Coco Bonbons - An Inspired Idea Takes Flight

As water continued to rise during Nashville’s historic flood, Coco Kyriopoulos anxiously awaited news regarding the condition of her Coco Bonbons children’s clothing store in Opry Mills mall. The Monday after the rain-filled weekend, photos of the flood-ravaged shopping center began to surface. Before long, it became clear that her first retail store, which had been open for just seven months, hadn’t escaped the devastating flood.

“When we finally got down there, it was just unbelievable,” Kyriopoulos recalls. “All we could do was throw on some hardhats, get a big dumpster and start cleaning it out, and take pictures for insurance.”

She salvaged items stored on top racks, later selling them for pennies on the dollar in a warehouse sale (with full disclosure). And though she hopes to reopen the store, she finds herself in a holding pattern as she waits for the Opry Mills owners to announce when the shopping destination will be ready for business.

“It was a huge loss for us, and it was a moral kick in the gut,” Kyriopoulos admits, “but it wasn’t our only source of revenue, and we’ve been able to create more since then.”

Indeed, when it comes to this 40-year-old mother of two and investment banker turned entrepreneur, rising to the occasion seems to be par for the course. Since launching her bright and whimsical clothing line in 2006, Kyriopoulos has overcome multiple challenges. She’s made it look easy every step of the way, and there’s no doubt she’s having a little fun, too.

The industrious Vanderbilt graduate, who also holds an MBA from the University of Chicago, ventured into the world of children’s clothing after making a name for herself at prestigious investment banking firms J.C. Bradford & Co. and Robert W. Baird & Co.

After leaving her full-time job to raise her two young children, Charlie and Phoebe, Kyriopoulos eventually returned to her financial roots by doing financial consulting for other startups.

But everything changed when she couldn’t find a suitable coat for three-year-old Charlie.

“My only choices were a Sunday school pea coat or an L.L. Bean fleece coat,” she says. “At the time, Charlie loved airplanes. Everything in his room was airplanes; he always pointed them out in the sky. He wanted to talk about airplanes all day long, and I would have loved to find a coat with an airplane on it. I couldn’t find one anywhere.”

So, she designed one. Armed with a rough sketch of what she had in mind, she joined forces with two women who had design degrees from MTSU. Her airplane coat, along with two other boys’ coats and four girls’ coats, came to life around her dining room table. The group found a rep at AmericasMart Atlanta, and by the fall of 2006, 100 boutiques were selling what had grown into a 36-piece clothing line.

Over the next few years, the Coco Bonbons line and name grew stronger, while the economy took a turn for the worse. For the spring of 2009, Kyriopoulos had orders for more than 500 stores, but when the time came to ship those orders, only 320 of those stores were still in business.

“We were stuck with a significant amount of inventory and had to find the capital to outlay that inventory,” she says, calling the experience the company’s biggest challenge so far. “That’s pretty stressful in a small business.”

But it didn’t take long before Kyriopoulos had a new plan underway. Coco Bonbons began opening stores in order to have greater control over its distribution. The Opry Mills store, which opened in October 2009, was the flagship store, and stores in Atlanta, Dallas and Brentwood soon followed. While she continues to sell to Neiman Marcus and about 100 boutiques, Kyriopoulos says she’d like to open at least eight more stores across the country over the next 18 to 24 months. Ultimately, she wants the company to be in a position “to change the world in our own little way.”

“We’re just not there yet as a small business,” she explains. “But we hope to be, and I think that will be incredibly rewarding.” In the meantime, she’ll settle for seeing happy children in clothes they want to wear. After all, that’s what inspired her in the first place.

“There’s just something about that excitement and smile,” she says, preferring to focus on the end result, rather than the obstacles she’s overcome. “We have children who try on our clothes in the store and want to leave with them on. And that just makes me happy.”

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