Birgit Sfat, mother and entrepreneur, is the creative mind behind the popular online concept shop Over the Ocean, whose mission it is to bring beautifully made children’s apparel to the American market.
This summer, Over the Ocean will celebrate three years in business and will soon launch a European store to bring beautiful North American brands to the European customer. The elegant and insightful Birgit has a unique approach to retail that reflects her values and aesthetic (see her feature for the womenswear brand Apiece Apart for more on her personal style) and she’s hit on a winning retail formula.
I sat down with Birgit to learn about her journey, and her plans for the future.
What was the genesis of opening the store? Did you see a whole in the market?
Before moving to San Francisco we were living in Munich. I was working as the brand manager for a European swimwear brand. When we came here, we met a lot of families who were very interested in our European way of life.
At the playground, at my daughter’s school, many families asked me about how we had lived in Munich – and they also asked me a lot about the clothes Milla was wearing. I found the people here so open and positive about European lifestyle and design. This was how the idea of Over The Ocean came up, an online concept store for European design for families and combining it with stories about family life in Europe.
It was actually the aim to share what we love from our old home with the families in the U.S.
What made you take the leap to expand into North American designers?
That idea came to me last summer. Things were going really well at Over the Ocean but what is happening in the U.S. in kidswear is also really great. The development of the industry is much newer here than in Europe but in the last five years so many brands have caught my attention—Misha and Puff, Soor Ploom, Nico Nico, etc. I met some really amazing makers and inspiring mothers since I live here.
When I was in Europe last summer, of course the discussions were a lot about the political turmoil happening here now but that’s not the full story. The incredible community of makers and independent designers are doing very inspiring things so I thought why not bring these brands to Europe – and share this new influence in my life with the families in Europe.
So this is a separate shop, for Europeans—not just a tab on your existing website?
Exactly. Over The Ocean II will be based in Germany. This is from where my sister-in-law will ship the items and the dedicated webshop is www.overtheocean.eu.
Do you have plans for a brick and mortar store?
I sometimes dream about it because then people could really touch and see the clothes but rents in San Francisco are just too high and I can’t be tethered to a shop 7 days a week and over weekends. (In the U.S. shops are also open on Sundays!)
People can come see the clothing when I host pop ups, like I did two weeks ago in my backyard, where my studio is. It was so fun, we had a lemonade stand and local wines, the kids were playing in the garden and I had the chance to chat with my customers, it was a great event.
Next weekend, I will have another pop-up, in the backyard of General Store, a beautiful store for clothing and home goods in San Francisco.
To what do you attribute your success?
I don’t really know if it’s any one thing but I do think that in the beginning it helped that I had a few brands that the US market already knew, like Bobo Choses for example, (here Google ads helped), but when customers came to the shop looking for specific brands, they’d be introduced to brands that they’d never seen before.
People also liked that it was a personal store and the way I communicate—it’s really me talking about the things I like. In an online boutique, good product descriptions are really helpful, since you can’t reach out, touch the items and try them on. I was also lucky that a lot of my content, like my look book pictures and blog posts, were shared on blogs and Pinterest. And then, yes, the selection of items - all the styles I carry can be worn for any occasion; they’re well-made, beautiful to look at and to touch, but most important feel good to wear and play in.
Social media: is it an addiction or necessary evil for the biz?
I always enjoyed Instagram because I like taking pictures but there was a time I felt pressure to post everyday with every new brand. Now I’m more relaxed, I just try not to be absent for several weeks. But if there is nothing I feel like posting for a few days then I don’t stress over it, I just don’t post!
I don’t follow any Instagram growth tips and don’t have a business account. I try to take a natural approach to Instagram with a mix of things of my daily life. That can be studio product shots but also flowers in the kitchen and Milla at the beach or whatever we are doing. And what Milla is wearing on the pictures is often from seasons ago, I post it anyway if I like it.
I rarely use brand pictures anymore and then only if I really love the photography. For me, it’s not so much about selling only products as it is describing a lifestyle. Instagram is a driver of sales but my newsletters are much more powerful in this sense.
You seem to have a knack for creating content.
I really enjoy creating content! I feel I am much better with pictures than with words though. My look shoots were an important part of Over the Ocean from the beginning and at that time, I was one of the first to mix up the brands for my look book and flat lays, not so many shops were doing this. We also combined the look pictures with videos which created a fun dynamic. Last summer, we made a sweet little film (inspired by Where the Wild Things Are) with the help of Pricilla Gragg.
How do you describe your approach to buying?
It’s very much as if I’m buying for myself. What is my style? What is our style? You want things that are fun, basics, and once in a while, something nostalgic or romantic. I never sacrifice comfort for style. I don’t like kids clothing that is complicated, I like it casual. Kids should neither feel nor look stiff.
The clothes need to be well and ethically made, natural materials, things that stand the test of time and play. Price is a facto as well, there are some brands that I like but if the product but is too expensive, I pass. Also, I love working with small brands where I know the people who create the clothes and I have a personal connection with them.
How do you work with influencers?
In my muse portraits, I share portraits of mothers in different cities around Europe (and soon also of American mothers).
I never send products randomly to Instagramers; every family I feature are people I know personally, who I have been in contact with for a long time or who are my customers.
How does the business fit into your lifestyle?
It is a lot of work, but in general yes there is flexibility. I often work during the night, when Milla is in bed. My husband also supports me a lot and Milla is involved, it is a family business. A big part of the job can also be done remotely, this gives us the chance to travel.
This year for example, we will be in Europe all summer. I will have someone here in my studio for fulfillment, to ship and receive new collections. I tried to work with a warehouse but it didn’t work out. I do need to have my products here in my studio in order to take pictures, write good product descriptions and in general, for the inspiration.
My business has grown a lot during the past 2 years and I developed several new ideas, like my pre-loved program and now Over the Ocean II. It’s great when things are working well, but I feel that growth is not my main goal, that’s why I will reduce my selection for the next seasons. Family is always my top priority, and the business has to serve our needs, not the other way around.