Lockdown babies: Designing new products while socially distancing
During the pandemic, several consumer brands have bridged the digital divide to create new products and collaborations
The transition to working from home may have been easier than expected for many office workers. But one problem still remains, more than 300 days after the first stay-at-home orders were called in the US: It’s really hard to make new things while working remotely and going in and out of lockdown.
We spoke to Mandy Madden Kelley, founder of luxury pet accessories brand Pagerie, Isabel Aagaard of LastObject and Serra co-founder Cambria Benson-Noecker to find out how they rallied their teams, collaborators and suppliers to launch new products in the second half of 2020.
On 15 October, following a series of production delays, factory shutdowns and manufacturing processes gone wrong, luxury pet accessories brand Pagerie launched with a slick website and not a hint of the challenges that had gone on behind the scenes.
Design for the brand’s leather dog harnesses, collars and leads were already in the works before things ground to a temporary halt in February. The Chinese factory Pagerie was working with had gone into a month-long lockdown, while its manufacturers in Europe, who were in charge of stitching together the components, found themselves in the same situation by the end of March.
Because it was working with multiple manufacturers, founder Mandy Madden Kelley found herself having to reshuffle the business’s priorities between different areas of production, as well as the design of the website, branding and packaging in order to keep things moving. “It’s very much a domino effect,” she explains. “You’re dependent on every single person every step of the way.”
While parts of the products were ready in May – such as the fabric parts of the Babbi harness, which had been produced in Europe – other elements took much longer to finalise. As a result of the lockdowns and reduced capacity, it took the factory in China six months in total to produce the metal clasp for the dog leash, which was supplied at the end of June.
Despite the logistical struggles, Mandy says some of the biggest challenges in getting Pagerie to launch have been on the creative side: A photoshoot in July, which followed June’s rush to get the components together, had to be scrapped in favour of video stills.
“As the founder and CEO, it’s my job to inspire everyone and keep everyone going,” Mandy says. Often, this means reminding the team how far they have come during one of the most difficult times in living memory to launch a new brand.
The new collection features storage boxes, trays and two grinders that feature Canadian company Hemson’s proprietary mechanisms, but which have been developed with a casing that complements Serra’s aesthetic.
With face-to-face meetings to pick apart prototypes off the table, digital rendering tools were used to iterate designs as swiftly as possible, before a first round of samples were produced in Canada in August, and shipped out to Serra in Oregon. “The renderings were so perfectly matched with the [finished] physical products that it’s mind blowing,” Cambria Benson-Noecker, Serra’s co-founder, says. “The 3D design world has exploded during Covid. That really helped guide the process.”
In September, a manufacturer in China put the products into production, sending photos shot via the quality control team’s iPhones to keep Serra and Hemson updated on progress, in lieu of further samples. “Everything is so backed up, you don’t have time to do all the prototypes and images and quality control that you usually would,” says Cambria.
As a self-described perfectionist, Cambria says the process has been difficult. Fortunately, Hemson and Serra did the groundwork to ensure they were aligned on aesthetics and design quality, having sent “hundreds and hundreds” of images to each other via text message and Instagram DMs in the run-up to their collaboration. “With the Hemson team we were really aligned from the start – they understood our brand vision, which made the process really easy,” Cambria says. “I’m so excited to see what we can do next when we can finally meet in person.”
Danish reusable products company LastObject has been tinkering with the idea of a reusable alternative for cotton rounds for over two years – but nailing the design has been difficult.
It wasn’t until summer 2019, founder Isabel Aagaard says, that a suitable fabric was discovered. LastObject was keen to retain the absorbency and mushy feeling that cotton rounds have (and which is lost when using most fabric alternatives), and eventually landed on a 70% wood fibre and 30% cotton fibre fabric produced in Sweden. From February 2020, the team was working on the final designs and had found manufacturers that could cut the fabric into cotton rounds and create the boxes to hold them, in Germany and China respectively. But there was a problem: A pandemic had just hit.
“We needed to see the prototypes and make some edits,” Isabel says. “The biggest problem for us was that we couldn’t get things out of our facilities and companies were opening and closing, so everything was prolonged.”
In all, Isabel estimates that Covid-19 put a four-month hold on LastRound’s launch, and has caused ongoing problems with shipping and getting products out to customers. A Kickstarter to promote the new product was launched in September – but Isabel says interest appeared to be subdued compared to previous campaigns the company had run, even though it did hit its funding target in less than one hour. “We had a really good campaign, but it wasn’t as good as I imagined,” Isabel says. “So in that sense, we didn’t have [as many] sales in that period.”
Things appear to have picked up since. Isabel says December was “amazing”, but the initial slow sales have left the team wondering if they can make further improvements to the product. In January, the company asked its Kickstarter supporters to provide further feedback on the product. “We didn’t know if it was because the product didn’t have a place in the market, or it was because of the pandemic.”
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