Family on four wheels
Josefine Kira Quist Ekstrand, 34, is educated as a designer from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in design and visual communication.
She is married to Emil and together they are the parents of Leopold Oscar and Hilma Elin, 3 and 1 ½. Together the couple has established the children’s universe Leo Leo which makes children’s security blankets and bed linen among other things.
Follow the family’s adventures on @leoleojournal
The weekend cottages in Dronningmølle lie deserted on this Thursday in January. We are visiting the designer and establisher of the childrens’ universe Leo Leo because she and her husband have sold their flat, and most of their belongings, and have bought an old bus to travel around Europe with their children, Leopold and Hilma. A large yellow bus is visible in the background. The bus is the new family home, and before long they will start up the engine and set course for Portugal waving goodbye to Denmark for an indefinite amount of time.
”If we don’t succeed with Leo Leo then never mind, we have instead been travelling with our children, and I can look them in the eye and say that I’ve been with them every day and have dedicated my time to them. I have no contact with my own parents today and there are many reasons for that. I can, of course, also risk that my children suddenly turn round and say: ”I choose not to see you, mum”, even if we have travelled around in a bus. To me it’s about experiencing something together, and in the future I will hopefully have children who are proud of their parents. That’s something I’ve wished for myself. The bottom line is making an effort with your children – that’s why we as a family have chosen our children and this journey. We both have a burning desire to pass on learning and this is a challenge and a responsibility we would like to take on. We have a whole life ahead of us and there are only a few years when this is possible before our children start school. This is a time we’ll never get back. That’s why we will be setting off into the world to see where we end up – we want to go on an adventure!
Is it possible to spend all your time with your children
I’ve married a body therapist. Emil has always been very aware of where we were as parents. When Leopold was a baby we were very much together about everything. When Leopold started nursery, we went from knowing everything about our baby to hearing from the nursery staff how he was doing. After a year, we felt as if we didn’t really know our own child – in that totally basic way. We thought a lot about what kind of parents we wanted to be, and when Hilma was born we had to find a model we were happy with. We discussed at length how we could run a business at the same time as also wanting to see the world with our children while we had the time. Among other plans we toyed with the idea of selling our flat and Airbnb’ing around Europe. Then one summer’s evening we got talking to an older couple who were sitting on the beach drinking rosé in front of their old battered autocamper, and we realised that this was also an option. The couple told us that they had travelled the world when their children were young. It sounded absolutely magical and it kickstarted our dream of following in their footsteps.
The fear of being caught in a 9 to 5 job
It was this fear of getting caught in something I was not happy with that drove our bus project. Not that I had had a bad experience with full-time work or don’t understand why people do it, definitely: full-time work, I get it. It was rather the urge to manage something which has always been a part of me. We spent an awful lot of time trawling the net looking at autocampers and came across an old bus from ’63 which was completely amazing. It required a commercial driver’s license and some love and attention, so we were not quite sure. One afternoon, when I was cycling down Frederiksberg Allé with both children in the carrier bike on the way home in the drizzle, I rang Emil and said: ”We are buying that bus!” He flew to Stockholm and drove it home. We sold our shared-ownership flat and the business premises we had. We gave it our best shot to raise some more money. We risked all, but the return has been priceless. We took Leopold out of nursery and moved to our summer cottage where we could live while we renovated the bus. I quite understand if people think we are absolutely nuts. But we’ve realised that it’s actually quite normal to live in a home on wheels, just not in Denmark.”
The seeds of what would become an adventure were sown nearly 4 years ago…
I’ve always been drawn to the fashion industry and I worked in it during my studies. When I graduated in design from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts I was heavily pregnant, and I discovered that there was this parallel world which I didn’t even know existed. A world of fashion shows, clothes and design specifically for children. To be able to design from my own vantage point is where my creativity gets fired up. The idea of designing for children and like-minded people was the ultimate luxury.
I am always in the middle of something
I nested full-time during my pregnancy and made clothes, cushions, soft toys for the nursery. I thought it was much more fun to design on a small scale. Slowly, I started selling some of my designs via Shopify and Instagram. In particular, a security blanket I made, and gave to several of my girlfriends, took form and became a lion. This was how Leo Leo was established. Emil and I found some business premises on Jagtvej where we built everything from scratch. It was going to be a concept store, a micro brewery, where we sold our Kimbucha tea, and in the back Emil would have a treatment room for his Body SDS clients.
Pregnant with the second child
My first pregnancy was really easy and without much discomfort compared to pregnancy number two. When I was pregnant with our daughter, Hilma, I felt so bad I could almost only lie down. I was hit by a semi-depression and I was hardly able to pick up the phone. I felt nauseous and was struck down by hormones. The shop was all over the place, we couldn’t keep up with the orders for Kombucha, and it was a really tough time. Emil had to do the drop offs and pick ups and manage everything. We didn’t see anybody and were completely isolated. One day, I was rooting around in a box in the basement, pregnant and poorly, and I found my first attempt at Leo Leo’s logo with Emil’s red marker written on it: ”Stay on course”. Then it struck me that we were groping around in the dark with all sorts of stuff and we were almost drowning. We had gone too far on a path we didn’t feel like, and when I think about it today, it was probably also why I felt so gloomy during my pregnancy.
Risking everything on Leo Leo
We decided to go all in on Leo Leo focusing on few products. Everything you find at Leo Leo is intuitive, it’s something I needed for Leopold myself and have sewn for that reason. The security blanket was one of the first products. It’s an old fashioned way to provide comfort to your child, and when you place it next to the baby, or wet it with a little milk, it’s a reminder of mum. There is no shortage of clothes or children’s wear in the world so we thought long and hard about what the starting point should be. It’s not enough just to make something cool. We used about a year to find a GOTS certified supplier. One day we met a fabulous Indian man in Copenhagen who could produce our products. He is wonderful and today we call him my Indian husband. He’s a father of two, very kind and clever, and he’s often more on task and punctual than I am. It’s been a pleasure to hand over the production to him. Before I sewed all the lions by hand, and when we got the production up and running, it gave me the space to be creative and forward looking. The bed linen came about, because I had done some watercolours for packaging which our Indian supplier thought was so beautiful that he printed it on a set of bed linen. To me, bed linen is not just bed linen, it has to have French seams and be of a good quality, but the sample I received was beyond my expectations. When we decided to focus 100% on Leo Leo, Emil began to study Economics alongside and this contributed to the feeling that we were truly together about the project. Even though I studied to be a designer for five years and know a great deal, there’s a need for a financial mind and Emil has that.
Taking responsibility for our consumption
It can really infuriate me that people are not more aware of the environment. I’ve looked into it, and it transpires that there are many people who find it difficult to tell the difference between silk and polyester. It’s downright unpleasant how much polyester we put into our washing machines because it releases plasic particles into the system. Or leather goods dyed with chrome which means heavy metals are released straight into the soil. The result is that there are fishermen in the world who fish for plastic and not fish! It’s so disgusting. All children should learn something about textiles at school. The person who has been so kind as to produce our products has been allowed to go to the bathroom, has had lunch and gets a living wage. Anyone can write that their cotton is organic, but with a GOTS certificate you know that it’s not only free of chemicals, but that the human angle plays a part. The whole system has been assessed. When it comes to my own children, I aim to buy brands that are produced in Europe and prefer family run businesses. I am a Steiner child and am still a supporter of natural materials such as wool from Engel. But I’m not entirely rigid, I also love nice things from Caramel and Bonpoint. The basics to me are that the materials are good and that the production has not been too destructive. And I also sew for myself. I wish everyone was more aware of where the stuff they buy is produced and what it’s made of.
A healthy process to tidy up your life
We’ve had to downsize enormously. I like the Japanese approach to ownership where you look at everything you own and assess the things around you – do they own us and do we own them? We have a storage room with childhood stuff and other things we don’t want to part with. For a long time, Emil has pushed the thought of us living in a more Buddhist way and getting rid of most of what we own. But to tell me that I have to clear my wardrobe is tantamount to assault. It has, however, been a liberating process to clear out everything I never use. Every woman’s wardrobe is full of clothes, bags, and shoes and how exclusive is that then? The woman with 10 carefully selected items of clothes – that is exclusivity in my world!
Risking everything to go for the dream
During my second pregnancy when I was feeling bad, I became increasingly estranged from my friends, and to return to myself I had to take Leo Leo seriously. There are many events we haven’t attended and had I known what it would mean, it would have been appropriate to have written a group message to all our family and friends telling them not to count on us for the next year or so. I am plagued by bad conscience, but I didn’t know what it meant to a mother of two, start a company and build a bus – you can’t also sit in a café. I’m hardly able to watch Sex and the City without crying over the loss of my girlfriends, but it gives me some comfort that most of them are also caught up in having two children and jobs. We can only hope that people respect the choices we’ve made as a family. You have to be willing to give up something if you want your freedom. For the first time in my life I’m doing something which is about me and my family. I’ve always wished to create something different, and I can do that with Emil. It’s not plain sailing to start your own company. I’ve not slept for a year and that doesn’t exactly improve your skin. I may suffer from entrepreneurship, but sometimes you have to be a little mad to succeed.”
Words Bea Fagerholt Photography Liv Winther