Susannah Warren finds out how one young family escaped London life on the hunt for their fashion fix and created the most gorgeous, free-spirited children’s brand…
Who hasn’t flirted with the idea of packing it all in and jetting off to a far-flung continent in search of a life less ordinary? But flirting is usually as far as it goes. Not so for the founders of boutique children’s label Waddler. Philip and Marina Thompson stopped talking about it and actually took the plunge back in 2008 with their one-year-old son, Finn, in tow. “We were quite young – both 25 – when we had a kid,” says Philip. “Suddenly, we were stuck at home while all our friends were partying. We couldn’t afford childcare, and couldn’t really enjoy London. So we decided to quit our jobs (his in TV, hers in an art gallery), rent out our house and travel round Argentina.”
After three years adventuring around great swathes of South America, the plan was to head home. “But when it came to it, we didn’t want to go back,” admits Philip. However, relying on his work as a freelance writer to fund their wanderlust wasn’t viable in the long-term, so they had to come up with something that would allow them to keep ‘living the dream’.
The answer lay with Marina, who had been making clothes for their son using the fleece of baby alpacas, a super-soft and luxurious wool from Peru. “Marina had this vague idea about making kids’ clothes. We wanted to continue exploring South America, so that’s when we thought we could turn her idea into a business,” says Philip, who takes care of the admin and marketing side.
The couple developed the brand in Bolivia, building important relationships with a cooperative of Andean farmers and a clutch of small La Paz knitting workshops, before launching in the UK in 2010. Finally, Waddler was born, offering a playful collection of cosy and durable knits for children, all handmade in Bolivia from the very finest alpaca yarn. The range of organic Pima cotton styles, which are lovingly woven, cut and printed in Peru, came a few years later and complement the alpaca offerings to perfection.
Waddler, Marina’s nickname as a baby, is very much inspired by their nomadic, South American lifestyle. Philip describes the brand as being “based on the idea of going on adventures as a family, of encouraging imaginative, wild and free kids. The idea that childhood should be about children being independent and exploring the world around them”.
There is a definite quirkiness to the Waddler style. “Marina worked in theatre originally,” Philip reveals, “so she loves Marcel Marceau and both of us are big fans of Charlie Chaplin.” This explains the colourful bowler hats on offer and the brand’s signature Pierrot jumper. The enchanting wolf suits, meanwhile, are a nod to Maurice Sendak’s offbeat picture book Where The Wild Things Are.
Nearly all the pieces are unisex, too, which fits with the Waddler ethos. “It’s silly to try and reinforce the gender differences as they don’t really exist at that age. Our kids never distinguish between girls or boys, or ages.”
As well as the designs, Marina also masterminds the label’s spectacular photoshoots, which have spanned the globe, from Scotland and Ireland to Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil. Featuring the Thompson children, often alongside local kids, they are a snapshot of the Waddler lifestyle, capturing a real-life adventure rather than an imitation of one.
This integrity runs through every aspect of the business. “We ensure all our knitters are paid three times the minimum wage and we’ve seen the results of this,” Philip writes on the website. “Back-breaking drudgery replaced by washing machines, kids able to afford school materials and all-round happier families.”
After eight years on the move, the family – now a party of five with Jimmy, four, and Wren, one – has finally paused and is living in a house they’ve built on Boipeba island, off the coast of Bahia, in north-east Brazil. Apart from a fixed abode, though, there is still nothing conventional about their life. They get up with the sun, take turns to work and homeschool Finn, and share all meals; afternoons are spent swimming, riding, surfing or exploring.
In true Waddler style, the children are left to their own devices. “Our kids have a lot of freedom,” says Philip. “We encourage them to go off down to the beach and meet up with friends. They may not come back for three or four hours, so they’re very independent really. But their innocence lasts a lot longer.”
Not ones to get too comfortable, though, the couple are already plotting their next adventure. “Brazil was the last place in the world to make VW campervans, so we thought we should do a road trip across South America. But it would be five of us. In a campervan.” Sounds like it’s got their name, and Waddler’s, written all over it.