Hip Mommies isn’t a retail store or super-cute baby brand, but chances are you’ve seen one of their eco-friendly products in a brick-and-mortar store in your ‘hood. Hip Mommies instead, is a distributor (for most brands the only Canadian distributor) of modern, thoughtfully-designed baby, toddler and pet products.
Made up of husband-and-wife team Jennifer and Joey Chua, this Toronto-based couple’s biz motto is working with brands that make quality products that are purposeful, safe and well-designed. But, that’s not all. Brands have to share the same socially responsible and environmentally friendly beliefs to even be considered. What’s even crazier is that Jennifer and Joey only work with people that they like (so strange, right?).
Another belief they share is living with less. BF (before kids), both lived a minimal life while travelling through Asia. Now, being parents to 3-year old Edie, the duo have more ‘stuff’ and only keep meaningful items and well-made, multi-functional products. We chatted with Jennifer to get the goods on how she and her family live as minimal-as-possible life.
Real Mom Talk with Jennifer
1) How did you learn to love living with less?
“When we lived in Asia, my apartment was 32 square meters with two people living in it. Since we travelled frequently, everything I owned had to fit in my backpack. I really learned what I could live without (!! makeup) and how to find clever, multipurpose products that would do double duty. If I wanted something badly enough, something else would have to be sacrificed. Each belonging had to be carefully evaluated and I had to not feel guilty about discarding things (like gently-used tea kettles that I kept giving to friends) when we would move on. Although I missed some comforts — like a third pair of shoes — I learned a lot about living with less. That period of my life was very freeing, and now— although I love my comforts — I feel very encumbered by belongings.”
2) Were you able to continue this minimalist lifestyle when you moved to Toronto and became a mom?
“I WISH. Some things I’ve relaxed on. For example, I’ve amassed a cookbook collection that is anything but minimal. We ended up renting a teeny condo at Lakeshore and Spadina, and then bought a loft conversion in Leslieville. The loft was beautiful — 100 years old, ground floor with an entire wall of windows — but it lacked storage. We maximized with custom closet built-ins and created additional cabinetry in the kitchen. For six years we were comfortable living in under 600 square feet but when our daughter was born things got crowded. It’s unavoidable (stroller in the living room!), and not having a bedroom door was a huge issue. When our daughter was 18 months old we decided to upgrade to a small downtown semi.
To me, minimalism is really more about being a conscious consumer. It is really easy these days to just click and buy and not think about our impact. Everything that I purchase I think about who made it, what resources were used and where it will end up when I am done with it. Now that I am involved in this business I understand how and where things are manufactured, and how you are being coaxed to buy things that you don’t need. So, while my house is not clutter free by any means, each item I’ve brought into the home has been carefully considered.
With a child keeping things lean is not easy. We’ve tried. We bought a combination travel crib/playpen/bassinet and she hated it — we just ended up co-sleeping. Toys and baby clothes are kept to a minimum by swapping with friends, and luckily, Sprouts (an indoor play-space) was next door so we didn’t need to buy more toys.”
3) In your opinion, what items did you truly need when you became a mom? And what did you find ended up being useless?
“I get asked this all the time. There are certainly some things that make things easier, especially in the newborn phase. I was adament about not needing a breastfeeding pillow and then breastfeeding was a huge challenge for us. I ended up calling a close friend late one night begging her to let me use hers. Also, a nursing bra if you are planning to breastfeed is so crucial. Another product I would recommend now that was not available at the time is the Doddle and Co. Pop pacifier that we carry. I hated having to hang on to a stash of pacifiers (natural rubber pacifiers can start to disintegrate. An SLP (Speech Language Pathologist) told me the ones with hanging toys are not good for oral development. The Doddle and Co. pacifier pops back into its own self-protective bubble when it drops, keeping things clean. It’s also 100% silicone so it’s safe and sanitary and you only have to buy one. They even double as a teether later on.
Things I find wasteful for the newborn phase: wipe warmers, diaper pails and shoes for babies that are not for walking. Lots of things are adorable, and “nice to have” but not necessary. We lived without a change table, for example, and did just fine.”
4) How does this concept of ‘living with less’ factor into Hip Mommies?
“We look for multipurpose goods: versatility, durability, longevity, usefulness, practicality. And if there is anything comparable on the market (we like to work with innovators, and “the originals”) and where and how the products are manufactured (ideally, they are US, CAD or EU made). You can still have responsible manufacturing in Asia, although it takes some extra steps to guarantee it. We request third-party safety testing reports, ensure all products are truly safe and nontoxic.
We’ve found that copycat products (especially sold on the internet, shipping direct) are labelled BPA free, phthalates free FDA approved (etc) but they aren’t. Someone has just copied that verbiage from the original brand. We also support mom-owned business and work with good people that are giving back to the world and who are conducting business ethically. Environmental impact and social good are important to us.
Our customer, like the parents in our community, are looking for well-made products that make a difference. Our goods are sold at independent boutiques and select chain retailers and are often times more expensive than the other products in their category. Besides understanding that responsible manufacturing and quality materials cost more, it is important to look at the items you purchase on a cost per use basis. For example, The Happy Mat is a minimalist parent’s dream. You can have a Happy Mat and a Happy Bowl and that is your entire feeding arsenal. There are no multiple bowls for your child to break or toss to the floor, they’re easy to clean and it’s likely that your child will use it every day up to age 4. In the end, which choice costs more? Intensive research was also done on its developmental benefits and there is evidence to support that it helps prevent the picky eating phase.”
5) Are there any minimalist rules that you’ve broken now that you have a small family?
Ha, so many! We are constantly being sent samples — something that I may not have purchased — and they make their way into our home. We do have a play kitchen, lots of puzzles, art supplies, a dress-up bin and a collection of well-loved books. I am conscious about what I buy for my daughter and we rely on the swap and sells and hand me downs. I am pretty selective, but in the end, I want her to benefit from open-ended and creative play, and ensure she has fun ways to express herself and learn. We keep tv and tablet to a minimum and have a rule about toys that make noise. These are usually cheap, breakable plastics. I prefer well made, nontoxic heirloom toys and wooden if possible.
6) Do you think it’s realistic for a family to live a minimalist (and we’re not talking 100% Marie Kondo here) lifestyle?
I find it’s easy if you live in the city with amenities. There are many drop-in centres, indoor play places, public pools, libraries, parks filled with ride a-long toys, public concerts, farmers markets… Our public services are incredible – there are free or low-cost city run drop in programs and dance classes. There is the museum, aquarium and art galleries… We have so much to do outside of our homes that we don’t need toys in the nicer weather. The internet mom communities here are an incredible resource, too. Since many of us have very little space, we are eager to pass on children’s items as soon as the kids are finished with them. Once my little one is old enough to grasp the concept, she’ll be helping sort through her things. I think that is an important lesson.
Items that bring joy (from left): “A Sony camera from my husband when Edie was born, the birth announcement of Edie’s birth, the bullet is Joey’s momento (it reminds him of a shooting range in Las Vegas), a well-used artist’s easel from my Oma (she was an incredible painter), her ‘after-kids’ boob mug from my girl when we stopped breastfeeding, and paint chip samples for the front of the house.” PS: She’s considering the shade Trout Grey…
A few entrepreneurial books that she swears by. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, by Simon Sinek, and All Marketers Are Liars: The Underground Classic That Explains How Marketing Really Works–And Why, by Seth Godin. Jenn is obsessed with the sage advice from Seth Godin. “You can hear my voice on the bumper ad on his podcast!”
Jennifer studied Image Arts, New Media at Ryerson in Toronto — before there was a Balzac’s Coffee on site, and she treasures her collection of Balzac’s Coffee mugs that she’s picked up from the coffee shop’s various locations. “I have happy memories of being there, so I get the mug to commemorate them.” For her biz she also takes part in podcasts and forums. Most recently she contributed her thoughts to the Web Woman podcast on digital marketing and e-commerce (her episode hasn’t been released yet).
A recent drawing done by Edie. She liked it so much that it became frame-worthy. To the right is Jen’s treasured piece of stone from her visit to the Berlin Wall. “My family is from Berlin but immigrated here before the wall came down. When it did, my Opa’s close friend went and got a couple pieces of it and sent it to my mom and her sisters. My mom gifted hers to me after a family trip to Berlin just before I got married.”
The Lucky Peach and May Kaidee’s Thai Vegetarian were two books she brought back from her trips to Asia. “I bought the Lucky Peach one here — I was determined to learn some easy asian recipes for my husband and daughter that pretty much only eat asian food. I took cooking classes at May Kaidees in Chiang Mai. They are a vegetarian restaurant, and I LOVE their curries and peanut sauce!” The open book on top is a well-loved German cookbook from Jennifer’s Oma.
Her beauty must-have: Leaves of Trees Facial Cleansing Oil. “You actually introduced me to this when I attended your last Shop Up — and I’m hooked! It smells amazing and I use it everyday.”
“I’m no fashionista, but before kids I used to go out in 3 to 4-inch heels. I don’t wear them anymore but I saved these because I just love them. Now flats (well-worn Pons) are my go-to.”
Two of the items Jennifer brought back from her trips to Asia were NOT light: iron bookends and a doorknocker. “The iron bookends were bought at a market in Phnom Penh Cambodia. I found the door knocker at an antique market on Hong Kong island. I scoured for hours for the perfect one.” (Psst, that white blur on the left is Bodie, the family dog).