An unlikely pair of friends, Leigh Rawdon had just finished a Harvard MBA when she met Emily Meyer, a fashion designer. The two had little in common, except a shared love of travel. Combining their passion with business and design experience, Rawdon and Meyer joined forces to create Tea Collection, a globally-inspired children’s clothing brand that celebrates the beauty and diverse cultures found all around the world.
Bootstrapped in 2002 with just three pima cotton sweaters, Tea Collection brought in over $43 million in revenue in 2017. With a firm dedication to giving back, the company has raised over $500,000 for the Global Fund for Children and gives employees a travel stipend to encourage global exploration. Here, Rawdon explains how the brand’s values have remained at the heart of their growth, successfully bringing them this far.
Michelle Martin: What was the inspiration for Tea Collection?
Leigh Rawdon: My co-founder, Emily, had been working in the fashion industry for a number of years and recognized the movement towards embracing global aesthetics and cultures and taking a stand against the ‘fear of other.’ She was one of the first to realize how much power came from a sense of belonging and curiosity. At the time, she was working on children’s clothing and realized how impactful it can be to reach children through a brand with values, and thus, the company was born.
We chose the name Tea Collection as tea is something shared and celebrated in so many cultures around the world. It’s timeless. It gives a sense of connection. There’s something about sitting and sharing a cup of tea — you gain a sense of presence, connection and warmth, which is something we want to bring to life with our customers.
Martin: You have said that you and Emily bonded over a shared passion for travel. What was your first global trip that really changed your global perspective?
Rawdon: I grew up in a small town outside of Memphis, Tennessee in a family that did not travel. The exception was my aunt, a school teacher who would travel to exotic locales like Israel, Scotland and Holland during her time off. Each year at holiday parties she would share her stories, beautiful garments, trinkets and art. These conversations impacted me as a young child and nurtured a hunger to discover more of the world.
When I was 16, my French class planned a trip to Paris for spring break. I got my first passport, went to my first foreign country, tried to ‘speak French,’ and from that point on was hooked. I finally could see the world was a bigger place than Tennessee, but I felt at home. After that trip I set my mind to travel.
Martin: How do you think fashion can be used as a tool to educate people about different cultures and increase acceptance?
Rawdon: We believe clothes are the beginning of a conversation. Each season, we interpret a different destination — we ‘translate’ a culture into an apparel collection. That translation creates an opportunity for kids and their families to “make the foreign familiar.” It’s subtle, but if young children are introduced to a graphic tee with a kanji on it, or a dress inspired by a regional dance or art form, it creates a connection with a foreign concept.
Thanks to today’s technology and travel, now more than ever families are exposed to foreign people and places. Its important to feel a connection instead of separation with these varying ideologies. Parents need to teach their children that we are more alike than we are different – that we have common ground and a shared humanity. That really matters.
Martin: Your collections draw from global inspiration. How do you decide which destination or community to feature?
Rawdon: Our design team travels twice a year: once for inspiration for spring and summer, and again for fall and winter collections. We choose our destination in a very organic way – there are no analytics or numbers, just what our designers resonate with in the world. We explore aesthetics then tap into the broader sense of the place.
The team members who travel are always rotating, which I think is important. The goal is to completely immerse themselves in the culture. We visit museums, eat the food, go dancing, learn the music, meet with local artists, walk shops and bazaars, and take lots and lots of pictures. Doors, tiles, animals – anything and everything that grasps the place. Our team then returns to our offices in San Francisco to translate what they experienced into a collection. It’s important to note that none of these translations are literal, meaning we don’t do costumes. Everything we do is inspired, and we hope to inspire even more curiosity about the locations we visit.
While we visit, we arrange meetings with local craftsmen and artists to collaborate with. Each season we highlight 3-4 specific artists who co-design our prints. When we do this, we also share profits.
Martin: Why do you think it is important to raise global citizens from a young age?
Rawdon: In our childhood we learn how to see the world and interact with others. It’s important from a young age to create a perspective that we can be at home in a very big, very foreign world. We shouldn’t be afraid to find common ground. If that’s the way we grow up, that’s something we will carry our whole lives. This foundation enables children to be contributing citizens and create habits that last a lifetime.
Martin: Tell me more about your partnership with The Global Fund for Children
Rawdon: What I’m most proud of is the length of our partnership— Tea Collection and The Global Fund for Children have worked and grown together for 15 years. We share the same mission of celebrating local initiatives, meaning that we find local, on-the-ground leaders that best know the needs of their respective community. We believe these types of leaders are the most empowered and can make the biggest difference. This ideology resonates with our brand as we also believe there is no cookie-cutter approach to life and culture. I’m proud of this shared culture, and the contributions we’ve made to support these community leaders.
Martin: What is your vision for Tea Collection moving forward?
Rawdon: We have always aspired to inspire global connections and curiosity for little citizens of the world. That’s how we started, that’s what made us successful and we don’t plan to change.
Corporate social responsibility has been in our DNA from the very beginning. Ethical work is an expectation we have for everyone we work with, whether it’s our team in San Francisco or our extended vendor network. We can’t have a brand that celebrates people without people doing the right thing.
Our goal now is to follow and inspire even more families that buy our products, boutiques that carry our products, craftsman that create the products, and beneficiaries of The Global Fund for Children. Our magnitude is already large, but we want to be even bigger.
This interview was condensed for brevity.