. The whole business is built on learning on job, and so has my parenting. My own parents were really helpful in giving me confidence on that front – my mum is a midwife and my dad a teacher, and both of them always told me that I would just know what I was doing with Ruby; not to worry. I think parenting alone can be easier in some ways, because there’s no conflict of opinion: what I say goes, I suppose, because I’m my own entity. I try to make things as simple as possible – taking care of Ruby, bringing everything back to basics, trying to be as easy on myself as possible.
I’m finding that things are getting a bit easier as Ruby gets older. She’s great at amusing herself independently, and she is used to me working a lot. When I’m with her, I try hard not to work. I have an office space now, so I can shut the door and be with Ruby after school. Also, getting a lot done in the day means I often don’t have to work nights now. It’s good to have that separation between work and home. Alongside my family we are now a team of four working together in the office, which really makes a difference.
The tricky times are the school holidays – it wouldn’t feel fair to have her off in clubs all the time, so I have to juggle more then. Still, it’s working because I think I’ve learned how to use the time I have efficiently. It makes after school and holiday time more quality than it was before. In that way, I’m incredibly lucky that I’m close with my parents. Although they live in Scotland, they step in so that I can go away to trade shows and other countries. That’s one of the bonuses of having family involved, and Ruby gets to see her grandparents a lot.
From the outside, we are doing really well – the clothes are stocked all across the world, we are thinking about expanding, and having our own bricks and mortar store. In the everyday business though, it is sometimes hard to remember the success, as I’m usually so busy dealing with all the little details that make a company work. I have to say though, I do sometimes have to pinch myself when I see the clothes I’ve designed appearing in the press, or Selfridge’s comes knocking.
What really feels important is that in the last five years, I have been able to enjoy raising a daughter and creating a business. I’m very proud of both.
Tootsa MacGinty has been shortlisted for this year’s WGSN “Innovation in Design” award (winner announced on 14 May), and for the UK Fashion and Textile Organisation’s Best Childrenswear Brand (winner announced 21 May)

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