Behind the Brand: Primary
Galyn Bernard and Christina Carbonell found shopping for children’s clothes to be a frustrating experience. “There were no brands we felt loyal to,” Galyn recalls. “We grew up with Benetton, and in the early days of The Gap, which stood for things that were obvious rather than ‘look at our crazy graphics!’ or ‘we have princess cats all over everything!’. And we missed that; we felt like we didn’t have brands like that for our own kids.” At the time, the pair — also friends and fellow mothers — were working together at Quidsi (parent of Diapers.com), and the seed of an idea was sewn.
Galyn and Christina saw an opportunity in the $30 billion childrenswear market (in the US alone!) to create a straightforward shopping experience, with clothes that felt authentic; a gender-neutral fashion brand for babies and kids without logos, slogans, or sequins, where most styles are less than $25.
“We very quickly got to the name ‘Primary’ for obvious reasons,” Galyn explains. “It’s all about every color for every kid and avoiding gender-prescription. Of course boys can buy pink and girls can buy blue! People always ask us, ‘if you couldn’t have got the Primary domain, what would it have been called?’ and honestly I don’t think this would’ve been a company!”
They left Quidsi, which had been acquired by Amazon by that point, and took a year to write their business plan, raise the seed round of funding, and — no small feat — figure out how to make clothes, before launching the site in March 2015. “The more we talked about the idea, the more passionate we got about bringing a new brand that was of high quality and yet also accessible,” Galyn says. “We couldn’t not do it. That’s what it came down to.”
Of course, there was that whole learning-how-to-make-clothes thing, which Galyn admits they’d totally underestimated. “We had the ecommerce background and we had the marketing background, but apparel was new,” she explains. “So we talked to everyone we could — anyone who touched clothing at all — and we ended up getting referred to an agent who’d done some apparel work, and some factories that, as it turns out, weren’t used to making as many colors as we do.” Primary launched with 15 colors, which meant that the factories were making 10 per SKU. “Until you go to a factory, you don’t appreciate what that means in terms of their productivity. We had a bunch of delivery issues, we were small so we were getting kicked to the back of the queue while they prioritised bigger companies… it was kind of a mess.”
It was then that the founders got introduced to Marienne Hill-Treadway — who’s now the company’s chief supply chain officer — through Patrick Robinson, who was advising the company. Marienne initially came on board as a consultant and then ended up joining full-time, transforming the company’s supply chain in the process. Galyn describes it as change that was “totally necessary, but also super magical”.
Although Primary has been successful from the beginning, it was important for the founders to prove their model. “We raised capital so that we could price these things in a way that would work over the long-term,” Galyn explains. “In our first year, I think we were paying more for the clothes than we were selling them for! We were trying to prove that if we could sell this $8 t-shirt now, then in three years from now, at scale, the economics will totally work. But if we’d tried to make money on it, maybe we’d have sold it for $20, but then we wouldn’t have been proving the concept.”
Asked if working with a close friend presented any challenges, Galyn is adamant that it’s only a good thing, at least in their case. “Working together previously was important in giving us confidence that this would be fun, and that we would work well together,” she says. “Because both of those things are equally important. Do we have fun together? And can we trust the other person to almost do a better job than we could ourselves? I honestly can’t imagine doing this solo and have a huge amount of respect for people who do.”
And clearly the clothes are a hit with the founders’ own children. Although Christina’s kids have outgrown the brand’s top range (of size 12), Galyn says that hers are dressed head-to-toe in Primary most days. “And not because I make them!” she says. “The subject of refunds came up when I was talking to them the other day and they were like, ‘why would people not want to keep their Primary clothes?’ So they’re definitely my biggest supporters!” Impressively, the company’s return rate is under 5% — a statistic largely unheard of in apparel. “I guess that means we’re doing something right,” she smiles. And speaking of doing something right, Primary’s partnership with Baby2Baby has enabled them to donate over 50k units to children in need.
Galyn is equally enthusiastic about the team that she and Christina have built, where the management team is mostly women. “I’ve never seen a company this diverse before,” she says. “And it’s happened not because we’ve gone out and said ‘let’s go find diversity’ — it’s just happened organically because we like awesome people and it just ended up being a very diverse group.” This group not only is deeply passionate about what Primary is doing, “which is not just about the color and the simplicity of the clothing,” Galyn says, “but trying to build a brand that lets kids be confident in who they are, rather than looking to a logo on a t-shirt to give them their confidence.”