Getting to meet Fiona Bell, founder of the children’s vintage clothing and textile company, Their Nibs, proves to be more of an adventure than I bargained for. We’d arranged to meet at her Kensal Rise, north London store. But upon entering the shop, a wonderfully light and airy emporium packed full of classic and stylish children’s designs, it immediately becomes obvious that there’s been a mistake. Fiona is in fact waiting at the Notting Hill branch. A 15-minute taxi-drive later, and I finally catch sight of the woman who helped introduce the concept of vintage to the children’s clothing market.
Immaculately groomed, with long, swishing chestnut hair, and wearing a beautiful purple printed frock over leggings and expensive-looking boots, Fiona strides over to greet me. But rather than the clipped, middle-England vowels I was expecting, I am surprised to hear a soft lilting Yorkshire brogue, followed by a firm handshake and a profuse apology that the mix up in venue was entirely hers. “I can be very scatty,” she laughs, while guiding me through the shop, where I simply can’t resist trailing my fingers across the gorgeous fabrics that fill the rails. At the back, I am ushered into what can only be described as a cubbyhole, where a riot of prints and piles of boxes precariously teeter in every corner. Clearly Fiona’s “office” is as down-to-earth as her manner, and after just five minutes in her company, it’s impossible not to warm to her.
Scatty is certainly not a word you would immediately associate with Fiona. Focused, yes, ambitious, maybe, diligent, most definitely – and it’s these qualities that have helped take Their Nibs from a single shop opened in 2003 to a well-established brand that’s stocked in Debenhams, John Lewis, Selfridges and Harrods. A book has also just been published, Vintage Style For Kids, featuring 25 patterns from the Their Nibs collection to make at home. Sitting with the book on her lap, absent-mindedly flicking through the pages, Fiona is clearly very proud of her latest creation. “Writing this book has been such an enjoyable experience for me,” says Fiona, who’s in her mid-forties but could pass for a decade younger. “It gave me the rare opportunity to sit back and reflect on all that’s happened in the past eight years, and to see how we’ve evolved and grown. When we started, we were very west London, but we’ve smoothed the corners off. We have, however, remained true to the original ethos, which is a print-driven brand, vintage in style and eclectic. Those words are still as relevant today as they were when we started.”
When speaking about the enduring appeal of vintage-style clothing for children, Fiona becomes animated. “Of course, it is largely nostalgia, but also, in terms of childrenswear, it’s about dressing children so that they look like children. They’re not children for very long, so why would you want to dress them in clothes that are just a mini-me version of what an adult would wear?”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Kate Moss and Sadie Frost, who are both regular customers and whose endorsement appears on the front cover of the book. “Getting Sadie and Kate for the book was brilliant because you couldn’t buy that sort of publicity,” says Fiona, who, rather endearingly, looks a bit embarrassed at playing the celebrity name game, before adding, “But lots of mothers who shop with us come back for the same reason.”
In creating the prints that have become the company’s trademark, Fiona regularly trawls markets and antique fairs, finding inspiration in the most unlikely of objects. “Old greeting cards, crockery and even playing cards have all ended up as prints,” says Fiona. “I’m constantly on the look out for new ideas. Wherever I am, even on holiday, I find myself scouting around for designs that catch my eye.”
Looking at two of Their Nibs’ signature prints, Vintage Fairy and Retro Cars, it’s impossible not to be transported back to a Seventies’ childhood, which is when Fiona, and indeed many of her customers, grew up. “I am very much a product of that era, when it was all about prints and different shapes,” says Fiona. “I remember all the wonderful dresses my mother used to wear. It’s such a shame she took them all to the charity shop just before the vintage revival. They would be worth a lot of money now! My mother used to make a lot of my clothes, too. I think that’s where I got my love of fashion.”
As a child, home for Fiona and her family was an old pig farm, which her parents set about renovating, “and are still doing some 30 years later,” she says. Set in a couple of acres of land with outbuildings, it sounds like an idyllic place to grow up, a bit like The Good Life meets The Darling Buds Of May. “It was lovely, but as I got older, I couldn’t wait to come to London, which I did when I was 21 to start university and I’ve stayed ever since.” With a Business Studies degree under her belt, Fiona’s first job was doing admin for Top Man where she slowly worked her way up to buyer. She later joined Laura Ashley as Head Of Buying, which took her all over the world. “It was a great company to work for and their print archive is incredible, but there was a lot of travelling, which was fine when it was just me and my husband Charlie, but then our son Finn came along…”
Otherwise known as “his Nibs”, Finn was the inspiration for Fiona’s new business venture. “Ever since I’d become a parent, I could see this gap in the market for something that was a bit different, and would slot between the high street and the designer brands, yet wouldn’t alienate people by being too edgy. I also liked the idea of selling genuine vintage children’s clothes alongside the vintage-inspired pieces, which is what we ended up doing here.”
So when her little boy was 18 months old, Fiona decided the time was right to set up shop. “It was 2003, and the ideal time really because Finn had just started nursery down the road, so I could drop him off and pick him up. It wasn’t always easy, though, as anyone who runs their own business will testify. It’s a 24-hour job, 365 days of the year, and the buck stops with you!” Yet Fiona’s hard graft quickly paid off. “The shop really caught the mood of the moment, because suddenly vintage was the word on everyone’s lips. I’d like to say I saw it coming and that I’m this great fashion predictor, but I would be lying through my teeth. No, the simple reason we went down the vintage route was purely because it’s something I’ve just always really, really loved.”
Since those heady early days, the business has steadily gone from strength to strength, with the opening of the Kensal Rise shop and expansion of the wholesale side. “It’s been an amazing journey, and one that my husband and son have been on, too,” says Fiona. “Just the other day we were looking back through some of the photographs we took when we opened the shop, and there was Finn, just a little toddler, and now he’s this strapping ten-year-old.”
As the inspiration behind the company, Finn evidently cuts quite a sartorial dash. “He’s always had this amazing sense of style,” says Fiona with pride. “When he was little, he loved coming into the shop and dressing up in all the vintage gear. I remember his favourite outfit was a Seventies’ jumpsuit. Everyone used to call him Ziggy Stardust because he used to wear mad things.”Now a keen skateboarder, Finn’s innovative dress sense continues. “He’s started mixing vintage pieces with skateboarding clothing, which is pure genius,” says Fiona. “But fashion is in his blood. He’s been brought up with it. He recently did a sewing course and, although he says he wants to be a skateboarder, he talks about going into the business. I hope he does. I think he’d be really good at it”
Vintage Style For Kids by Fiona Bell is published by Jacqui Small, £18.99.