One of the aspects of being female is (oftentimes) becoming a mother and - for the entrepreneur - finding ways to marry that with business. Marnie Hillier of Eskimo Nell also credits giving birth to the dawn of her entrepreneurial spirit.
Eskimo Nell bears the tagline ‘Statement Tees For Badass Babes and Kickass Kids’. The company’s seed was sown when Marnie drew a sketch of a finger flipping the bird with a crown (signifying a Queen) and had the design made into t-shirts for her mama-gang. “I dreamt up the idea as testament to us surviving a year of motherhood,” she laughs. “When people started asking where we got them, and could they buy them I started the business with my then business partner, Ashleigh.”
Eskimo Nell is an apparel range of T-shirts, hoodies, jumpers, kidswear and accessories emblazoned with slogans honouring girlpower. Slogans include ‘More Than A Mama’, ‘Know Your Power’ and ‘I’ve Got This’.
The brand struck a chord from the beginning. “It was a success from the get-go in that people could relate to that feeling of needing to shout out to the world – I’m here,” says Marnie, who admits she and Ash didn’t have a clue what they were doing. “We were so new. The screenprinter would laugh at us and say ‘do you actually know how this works?’ It was a total learning curve.”
The fact that the pair had no idea of what being in business or the journey to entrepreneurship would entail led to some gains. “The cool thing about our naivety is we had no fear of asking for help and we earned a few good wins from being new to the game,” says Marnie.
Without so much as a second thought they messaged Anika Moa via her social media saying ‘Hey babe do you wanna rock one of our T-shirts?’ To which she said ‘Hell Yes!’” says Marnie. “We had no idea there were Instagram PR companies where people pay celebs to wear their clothes. We just thought – here’s a totally rad mama – we may as well ask.”
Marnie has a background in journalism and worked at suburban newspapers including The Waikato Times and North Shore Times Advertiser before moving into women’s magazines and working at Simply You magazine. “Though there are some amazing women working in that industry, there can also be a touch of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ so I decided it wasn’t for me,” she says. Marnie married Steve at the end of 2017 and gave birth to River 10 months later, which was the beginning of a pretty rough ride.
“I had this idea of the idealistic nirvana of parenting, but in the end, it was just about survival because River never slept - he had to be with me all of the time,” she says. “When he was six months old I went to a very dark place. I felt like I’d lost myself, lost my spark and lost my sense of humour along with my self-confidence. When you’ve lost your trust in your capabilities, what are you left with? It was a big hit.”
Eskimo Nell was born out of that darkness. “It’s founded on the idea that being a mum isn’t the end of you,” says Marnie. “Yes, motherhood brings out a nurturing side, but that’s not all that we are. As women we are hard on ourselves but we are so much more than mums. Motherhood doesn’t have to take away from who we are – it can add so much if we can find our way out of the haze. I think it was experiencing that time that gave me the confidence and the drive to go into business. You need resilience in motherhood, in business and in life.”
When Eskimo Nell launched Marnie started getting a sense of self back. “It was like a breath of fresh air for me - like a light went on,” she says. “I had my hair cut back in a funky way and began dressing for me again. I got my snazzy back.” Like many businesses today, Eskimo Nell’s community is a huge part of its operations. “Instagram is great,” says Marnie. “If I’m having a hard day I don’t call my husband in tears because I can have conversations with other women when it’s 3am and we’re both awake feeding. It’s such a fab side effect of this business. I’ve made friends with complete strangers. Another really cool thing is seeing two women walking down the street wearing Eskimo Nell and nodding to each other in understanding.”
With the business taking off Marnie says she’s become used to doing things with one hand. “I pack orders and count stock with Mack in a backpack or breastfeed him as I work on the laptop off to the side,” says Marnie. “I just make it work.” She’s quick to point out that it’s not that Mack isn’t any easier than River; she’s just learned to enjoy him. “That time with River was emotionally and physically draining, but it’s amazing to see him now,” she says. “He’s so confident - whatever happens, he doesn’t mind that mum and dad aren’t there. Mack is no better a sleeper or no less confusing a baby but my mentality around him is better. Sometimes I regret stressing over every little thing and not enjoying River the way I enjoy Mack. I just take pleasure in him and who cares if he only naps for 15 minutes – it’s not the end of the world.”
In Eskimo Nell’s first year of business, the focus wasn’t about making money. “We started to make a point, but after that first year I saw the potential, bought Ashleigh out as she was involved in a new business, and I’m now enjoying learning new skills like Photoshop, visual design and accounting,” says Marnie. And now that River is three, and Mack is six months old, Marnie’s setting her sights on 2019. “My goal for this year is to be a bit kinder to myself and keep building the Eskimo Nell community, but I have big plans for next year including starting to manufacture my own product so I can retain my point of difference and cater to plus-size babes as well,” she says. “At the moment I have a supplier for the garments so I’m hamstrung by their styles and sizes. I’ll have to figure out how the manufacturing process works, but I’m up for it.”
"There is no right or wrong way to do anything at Eskimo Nell. We’ve got one slogan ‘you do you’ and it’s all about that. There’s no judgment. We’re all on our own journey.”
It’s In Her Genes
It’s perhaps no surprise that Marnie has found her way to fashion design. In fact, you could say its in her genes. She had a dream of becoming a fashion designer as a child and her mother, Jane Woodroffe, owned a well-known skiwear brand in the 1970s called Eskimo Nell, which is featured on nzfashionmuseum.org.nz.
“Mum’s brand had the tagline ‘scintillating and bold when the weather gets cold’ and I always had this idea of giving it a revamp but skiwear is very complex to produce,” says Marnie. “I’m carrying on the name, which is actually a cheeky play on an old ballad featuring a harlot known as Eskimo Nell.
It’s the Eskimo Nell customer who is top of mind in all of Marnie’s business ambitions. “I know my buyers aren’t paying $50 for a bit of ink on a t-shirt, they’re paying for the idea of this club where there are no ‘should’s’. There is no right or wrong way to do anything at Eskimo Nell. We’ve got one slogan ‘you do you’ and it’s all about that. There’s no judgment. We’re all on our own journey.”
The Eskimo Nell journey has been full of mistakes. “We have one design – it’s called ‘Milky Drinks Zero Winks’ – which has a design of a breast and a closed eye over the chest area,” she says. “The screenprinter is a man and he put them up way too high so we had to reprint which meant they were very late to market. Lots of things like that have happened. We let our community know the whole journey via social and are very honest and, do you know what? We’ve never had an angry customer.”
My Success, My Terms
According to Marnie, everything’s a bonus when you don’t set out to create a business per se, as is the fact that her childhood dreams have come to fruition. “I think when you start off so naively you’re more open to giving things a go,” she says. “Eskimo Nell has turned out to be a profitable company which allows me to earn money and become an entrepreneur. With that said, it’s taken me a while to change my mindset from ‘I print t-shirts’ to ‘I have a fashion brand’.”
"Motherhood doesn’t have to take away from who we are – it can add so much if we can find our way out of the haze. I think it was experiencing that time that gave me the confidence and the drive to go into business. You need resilience in motherhood, in business and in life.”