Kate Pietrasik and her daughter, Ruby. Photo: Tom Pietrasik

Kate Pietrasik, 44, is founder of the unisex children’s clothing label Tootsa. Originally from London, she moved to Edinburgh, Sydney, and now lives in Hossegor, South West France, with her nine-year-old Ruby and husband James.

The way we live now

My husband, James, has a seven-year-old daughter, Evie, and so together we are what I’ve heard termed a ‘blended family’. Unfortunately we only manage to see Evie during the holidays but it’s wonderful when the girls are together – they’re inseparable. Our life in France is strangely laid back but busy. The town we live in is sandwiched between sandy beaches, lakes and the largest maritime-pine forest in Europe. It’s pretty idyllic – especially for kids. Running a busy business doesn’t afford us much downtime but working for ourselves means that if the surf is good or my daughter has a football match or dance production we can always be available.

Kate's husband James, his daughter Evie, and Kate's daughter Ruby

The general administration of life here in France is notoriously time-consuming but it’s so rewarding to see our children with healthy glowing skin, surfing after school and playing barefoot out doors whilst only being an hour’s flight from London.

In the beginning

I grew up in Muswell Hill, North London until I was 16 when we moved, as a family, to Edinburgh. It was a tricky time but ultimately, looking back now, that move has hugely influenced my life. I was half way through my A-levels at the time and, because the curriculum at the school in Edinburgh was very different, I ended up pretty much dropping out of every subject. I did however stick with Art and my love of drawing and painting is how I came to eventually get a degree in Contemporary Art and Design. Most of my school-friends and their families, although well travelled, still live in North London today, whereas the move left me feeling a little rootless and allowed me to freedom to travel and live in several countries without fear or a feeling of homesickness.

Before and during pregnancy I was freelance designing for various companies but as a single parent this became virtually impossible

After school, I got offered a place at Chelsea School Of Art, and deferred my place for a year while I worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and bought a round-the-world ticket. At the time I chose to follow my love of surfing (having first learnt to surf aged 15, with some school friends one summer where I now live in Hossegor) and visited Hawaii, California and Indonesia, eventually running out of money halfway up the east coast of Australia on a road-trip. I got a job working in a pizza restaurant in Byron Bay, ditched my place at Art college in London and didn’t leave town for 10 years!

The way things were

I spent the Nineties completely absorbed in an idyllic beachside lifestyle. Brit pop completely passed me by! It was paradise: surfing tropical beaches with dolphins, wearing no shoes for days on end, swimming in waterfalls… At night I worked in restaurants, eventually opening a restaurant with a friend called ‘Fresh’. The restaurant is still there today although I soon ditched my shares to eventually take up a place at art school at Southern Cross University (about a 40 minute drive from Byron Bay), knowing that ultimately I didn’t want to be running restaurants for a living.

Kate at work in her studio. Photo: Michelle Marshall

The middle

The contemporary art course I was on ran an exchange program with The Pratt Institute in the US.
I jumped at the chance to study painting and illustration in New York City and in my second year moved into a share flat in Brooklyn. On my way from Australia to New York I was invited by some old school friends to join them on a trip to South West France – I knew it’d be the last time I could surf for a while so I jumped at the chance.

Whilst there I met the man who would later become the father of my daughter. When I completed my degree I moved to France, where I lived for a further 10 years working as a designer for surf and sportswear labels. By the time I moved back to London, in my thirties, I hadn’t lived there for 20 years. It was a very different experience – incomparable in fact; living as a young teenager and then a single parent of 36. I loved being a sole parent – after a tumultuous relationship end it was a relief to be keeping it very simple and living independently with my baby daughter in our cosy flat.

In our small town here there isn’t the same culture of catchment areas and Ofsted results and children just attend their local school

Making it work

Before and during pregnancy I was freelance designing for various companies – in Amsterdam, London and Biarritz – but as a single parent this became virtually impossible. I could no longer travel so upon settling in London, my primary mission was to find a full-time design position. However, this being 2010 and in the wake of the financial crisis, no one was hiring and the creative industries were only taking on young designers working for free or on apprenticeships. It was tough.

At the same time I was shopping for my daughter on the British highstreet for the first time and I was dismayed at the sea of pink, sequins and princesses. The boys wear department wasn’t much better with sludgy colours, trucks and monsters. It seemed there was a real need for more bright colourful, gender neutral children’s clothes.

I already had the contacts with factories I’d worked with for various brands and reached out to a colleague who worked in production. With her help I realised that I could design and produce a sample collection to show to buyers at a trade fare the following season. My parents were a huge support – not only with childcare and affording me the time to design and travel to the factories but also financially. They helped me pay for the samples and first collections. I later I sold my house in France and used some of the funds to contribute.

La vie en France

Ruby was four years old when we moved to France. I had lived in London for five years at that point but had always wanted us to return to France eventually. I missed the lifestyle – the beach, the ocean, and my friends. We spent a lot of time back there in the holidays but it wasn’t the same. Ruby was born in Bayonne and I had felt that it would be a great bonus for her to experience school in France, the outdoor lifestyle and of course speak the language.

She was in her second year of primary in London when we finally took the plunge. I speak fluent French and have had plenty of experience living there so it was relatively easy to secure a place at our local school. In our small town here there isn’t the same culture of catchment areas and Ofsted results and children just attend their local school. Coming to the French school system was fabulous; at 5 years old, she went from her inner city school – uniforms, sitting at desks, cursive writing, phonics – to the ‘Ecole Maternelle’ where, at that age in France, they are still very much learning by play, painting, reading, water play, sand pits and lots of time spent outside!.It was ideal for her and she quickly picked up the language and blossomed.

Tootsa is donating £5 from the sale of every ‘No Future Without Me’ T-shirt to the charity Help Refugees 

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