Today’s feature has been in the works for a while now, and I am so excited to finally introduce you all to Mikaela Wallinder Clifford, founder of Ruth & Ragnar – a Southern California based webstore featuring curated organic kids fashion. Today Mikaela is opening up to Daisy Tribe about her journey from humanitarian worker to socially conscious mama, to creative entrepreneur following her passions and pioneering change in the fashion world. She also shares the inspiration behind her brand, how motherhood changed her forever, and why all the nostalgic eighties moms out there will be flipping over a certain item in her shop this spring!
Tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I’m born and raised in Northern Sweden. After living in four continents around the world I came to Southern California in 2008. My husband and I were set on staying for a year only but we both fell in love with Leucadia and feel this is our home. Our daughter Milou was born in 2011 and is actually named after Leucadia (Milou Kadia).
I have a passion for photography and always loved sewing but life got so busy I forgot how much fun it is! I spent my entire working life after University in the humanitarian field and I have now found a way to incorporate my four passions: sewing, photography, human rights and my daughter into my own company by starting an ethical kidswear line. Ruth & Ragnar is made using 100% organic cotton, entirely grown, knitted and manufactured in the USA. I am using photos I’ve taken in various places around the world to create unique fabric prints that have a story. This way I am able spread awareness about issues I care deeply about while creating funky and fabulous kidswear for the coolest kid on the block!
How did you come up with the idea for Ruth & Ragnar and how has your idea developed as you’ve seen it come to life?
When my daughter was born I struggled to find chemical-free, organic kidswear. Her bed had an organic mattress and soft, organic bed sheets, yet the onesies and pajamas she spent most of her time in were made with cotton grown with highly toxic pesticides. My solution was simply to purchase organic clothing back in Sweden and have them sent here to my home in Southern California. When Milou wore this funky, colorful Swedish clothing, other parents noticed them every single day and I found myself writing notes with information on web stores where these clothes could be purchased in Europe. Eventually my husband jokingly suggested I should just start selling these clothes myself. That’s how the initial idea for selling organic Scandinavian kidswear was born.
It happened the way many entrepreneurs explain it – “If you can’t stop thinking about your idea and you find it very hard to come up with any reason not to pursue it, you’re meant to do it.” There was obviously a huge demand for organic kidswear. There was also a demand for something new and unique. I saw a gap in the market so I decided to start small and see what happened! Since 2011 when I first came up with the idea there have been more stores popping up in the US with some organic lines. It is incredibly exciting to see the change that has happened in the past three years both in kidswear and adult wear and I think Fashion Revolution Day Campaign had a lot to do with it. Firstly by encouraging more people to think about who made their clothes, and also by introducing the market to more ethical and eco-friendly brands and companies. Organic went from being alternative to mainstream. It has been amazing to see this transformation and to now be a part of it!
We understand that you’ve traveled extensively and lived abroad as a humanitarian worker. How do you feel this has affected you as a person and your vision for your brand?
I started traveling as soon as I was old enough and brave enough to and I haven’t really stopped since. Traveling and living in different countries is a privilege and a form of education I never take for granted. It has opened my eyes to various ways of living, surviving and thriving. It has made me more accepting as a person and by being open-minded – the world becomes an incredibly interesting place. I now use these travels as inspiration for a made in the USA kidswear line I’m launching later on in the spring.
Having worked in several post conflict countries in refugee camps and with refugees here in the US, it has become very clear to me that many conflicts leading to these humanitarian disasters are caused by a fight over land and natural resources. Sometimes hidden behind ethnic, religious or racial agendas – resources are often the underlying cause. Be it oil, phosphate, water or diamonds – these are natural resources that are used to create products that we purchase. My travels and previous work has therefore made me realize that my purchasing choices are extremely powerful. The more questions I ask and the more research I do before I make a purchase, the more I help ensure social justice in the world. It was therefore really important to me to only use 100% certified organic cotton in our clothing. For our own clothing line, I also found it important to manufacture in the USA as I want to be transparent and involved in the entire production process. If we as consumers have all the information through a transparent supply chain, we have the power to make an educated decision when we choose to buy from/support a company and a product. I want parents to know who made their children’s clothes and know that the people who grow the cotton are not exposed to life-threatening pesticides in the process.
I’ve also learned that I don’t need much to thrive. It’s hard to notice our own over-consumption until we get far away from it and live in a place where such luxuries aren’t available. After living in a tent in Western Sahara ten hours away from the closest convenience store I realized that all I truly need is access to drinking water, food and the clothing on my back – everything else is a want, not a need. When my grandparents grew up they had one set of nice clothing and they were to be worn on special occasions – and they were treated like the expensive, special possessions they were. Today, we often buy clothes to be worn a couple of times just to be thrown away as they are “out of fashion” or made so cheaply and poorly that they don’t last through a playdate at the playground. I therefore really wanted to make clothes that last; that can be inherited from sister to brother to grandchild. The best way to help reduce our footprint is to, as Vivienne Westwood famously stated, “Buy less. Choose well.”
Can you tell us a little about your experience with Factory 45?
Sure! In June this year I was chosen or, rather, Ruth & Ragnar was chosen as one of ten companies to join Factory 45, an accelerator program for Made in the USA. Ten companies with original ideas and a passion for sustainability worked together with sustainable fashion guru Shannon Whitehead, to create and launch their products. I came into Factory 45 feeling intimidated when I looked at the nine other companies. Among them were Designers from Parson’s School of Design in NYC, a businesswoman whose bags were sold in huge stores such as REI, a successful television host and a Wall Street Finance Director. What I quickly learned though was that we were all starting a new chapter and we were learning together. We had all decided to commit to creating something sustainably and entirely made in the USA. What Shannon Whitehead did so wonderfully (apart from running a kickass program) was selecting a group of individuals from very diverse backgrounds as we all brought something to the table and were able to help and support each other tremendously. I went from being terrified of opening my mouth during the conference video calls to being known as the girl who asks a million questions. I went from being intimidated by these creative people to making friends for life.
If you have a prototype, a design or just an idea and you’d like to make it a reality – this is the program for you. It will be hard, but it will be oh so rewarding. Having someone behind you who catches you when you fall and helps guide you to get back up again is priceless. Having someone to pick up the phone and listen when you’ve had a few too many suppliers tell you “no” in one day has been invaluable to keep me going. I couldn’t find the supply chain that lived up to my sustainability standards – I was told it didn’t exist. So I created one. Without Factory 45 I’m not sure I would have been able to have the confidence to keep pushing.
How did you come up with the name for your company, and which 3 words would you use to describe the Ruth & Ragnar brand?
Can I only pick three? When I was really young my incredible mother decided to become a nurse. She studied at college during the day and worked at the hospital at night to be able to support me and my two sisters. To make this work, my grandparents helped raise us. My grandfather Ragnar taught me how to ride a bike, how to build things from scratch, paint the house, how to swim, how to garden, compost and pick raspberries at the exact right time when they are ripe to perfection. My grandmother Ruth was born 1921 — the same year women fought for the right to vote in Sweden, and she is a true feminist at heart. She is a fighter who has instilled in me good values, everyone’s equal rights, the importance of languages, being able to help yourself and to always help people in need. When I thought of the key words for the clothing I’ll be selling (Colorful, Comfortable, Fun, Sustainable, Organic, Happy, and Handmade) I immediately thought of my grandparents as they helped make my childhood all those things. Ruth & Ragnar is my tribute to them.
Your little girl is adorable. How did becoming a mom influence your work?
I know it’s a cliché but the minute I held Milou in my arms for the first time my whole world changed. She needed me. I needed her. I wanted to spend all my time with her, give her all my passion, energy and devotion. I also want her to grow up in a world where human rights are respected and where all humans are treated equally. So I needed to find a way to spend that time with her but still continue to work towards a better world. That’s how the initial idea prompted by my husband’s suggestion to start a clothing company actually became reality. On top of offering curated organic kidswear from amazing brands, which themselves have incredible stories and products, I am creating my own brand that I will use, like I mentioned, as an avenue to spread awareness about issues I care deeply about.
We love all of the fun designs you’ve chosen to feature in your shop. What was your favorite item in your closet as a kid?
I grew up in the eighties so unfortunately I didn’t have the cool velour seventies outfits that my older sisters were dressed in. My wardrobe consisted of neon colors, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and lots of leggings. I did have this amazing reversible sweatshirt which I thought was the coolest top ever! I have been waiting for thirty years for reversible sweaters to make a comeback and I am THRILLED to announce that one of our brands, Filemon Kid, has brought them back! We will have a lovely turquoise reversible sweater with raccoon prints in our shop this spring. It is made with GOTS-certified organic cotton only and printed with non-toxic water based dyes. Come get one before all the other nostalgic eighties moms find out about them, hahaha!
What inspires you?
Everyday life! We live in such a beautiful part of the world. It’s difficult not to be inspired when you walk down to the beach and get to see a breathtaking sunset nearly every night. I have some amazing friends and family that inspire me daily. My husband has more energy than anyone I have ever met; he literately cannot sit still for a second – always doing research, coming up with new ideas, surfing, organizing or just playing with our daughter. I watch him with amazement every day. Also, San Diego is so diverse and fun to explore. I’ve spent a lot of time in City Heights which has such eclectic atmosphere with lots of African and Asian shops, restaurants and community events. El Cajon offers a unique mix of American, Hispanic and Arabic culture and while North County may be less multicultural, it sure makes up for it in coastal beauty. Since 2011 I have also gotten to spend every single day with my daughter and watched her learn, create, grow and develop. How could I not be inspired?
Do you have any advice for living a creative life?
Let go of your fears. I never saw myself as being creative, I have always been afraid of what others might think. There are “real” artists out there, “real” craft makers, what might people think of me? Once I became a parent I started caring far less about what people think of me. I guess I am just too busy living my life. Once I let go of my fears I became more creative because I allowed myself to be. Let go of your fears and do what you want to do, if you have the means to.
Where can we find more Ruth & Ragnar?
The best way to get updates and the latest news about Ruth & Ragnar is to sign up to our Newsletter on our website www.ruthandragnar.com. We are also love to share articles and updates on Facebook. For fun photos of our clothes and life with a three-year old, check out our Instagram account. Join the conversation on Funky Kidswear and sustainable fashion and any other topic under the sun with us on Twitter.
Anything else you want to add?
The Ruth & Ragnar webstore, featuring curated organic kids fashion, launched in February 2015. I wanted to make sure parents didn’t have to do the extensive and frustrating research I had to do to find sustainable clothing for their children. I have done the research for them. At Ruth & Ragnar we are offering organic exclusively. You can be 100% sure anything you order from our webstore is made entirely with 100% organic cotton, no exceptions! Happy shopping!
Wow, thank you Mikaela for sharing so much of yourself and for all the beautiful photos you provided! You are truly an inspiration. It’s been a joy to get to know you better, and I am really looking forward to watching your brand take flight later this year! I have to sign off now – I’m running over to ruthandragnar.com before the 80’s inspired reversible turquoise sweater with raccoon prints is all sold out! Ha! Take care everyone.