Clothing line founder helps lead retail revolution

Peekaboo Beans founder and CEO Traci Costa with three of her models: (left to right) Emily, Rowan and Mia. | Chung Chow

Just over a decade ago, one major life decision led Traci Costa to make another.

She welcomed her first daughter, now 13, after a challenging road to parenthood – it would take Costa and her husband 10 years to have two babies through in vitro fertilization – and that life-changing entrance to motherhood ultimately led Costa to leave investment banking for a career as an entrepreneur in fashion.

“My journey to parenthood was very challenging,” said Costa, CEO of Richmond-based childrens’ wear company Peekaboo Beans. “I think having gone through that really crystallized my love for being a new mom, and to just experience the life of my daughter through her eyes and experiencing the world through play.”

But as Costa came to discover as a new mom, play in the wrong clothes was significantly less fun for her daughter.

“The clothing that was out in the market didn’t embrace childhood,” Costa said. “I felt everything was fussy with buttons and snaps. She couldn’t really dress herself, things were digging in her skin while she was playing.” She added that kids spill 800 times a day, change constantly and fluctuate between feeling too hot and too cold.

So she set out to create “a brand and a lifestyle around children and what they do,” she said. “No one had really thought of that. That’s how it was all born.”

Around the time Lululemon (Nasdaq:LULU) was finding success by packaging a lifestyle in Lycra, Costa returned to work after nine months of embracing motherhood on maternity leave. Just a year back into her full-time role as an executive assistant in investment banking, she quit to start Peekaboo Beans, which did more than $3.5 million in annualized sales throughout Canada last year.

“Would you do yoga in your jeans?” asked Costa. “I thought: somebody’s thinking about this for adults, why aren’t we thinking about it for kids?”

“I was there pretty much when it started,” said Andhra Goundrey, program coordinator for the fashion design and technology program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU).

Goundrey, who had grown up on the same street as Costa, ran into her childhood friend at KPU, where Costa was looking for a student to help bring to life her ideas for childrens’ wear.

“She has all this business background and business savvy, but didn’t have the technical side of things to execute,” said Goundrey, who eventually left the university to join Peekaboo Beans full time for three years.

At the time Goundrey joined Costa’s team, the first clothing collection had been made by a budding fashion student, and produced by a Vancouver-based manufacturer. With her team in tow, Costa “literally went door to door” selling not just her product – ethically made, chemical-free and play-friendly clothes for kids – but also the whole concept of her brand.

“I still remember trudging through Toronto with a big suitcase, going to boutiques to sell,” said Goundrey, who wore many hats at Peekaboo, including making patterns, visiting the manufacturer and receiving and organizing products in Costa’s garage.

Then the financial crisis of 2008 hit, and it hit many of the boutiques that sold Costa’s clothes particularly hard. E-commerce, too, was disrupting retail, and global economic forces were disrupting production. Local manufacturers and independent retailers were closing.

“At the same time we were growing, the lifeline of our distribution channel was deteriorating,” said Costa, who took the opportunity to re-evaluate where her company was headed.

In 2011, she rolled out a direct-sales retail approach, with moms steering “rolling mobile boutiques” throughout the country. She hasn’t looked back since. Her network of more than 950 sales representatives, 75% of whom are in B.C. and Alberta, host sessions in homes where neighbours, friends and other moms can let their kids feel and try on clothes with versatile, reversible and grow-with-me features.

“We’re creating a retail distribution model,” Costa said. “If you think about food trucks, or you think about Uber, we’re creating that for retail. We’re really trying to transform that retail experience and I think we’re being successful at it.”

While that transformation is a focus for Costa – she recently held a back-to-school sip-and-shop event in her backyard with chocolate-dipped strawberries and champagne – she is also driven by a desire to empower other women.

In addition to offering mothers the chance to run their own business as a sales representative, Costa is taking inspiration from companies such as WestJet (TSX:WJA), which offers its workers an employee share purchase plan. Costa expects to have her company listed on the TSX Venture Exchange in October, and she says going public is a decision intended to offer her sellers – as well as her 18 employees – a greater opportunity to engage with Peekaboo, and earn an income.

“I really wanted to create an investor revolution in women and be able to empower our reps to become owners in the company,” said Costa. “It has to be more than just me. It has to be everybody under the same mission and vision.”