6 minute read

Trusting Your Talents and Fulfilling Your Dream

Shannon Latham founded the children's clothing company Little English.

Trusting Your Talents and Fulfilling Your Dream

“I always knew I wanted to own my own business. My father owned his own company, my grandfather owned his own company, and my sister owns her own company,” said Shannon Cowles Latham ’83. 

After graduating from Hutchison, Latham studied advertising at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and worked in advertising and marketing jobs in Memphis. She had an idea that she wanted to be involved in an import/export business and could see there was a market for children’s garments. “What grandmother or mother can pass on buying something that’s cute for her child? She will spend money on them before she will spend money on herself,” Latham said. “I knew that I could brand it and market it. That’s really what I do best, better than designing, I think. My forte lies in knowing how to position and out-market and outbrand a competitor.”

How she ended up owning and running a successful children’s clothing line called Little English came about when Latham’s marketing instincts kicked in. “I had a cousin who worked at the Embassy in Lima, Peru. She would send me beautiful Peruvian sweaters,” Latham explained. “My daughter would always wear them with her little smocked dresses and overalls, and all my friends in Memphis loved them and kept saying, ‘Where did you get them?’ ”

In 1998, Latham moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where her husband took a job as a bloodstock agent for thoroughbred horses. Capitalizing on the interest she’d seen in sweaters, she and a friend started a children’s sweater business. When Latham had her son, she sold her share in that business and thought she would be a stay-at-home mom. Then she started drawing again, and she knew she still wanted to own her own company.

In 2004, she founded Little English. The company name was inspired by an embroidery technique on pleated fabric called English smocking. Latham wanted a name that could apply to children’s clothing, but not be pigeonholed as only for children. She thought the brand might grow to encompass clothing for women or even things like furniture. She added the word ‘Little’ in front, and the brand was born. “It made it whimsical enough without being cutesy,” she explained.

Examples of clothing from the Little English line.

In the lean beginning years, Latham did it all. Despite having no design training, she knew the aesthetic she wanted, and she knew how to storyboard ideas and guide others in executing her designs. She handled the company’s accounting, inventory, photography, web design, catalogs, and traveled to wholesale showrooms in Atlanta and Dallas to take orders.

One of her first shows was at the Junior League in Memphis. She said people were lined up and she couldn’t check them out fast enough. “I thought, ‘Okay, I think we’ve got the formula here. I think we’re going to be okay.’” Before she knew it, Little English was in 100 stores, which eventually ballooned to over 400 stores.

Celebrating her 15th year, she has a wholesale business and an online business. Since the company designs and produces about 600 pieces a year, she’s implemented an inventory management system to keep track of everything and streamline processes.

Learning On the Job

It’s one thing to have design ideas and even orders in hand. It’s another thing to get clothing items produced accurately across several different continents and delivered on time. Little English has fabrics printed in countries such as Brazil, Italy, Spain, and England, and then the clothes are manufactured in South America.

“I send in my hand drawings and then work with the manufacturers to get the samples to come out looking like what I expect them to look like,” Latham explained. “They are extremely literal about my drawings. If I have a dog’s ear drawn wrong, then it’s going to be wrong when they smock it or crochet it.”

Colors can be challenging, too. Even though there are reference colors, there are still variations when things are produced by hand or when they are block printed.

She admitted that scaling a business up is quite difficult financially since you have to be able to purchase goods that you’ve pre-sold. “The operation side is the most difficult part, being able to structure my organization, being able to keep up and manage the amount of inventory that comes in without necessarily trying to add too many people while maintaining expenses so that we continue to make a profit.”

The last recession was extremely difficult. “We lost 200 stores practically overnight,” Latham said. “A lot of our boutiques could not get financing and had to make adjustments. We experienced a dip in our sales.” There was a silver lining, however. Latham launched the company’s online store in 2009, and by the end of the year, they were only down by about $5,000 for the year.

Keeping It in the Family

In the fall of 2015, Latham’s daughter, Dunn, returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with a degree in opera and art history. She planned on taking a year off to travel, but Latham was down an employee. “She had no intention of working for me, but I needed her help. She came on for a little while, has loved it, and decided to stay. We design all the fabrics together.”

Dunn Latham, Shannon's daughter, joined her at Little English in 2015.

Latham had participated in theater at Hutchison, so was never shy when presenting in front of people. Her daughter had also acted and was a natural at presenting the Little English line. Latham says her daughter has an eye for design and photography, is a natural with social media such as Facebook and Instagram, and is savvy with building websites.

“We both have a similar style. She is a little bit more modern than I, so the balance between the two has been wonderful,” Latham added. “We’ve seen our customers enjoying her twist on some of our styles, as well as her clean aesthetic for the website and marketing.”

“One thing I admire about my daughter is that she’s 26 years old, and I keep telling her, ‘Oh my gosh, what you know now, I didn’t learn until my 40s and 50s.’”

Latham designed a honey bee sweater collection for Hutchison, which is sold in the campus Buzz Shop. Candy Covington, who was Latham’s French teacher, was on the committee to approve the design to be worn as part of the uniform. 

Latham and her daughter introduced knitwear into their line to help broaden the brand’s market and come in at a lower price point. They are hoping to eventually add some lifestyle products that would apply their unique designs to wallpaper or fabric to be used in home décor in children’s rooms or nurseries.

How Hutchison Prepared Her

Latham transferred to Hutchison in seventh grade and was involved in theater, played tennis, and sang in the chorus. She admits she wasn’t an honor student, but she remembered how supportive and encouraging Leonard Frey was. “He would say: ‘Shannon, that’s okay. Don’t be so stressed about that. You’ve got so many other talents. You’re doing fine. You’re making good grades; you’re not making bad grades.’ It was so refreshing to hear that, and he meant it, which was lovely,” she recalled.

She believes Hutchison helped build her confidence, grit, and determination. 

It didn’t matter if you weren’t perfect, as long as you kept moving through the problem or the issue at hand. The creativity that was allowed at Hutchison was celebrated by everybody in our class.

“The culture there was so fabulous, and I’m still best friends with all of the girls from there, even though we all live in different cities. We still get together. My cousin, Anne Latham Holdaway ’83, was here recently, and we were literally sitting on my bed laughing and texting with other friends. They really are lifelong friends.”