When Kyle Smitley began researching sustainably produced children’s clothing, she became driven to create her own line due to elements she’d noticed were sorely missing in that market. At the same time, however, Smitley also felt a keen calling to become an attorney and was accepted at law school. While most people would have at least put one of these substantial goals on hold, Smitley went ahead and tackled them both.
“Most people thought I was insane—which, looking back, was totally accurate,” Smitley says with a laugh. “I was inspired to keep doing both mostly by the fact that I knew deep down I would never be able to give up either. To me it was like trying to decide which child one would give up. It was impossible, so I did both.”
barley & birch
Smitley’s line of sustainable kids’ clothing—now sold under the moniker barley & birch, named for the barley fields behind Smitley’s childhood home and the birch tree in front of it—began with research she had performed for someone else. Not long after she had graduated from DePaul University with a degree in environmental science, she took a job as a consultant for the owner of a children’s boutique.
“The person I was working for wanted information about environmentally friendly and appropriate kids’ toys, products, clothing—everything for a boutique that she was about to open,” Smitley relates. “Not long after that, I started my own company and did more research. We uncovered all sorts of things—everything from people misleading consumers about where products were being made, to what they were being made with, what they were being dyed with, and things like that. For example, a company would say that a piece was great for the world, made fair trade, and organic. What they didn’t say was, `This T-shirt is organic cotton and dyed using heavy metals,’ and by fair trade they just meant they paid the supplier overseas a fair price. It didn’t govern working conditions—a lot of them were being made in really sketchy sweatshops. They’d say ‘organic and wonderful,’ but in fact it wasn’t.”
For Smitley, founding her own line then became all about high standards. “I put together my business proposal and realized that there was a huge gap in the market for a company that had truly high standards,” she says. “Such a company would also live up to these ideals, and be outspoken about the children’s industry and where people shouldn’t be cutting corners. So we set up the company as an answer to many of the discrepancies.
“It was a very challenging but exciting process. We did lots and lots of looking; we had to find a supply team that could actually meet those standards, and that took a good amount of time. Once we had all of that set up and ready to go, we knew we needed branding; we knew we needed someone to make our website and our logo and our hangtags really cohesive so as to make a statement. That was the catalyst behind us needing to take out a business loan; so we took out a $10,000 loan and used that to launch the company.”
But while the business was launching, Smitley still had to make all her law classes. Of course, her two lives frequently crossed. “Doing both was filled with obstacles,” she recalls. “I would have to step out of class to take business or press calls—which was highly frowned upon. I would have to miss classes for various conferences or talks I would give. I felt perpetually behind and would not have made it without the help and support of some of my law school peers.”
Today, the company is up and running strongly, with kid-fashionable (3 months to 8 years) one-pieces, short- and long-sleeved T-shirts in numerous styles and many designs, and even limited-edition gifts, with much more to come. All items adhere to the strict standards Smitley set from the beginning.
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“It’s been really awesome, and we love it because we set the company up to be completely bulletproof when it came to our standards,” she says. “From our customer service to our supply team to our quality, we don’t cut a single corner. We love answering questions about why we do things, and I love not having to do what many companies do, which is backpedaling—either defending their choices or not being comfortable with their choices. We feel great about everything we do and I think that comes across in most of our branding. Our customers really respond to that, and we’ve built up this great following of bloggers and fans and customers who are very excited about what we are doing.
Smitley has also now graduated law school and, in addition to barley & birch, has a budding practice. “I am doing an externship with a legal aid organization and working mostly in immigration while doing some work with victims of domestic violence,” she says. “I really love both. I am sure that whatever I do, it will be in a nonprofit, legal aid or pro bono capacity for those who truly need legal assistance but who wouldn’t normally have access to it.”
And there are many future plans for barley & birch. “We want to expand what we’re offering children to include fleeces, dresses and more. We’d also like to expand into bedding, and to get older in age range eventually—go a little bit higher with the kids.
“In addition, we are announcing the formation of our own foundation. The backbone of our company is our charitable giving, so our business is set up to channel our profits back into both environmental and socially aware organizations. We give at least 15 percent to environmental groups and we give at least another 15 percent to social organizations that are working to improve the lives of other people all over. We’re going to be partnering with companies in the children’s industry to sponsor an orphanage, and we will continue to grow the foundation and expand into all sorts of different projects.”
Just as the previous portion of Smitley’s life has been, so we expect the future will be along the same lines—very busy, and successful!
To find out more about barley & birch, or to shop, visit their website at www.barleyandbirch.com.