We talk to this mama who makes nappy changes something of a fashion statement!
Emma Farnen came to Hong Kong on a 3-month assignment in 2005. Little did she know at that point that she would fall in love with the city and enjoy bringing up her kids here. Her interest in fashion design, combined with her needs as a new mum, led her to come up with the idea of a designer diaper clutch bag, Coco Alexander. We spend time with this mama and her beautiful blended family to find out what makes her tick.
Where did you grow up and what brought you to Hong Kong?
My dad was in the army which meant we moved about a lot. I was born in Germany and lived in a few different cities in Germany and the UK before my parents settled in Bolton near Manchester in the north of England. I was working for a London based garment company that asked me to come to Hong Kong to help set up the design team here. That was in 2005… I’ve never left!
Have you always been interested in style and fashion designing?
When I was 18, I wasn’t interested or ready to go to Uni! I moved to London and did a bit of modelling whilst I tried to work out what I wanted to do with my life. I had always been interested in fashion design and modelling fuelled this further. By then, I’d already learnt to pattern cut and sew, so it felt right that I gave Fashion design a go. I then went to Winchester School of Art to study and graduated with First Class Hons. There’s no way I would have done so well had I gone at 18!
What need gap did you see when you set up your business?
When my daughter was born, it made me realise that a mum’s needs weren’t being met with the diaper bags in the market, especially for Hong Kong. I needed a bag that could open up and become a changing station as it can be so tough to find somewhere to change a baby in Hong Kong, especially 12 years ago.
“I also didn’t want to lose my identity by carrying a utilitarian grey bag or a baby inspired print bag with cupcakes and unicorns. I wanted something stylish and practical!”
That was what planted the seed of an idea that would eventually develop into Coco Alexander some years later.
What did you know about the business before setting up Coco Alexander?
I started out my career in Fashion Design and then I gradually moved into product development and then sourcing. This made it really easy for me to develop the concept I had into a reality. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and that mixed with Tom’s business skills is what kick-started Coco Alexander.
How, when and where did you meet your husband? What role does he play in running Coco Alexander?
I met Tom about six years ago because of his twin daughters and my daughter. Coco, my daughter, invited Rylee (one of the dynamic duo) to her birthday party and two girls turned up… Coco got invited to Rylee and Gwen’s party a few weeks later and that is how we met. Fast forward a few years and we got together. I was drawn to Tom because of his sense of humour (he’d like me to add – and his movie-star good looks!). He keeps me sane through tough times and he makes the good times even better.
“Coco Alexander is as much Tom’s business as mine. I showed him all my designs and development I had done many years ago and he was the one that had the vision to launch the brand.”
Tom has been running his own business in Hong Kong for nearly 20 years. He recently expanded his expertise from developing and manufacturing watches to other products including luggage and bags for well known Italian brands. So it was a natural fit for him and his team to make my dream a reality. I’m very much the face of Coco Alexander (it’s my baby!) but the day-to-day is Tom’s area of expertise. I love that I can be a sounding board for and offer direction but he does the heavy lifting.
What are your future plans for the business?
The key is to grow the brand worldwide. We are looking to do this through our own website, being stocked on other websites and also through collaborations with well-known retailers. We want Coco Alexander to be a household name for practical and stylish accessories.
What achievements are you most proud of?
Having my children, growing in my career and also helping Tom launch Coco Alexander.
You have a blended family and have talked about having steplets. Can you tell us about your kids and stepkids?
I always wanted more kids, and it is fair to say I got them when Tom and I moved in together and got married. The “steplets” are Coco, Rylee and Gwen as they are all the same ages (12 days apart) – the wording coming from triplets and stepsisters. We also have Tom’s two older children, Ryan and Charlotte who are in the UK at the moment at boarding school. Then the youngest is Lex, my son.
What do you enjoy about your unique family dynamics?
What I love about our unique family:
- Our household is never quiet and I LOVE that! I’ll be honest sometimes I’m clueless about what is going on – it’s as though the kids are speaking another language.
- Going on holiday is a logistical nightmare but fun. We have had incidents of leaving luggage at security, running through airports to make connections and we always have to hire two cars! And I love the look on peoples faces when they are trying to work out the family dynamics!
- We’re really lucky that all of the kids get on so well. Lex looks up to Ryan and Coco is fascinated by Charlotte. The four younger ones all get on really well and play together really well. There are moments when there are big blow-ups but they normally pass quickly.
- We’re lucky that we have a good relationship with my ex-husband and his partner. So, we now have an even bigger family as Coco, Ryle, Gwen and Lex get on well with my ex-husband’s partner’s children. Tom and I are firm believers that it’s not divorce that messes kids up, it’s how you divorce.
Being a blended family has its ups and downs but for sure the tough times are outweighed by the good times.
How involved are you in the parenting of your stepchildren? How can you make sure that you are a mother to them but don’t step on their mother’s toes?
I truly believe our parenting skills adapt and change as our children get older. Parenting kids that are older than your own is tough, you don’t quite have the skill set in place yet. Ryan and Charlotte were already in their teens when Tom and I got together, so stepping in as a mother to them wasn’t the right approach. I make sure I’m there for them when they need me and try to give good advice as if they are my own children.
Rylee and Gwen were about 7 years old when we got together. Parenting this age was more natural as they are the same age as Coco.
“I’ll never be their mum and I don’t try to be but I do want to make sure that when they are with us they are in a loving home that has stability and boundaries.”
I treat them as though they are my own children and I would do anything for them. I always make sure I talk about their mum so they know they don’t have to think of me as their mum.
How has COVID-19 affected your family?
Not being able to travel has been a big challenge. We got married in London just before COVID hit so we got to see all of our friends and family. But since then, it has been hard not knowing when we’ll see them again, so much will have changed by the time we see them. Our parents not getting to see the children has to be one of the hardest things.
Who has most influenced your parenting style?
Naturally, I parent like my Mum, which I never expected! I thought I’d be a complete softy but I tend to react quickly and think later. I now recognise this in myself so I try really hard to take a deep breath before reacting so I can assess the situation from their point of view. At the moment, I’m reading an amazing book by Lorraine Candy – Mum, What’s Wrong With You? – which is a breath of fresh air on how to parent teenage girls. It’s teaching me to not sweat the small stuff, like messy bedrooms and to never judge even if they do something really silly or crazy.
What do you enjoy most about being a mum?
The laughs and the way they can make me laugh with their silly, cute and serious comments.
What is most challenging about being a mum?
Knowing if I’m doing the right thing. It’s so easy to second guess all decisions. As the kids are getting older it’s so tough to sit back and let them make mistakes that will help them learn and grow. It’s not easy watching them get hurt and knowing you can’t take that pain from them.
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong and bringing up your kids here?
I love that Hong Kong is such a vibrant city and yet we live out in the jungle, near beaches and great hiking trails! The weather is another plus, I can’t imagine living somewhere cold again… unless there’s skiing involved. Also, the people in Hong Kong are so welcoming and willing to help.
Bringing kids up here is amazing. I know my kids have no street smarts from growing up here but I’m ok with that at this age. They have plenty of time to be adults and then have awareness of the danger around them. If we lived in London it would be a totally different approach
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
A hot bath, with Netflix or a book.
What are your top three tips or advice for those looking at setting up a business venture in HK?
- Know who your audience is.
- Be patient.