Fashion designer, Laura Bonnell, is Mum to two young boys. In 2016, her family sold their London flat, packed their worldly possessions into a 20-foot shipping container and flew to California to start a new life. Laura works as a Freelance Fashion Design Consultant and owns the childrenswear brand ‘The Letterman Co’. She took some time out of her busy day to fill us in on her version of the work-family-life juggle.
All photographs kindly supplied by Laura – © Laura Bonnell 2017 – except for one, credited below.
Thanks so much for speaking with us Laura! Let’s start with who lives in your house?
It’s me, my American husband, and our two boys, aged seven and four years old.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in the countryside outside of Bristol. Our nearest neighbours were about a mile down the road, and there weren’t many children nearby for me and my brother to play with. This meant I spent a lot of time finding ways to entertain myself, with a walk across the common, making a mud pie, or playing make believe and climbing trees! I think it also gave me time to develop my creativity. I loved to use whatever I could find to create things, be that a painting, a sculpture, or sewing my own clothes. I got my first sewing machine when I was about 11 years old, and I still have it to this day.
Tell us about your home.
We recently relocated from London to California. Out here you get a lot more space for your money. We have gone from a two bedroom Victorian terraced flat, to a four bedroom house, with a playroom for the boys, and separate living room just for the adults!
Back in London we had built an office pod at the end of our garden for me and my husband to work in, but it wasn’t long until we had outgrown that. Well, to be honest, I totally took it over! I work at home quite a bit, so I am very thankful to have space to design, sew, and even photograph my work. I have turned our garage into a makeshift photography studio.
“I soon realised that work needed to be more flexible to be able to co-exist with family life.”
What are your mornings like?
It’s an early start, as the school day in California begins around 8am. My husband works from home, whereas I often work out on location with my consultancy work. We divide and conquer in the mornings. He feeds the boys and gets them dressed, whilst I get showered, dressed, and pack up the car.
Every morning he makes me a latte to take with me on the school run. This is the best gift I think he could ever give me!
What has motherhood taught you?
To keep work life in perspective. I’ve worked as a Fashion Designer for the past 18 years in London, New York, and now California. It’s a demanding job, and the work day often doesn’t end when you leave the office.
I soon realised that work needed to be more flexible to be able to co-exist with family life, which is why I decided to move into Design Consultancy and starting my own Kidswear brand ‘The Letterman Co’. I now decide the days and hours I work, and I have flexibility to be able to go to School Sports Day, and take a day off when the boys are sick.
“I am a happier better Mum for having that balance of Mum and work time.”
Did you take time off work when you had your family?
I took about 9 months off with both boys. I loved being a full-time Mum, and spending time with them, but both times at around 7-8 months I grew hungry to get my teeth stuck back into being creative again. Financially I’ve also needed to work, but I love what I do, and for me, I believe I am a happier better Mum for having that balance of Mum and work time.
“Anticipate that there will be days when your children won’t be able to go to school and make a contingency plan.”
How do you manage work around the children?
It’s always a work in progress! Right now I Freelance as a Fashion Design Consultant three days a week. I also work one day a week on my Kidswear brand ‘The Letterman Co’, and also some nights in the week once the boys have gone to bed.
My eldest is in school, and my youngest is in daycare. In the US, children start school a year later (than the UK) and often when they do start at five years old, school is only for a half day. So, it’s been difficult having to continue paying for childcare for more years than we would have in the UK, but it wouldn’t be possible to work without that help.
Image © Palmer Photography
What are your best tips for other working mums about to re-enter the work force?
Be realistic about what days and hours you will be available for work. Anticipate that there will be days when your children won’t be able to go to school or childcare as they are sick, and make a contingency plan. Set yourself some ground rules about switching off from work when you are home.
Describe your current role and how you got there.
Right now I am freelancing as a Womenswear Design Consultant, and I also run my own Kidswear Brand. My husband and I moved our family to California last year. We had no jobs lined up, just our worldly possessions packed into a 20 foot shipping container, and a strong desire to escape the London rat race and start a happier, healthier, more balanced life in the Sunshine State!
A few months after moving here I was very lucky to be contacted by a lovely and talented lady called Elizabeth Lewis. She was looking for a Designer to come and work on her Womenswear brand she had recently launched, and she really loved my experience. We met a couple of days later for a coffee, and instantly hit it off. The following week I started, and I’ve been loving every moment developing the brand since!
When did you first become interested in Fashion Design?
Right from when I was very young I knew that I wanted to be a Fashion Designer. I come from a creative family. My great-grandmother, my grandmother and my Mum were all sewers. My grandmother would always sew and knit clothes for my Barbies, and my Mum would often make my clothes. I still have memories of going to John Lewis with her to pick out the pattern and fabric for my latest outfit. I would then use the fabric scraps to make things.
“Working for a small company means you have to be flexible, and often entrepreneurial.”
What do you love about your role?
I work with a small team when I consult, and it means we can create and react to design development quickly. When I worked for larger brands we’d often have to have many meetings before something could be put into work, and then it would often change many times. I love being able to work with a brand to define and develop it. Also working for a small company means you have to be flexible, and often entrepreneurial to make things happen.
I have always worked three or four days a week since I had the boys. It usually means you are cramming five-plus days work into a shorter week, and it can mean some extra hours’ work at night, but right now it’s worth it to be able to have a flexible job I love. They are quite rare to find!
“Going to the gym is a great opportunity for me to unwind and clear my head for the day ahead.”
My usual working day is like this…
If it’s a consulting day I’m out of the house by 7.30am to drop the boys off at daycare and school. I’ll then drive through the canyon up the coast, and I’ll be at my desk by 9am. I’ll then catch up with my Product Developer who handles all the communication with the factories that manufacture our garments, to ensure our development and production activities are running on schedule.
I’ll also usually meet with the owner of the company to discuss the latest collection I’m working on. Our company owns an amazing Australian restaurant next to the office, so usually around midday we’ll head over there to order lunch! The afternoon will be spent catching up on e-mails, working on designs, planning our next photoshoot, or fitting garments on a model.
If it’s a day when I’m working on my Kidswear brand, I’ll often go to the gym after school drop-off. It’s a great opportunity for me to unwind, and clear my head for the day ahead. I’ll then sometimes meet with my VA to brief them on a project on my never-ending ‘to do’ list! Then it’s back home to the office to manage production of my Kidswear, plan social media, update the website, and all the other million and one things it takes to run a small business!
What has been your best career moment to date?
It has to be life right now. If I could create my perfect job it would be exactly what I am working on now. Designing a high end Womenswear collection with a small team who I enjoy working with, and running my own Kidswear business.
Of course, I would love a big pot of money so I could employ people to help with my work load so I didn’t always have to stay up late working, but I know one day I’ll get there!
What is your ‘at work’ drink?
Flat white. This Momma runs on coffee, good coffee!
Do you have a funny ‘parenting fail’ moment you’d like to share?
The time I thought my eldest had appendicitis. I was home alone with both the boys in London. My eldest started complaining of severe pain, and was pointing to where his appendix was located. He was unable to walk, and was totally rigid, so I rushed to get my car and move it outside our flat.
During this time my youngest had somehow managed to get outside, and was standing on the pavement looking for me! Panicking, I stopped in the middle of the road, grabbed a passing stranger, and asked if they could hold onto my child for a moment while I found a parking spot!
Parked up, I then went inside to grab my eldest. He was totally rigid by this point, and unable to move, so trying to open the car door whilst balancing him my arms turned into a complete comedy show. Once down at A&E, I bundled him into a buggy, then proceeded to push him, and carry my youngest over my shoulder into reception. Once checked in, sat down, and completely sweaty and freaked out, my eldest then sat up, smiled, and said he felt fine again. Turned out it was just a bit of trapped gas!
Describe three things you can’t live without in the day.
Coffee, music and humour.
Do you have a favourite family recipe?
Since moving from London to California we’ve fully embraced Taco Tuesday! I usually chop up some chicken breast, peppers and king prawns, stir fry them and take some out for the boys before I add taco seasoning for me and my husband. Then I make up some bowls of fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, queso fresco, refried bean salsa, and – this is the most important bit – Taco Boats! They are tacos formed into ready made bowls, which are perfect for messy kids! Then we all dive in and make our own tacos.
“I know that invaluable encouragement, advice or collaboration is only a click away.”
Describe a recent discovery that you love.
Poké bowls. They have all the ingredients of sushi, but in a bowl – delicious!
Do you have any mentoring support for work?
Back when I lived in London, I attended networking events geared towards women who had recently moved into starting their own business, particularly Mums. These friendships have grown both virtually and in real life, and remain a strong support network for me. Even though many of these friends are now over five thousand miles away, I know that invaluable encouragement, advice or collaboration is only a click away!
Do you have any essential books or websites that you turn to, for advice on running your own business?
My mantra is turn on, tune in, then tune out!
There is a wealth of information out there for small businesses, and you could literally spend all day reading advice online. Over time I’ve learned to tune into a small handful of resources that I get the most valuable and useful information from.
One of my favourites is Makelight, a creative Learning Community for Makers and Doers run by Emily Quinton and her husband Stef Lewandowski.
What do you like to read for leisure?
I like to keep abreast of fashion and celebrity happenings back in England, so my Mum posts me Grazia, Hello and clippings from The Sunday Times every month!
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
Greece. The food, the history, the culture, the azure blue sea – I love it!
My ideal weekend involves…
… a lie in! Followed by a lazy brunch cooked by my husband – he does an amazing breakfast burrito.
Then we pack the car up with our beach kit and head down the road to one of the SoCal beaches that are only 20 minutes away from us. We’ll regularly meet up with some fellow ex-pats, have a bonfire on the beach once the sun has gone down, and toast s’mores with the kids!
Thanks so much Laura for sharing your experience and top tips with us!
To learn more about Laura and Little Letterman Co. – and to see her amazing varsity jackets and hoodies, personalised everything including Christmas stockings (tick tock, get your orders in!), and gorgeous felt name or birthday date bunting – please do visit her website, www.thelettermanco.com, or Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook or Twitter.