The Lifestyle Magazine of Kent, Surrey & Sussex

Family firm fast tracking to internet sensation

Family firm fast tracking to internet sensation


A report published by researchers from the University of Leeds, Imperial College Business School and Durham University Business School showed that family businesses were less likely to go bankrupt because they are able to recruit and maintain an experienced, diverse and knowledgeable board of directors.

The researchers also found that 80% of family-owned businesses are more gender balanced, having at least one female director. The study highlighted the fact that family-orientated goals such as preserving unity, wealth and providing employment for family members may also contribute to their survival.

But for one local business to have 13 staff members of the founding family on its payroll (“each and every one of them had to start from the bottom”) is testament to the strength that lies at its core.

Childrensalon started life in 1950s Tunbridge Wells, selling good quality children’s clothing and has since grown to behemoth proportions: a team of 300 staff have 23 languages between them, the business is worth £60 million, and boasts a customer base spanning 120 countries. A far cry from its roots in 1952, the same year Michele Harriman-Smith was born to Sybil and Rene Harriman, a French Jazz pianist. They moved from the artistic playground of Paris and then Vienna, to Tunbridge Wells, where they rented a small shop and launched ‘The Children’s Salon’.

We are family

With their connections in Paris they imported good quality French brands as well as Fair Isle knitwear and Harris Tweed coats, wool kilts from Scotland, Irish linens and Sybil’s own brand ‘Joy Models’, created by her team of smockers and seamstresses from around Kent and Sussex.

The wholesale business was busy but Sybil’s passion grew for having her own shop full of beautiful brands, so she decided to stop wholesaling and her own brand became exclusive to The Children’s Salon.

Orders soon flooded in from across the country, including orders from royalty and celebrities and she became known for her fashion shows, with customers travelling from afar to visit the shop.

Sybil’s daughter, Michele, joined the business in the late 1970s when her parents were unable to continue, due to ill health. Michele’s husband George, a designer and illustrator, known for creating the iconic ‘Mamma Mia’ image, decided life would be more fun working for her business, sparking the beginning of their creative business union. In 1999, quick to realise the potential of the ‘world wide web’ they acquired basic programming skills from a manual and took Childrensalon online.

“The website took off almost immediately, and thanks to MSN messenger, we were able to communicate directly with customers, taking orders from Japan, UAE and America. Word spread and before long, I had given over half my house to boxes of stock – in the bedrooms, under the sofas, you name it!” says Michele.

It was soon time to take on larger premises and while the boutique still exists on the High Street in Tunbridge Wells, the business itself is now housed in a series of six enormous warehouses on an industrial estate in the town.

“Tunbridge Wells is a fantastic place to live and work,” Michele says, and has no plans to move or close the shop. “It’s our heritage,” she explains. “It’s a beautiful shop and caters perfectly for our local customers who want good quality, sometimes conservative, clothing for their children.” Some of her staff have even relocated from London to live in Tunbridge Wells.

“It’s not about fashion,” Michele is quick to point out. “Childrensalon always has been – and always will be – about dressing children in beautiful clothes – and giving our customers the highest level of service possible. In fact the original strapline ‘Dressing children beautifully since 1952’ is still used today, and the clothing range of more than 270 brands includes Dolce & Gabbana (with one dress costing an eye-watering £2,550), Burberry, Kenzo, Chloe, Gucci, Joules, Ralph Lauren (, Mayoral and Petit Bateau.

The old-fashioned original slogan from the 1950s – “After sales! Comes service”, is as apt today as ever before and while she admits to living and breathing the business, it is talking to her customers that still gives Michele the most pleasure. “I can’t put into words how important it is to go the extra mile for them,” she says, before recounting the story of putting one member of staff on a last minute flight to Los Angeles, one bank holiday weekend, to hand-deliver a dress to American child actress, Kylie Rogers, after UPS had let her down!

Despite the fast growth and impressive turnover figures, what remains close to Michele’s heart, are the founding values: passion, knowledge and expertise. “I have a great leadership team, but the main thing is that we all love what we do.”

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WORDS Sophie Astin
IMAGE Michele Harriman-Smith, Chief Executive of Childrensalon
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