Kigu co-founder Tom Cohn on turning a Japanese craze into an award winning UK business
I was in a pub on Saturday night grabbing some drinks at the bar. Ordering two glasses of Merlot and a pint of bitter next to me was a dinosaur and a large owl. Well, two men dressed in all-in-one dinosaur and owl suits to be exact.
A few years ago this would have been worthy of a double take. I would have scurried back to my friends to report the anomalous behaviour. As it happened, I didn’t bat an eyelid.
Animal onesie suits have become something of a phenomenon. Once the reserve of toddlers to dress head-to-toe in slouchy animal suits, everyone from pop stars like Lily Allen, Florence Welch and Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys fame, to models like Cara Delevingne are sporting babygro-chic.
Tom Cohn, co-founder of Kigu spotted the trend before it had truly hit British shores and the young entrepreneur created the first UK company to import the original Japanese kigurumi (costumed animal characters).
Having met him at the Smarta 100 awards, where Kigu picked up the top start-up award, I decided to give him a call and get the full story.
So Tom, how did it all begin?
It all started in 2009 when I was at uni doing an entrepreneurial course. I needed an idea for my final project and to do a business plan. I had noticed people bringing these suits back from Japan but you couldn’t get them in the UK.
I couldn’t think of anything better than importing them and selling them at festivals.
After uni I really wasn’t doing anything and I had always wanted to be my own boss so I put the plan into action. I went out to Japan, saw the products, brought them back and tried to get them to the right people.
How big is the trend in Japan?
Kigurumi has been around in Japan for around 25 years. It has a massive cult following over there based on Japanese folklore, dressing up as an animal is part of the culture. Within manga and anime (Japanese cartoons) you often see people wearing animal skins.
In Japan, people are more into dressing like characters they know but here in the UK people seem to prefer animals.
From the very early days you’ve had celebs wearing your suits. How did you do it?
It worked quite naturally, I have a lot of friends in the music industry, DJs, promoters etc. so we approached them. A lot of people wanted the suits and all of our friends were wearing them. We all go to festivals and they are hard to miss! We made sure if anyone was famous, they were sent one.
Did you have any investment to set the business up?
We didn’t really have any cash. My co-founder Nick Harriman and I both invested £2,000 each to buy the stock and after that we didn’t have anything left over. I went round to my friend Hamish’s house and we quickly knocked up a website in a day which we used for 18 months after that.
We basically bought 300 suits which sold out in a few weeks. After that, we bought more in which we’d started taking pre-orders for and by the time they arrived they had all been sold.
We just couldn’t keep any stock until we had enough money to keep the flow consistent.
Have you considered setting up a shop?
We had a pop-up store on Kingly Street, just off Carnaby Street a couple of years ago – it was so much cheaper to do pop-ups back then. It was great! We sold a good amount and the store was really well attended.
I still think we are too niche to set up shop. Most people still think dressing up like this is ridiculous. If you stopped 100 people walking down the street and asked them about it 99 would think its mad.
Anyway it’s easier to run online. You can drive people to the website and communicate with people better.
New Look recently announced it was selling a onsie every three seconds and there are many stores selling copycat animal suits – are you worried about the competition?
There are an insane amount of animal onsies going from the shops but I don’t really mind it – it promotes the concept and makes it more socially acceptable. I don’t like it when people confuse our products with those from other stores though; they are worse quality which reflects badly on us.
But it is good to have choice, our suits aren’t cheap and if people can’t afford them, it’s good they have a more affordable option.
Urban Outfitters stock your suits – how did that come about?
They approached us really soon after we started and so we started selling to them once we were at the stage where we could provide them with what they needed. It’s not a big part of our revenue stream – selling directly through our website is the most profitable way of doing it, but it does add a certain gravitas.
You beat the Guinness World Record for piggy backs and dressed everyone in animal suits back in 2010 which was fantastic exposure. Have you spent a lot of money on marketing?
When we started out we paid around £1,000 on a PR campaign and a while ago we spent £3,000 on another marketing campaign, but that’s about it. We’ve never paid for advertising.
Our outgoings are quite low. There are three of us in the company, the two co-founders and one member of full-time staff. We have a little office in London Fields, East London, which is quite cheap.
You’ve reportedly doubled your turnover this year – what’s next for Kigu to keep growing at this pace?
We’ve actually more than doubled it now – it’ll probably be somewhere in the middle of double and triple our last turnover. We should be looking at around £1m in turnover this year and we’ve been profitable for a while.
We’re going to keep expanding the product lines – we have a few coming next year, but I’ll have to keep those under my hat.