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New Outerwear Company Hootie Hoo Beckons Kids Outside

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Published November 15, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 2, 2022 at 8:02 p.m.


Claire Zhu - CAT CUTILLO
  • Cat Cutillo
  • Claire Zhu

When Xiaonan "Claire" Zhu started her own children's outerwear company last year — dubbed Hootie Hoo — she set out to create clothing that was highly waterproof and breathable. And then she applied parental wisdom. In addition to adding the standard hand and ski-lift-pass pockets to the jackets, she put a pocket on each of the lower legs of the bib snow pants. On the left leg is a zippered pocket above the boot, designed to hold snacks or a sandwich in a spot where they shouldn't get smooshed. On the right leg is what Zhu calls the Zero Trace Pocket; it's for kids to carry out their trash.

It's important to be a parent if you're going to build a kids' brand, the St. George resident believes. "Only the parent can understand what the kids need," she said. "It makes you more passionate about the details."

Zhu is the mother of a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. Noticeably absent from her designs: a dedicated cellphone pocket. She chose not to include one because it doesn't align with her parenting goals.

She's also an entrepreneur with experience producing apparel; Zhu worked in New York City's fashion industry monitoring knitwear production for seven years before becoming a senior developer for soft goods — clothing, hats and mittens — at Burton. She worked at the Burlington-based snowboard gear and clothing company for more than nine years. When Burton downsized in 2021 and Zhu was laid off, friends encouraged her to start her own company.

Her playfully named startup now sells jackets, snow pants and base layers in sizes 5/6 through 14/15. Firsthand experience with children's gear that gets soaked after a couple of hours prompted her to create 20k/20k products, which means they have received the highest score in waterproof and breathability ratings.

Hootie Hoo Pinnakle Kids Jacket - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Hootie Hoo Pinnakle Kids Jacket

Two-layer Pinnakle jackets, with PrimaLoft insulation, sell for $165; two-layer bib snow pants sell for $155; three-layer jackets, which are lightweight and suitable for competition, sell for $185; and three-layer bib snow pants sell for $175. Hootie Hoo also sells base-layer tops for $35, base-layer bottoms for $30 and beanie hats for $12.

"The most important thing for kids is, we want it to be really high waterproof," Zhu said. Instead of adding an abundance of pockets she didn't think kids would use, she chose to "put all the money into the quality of the fabric and insulation," she said. "We have a different focus. I don't want to offer something they don't need."

The Zero Trace Pocket, however, she deems necessary for kids. "I want them to be responsible to carry their own stuff. It's also teaching them you don't want to leave anything on the mountain. You carry in, carry out. By working on that, they learn to protect our environment," Zhu said, noting that fabrics in next year's lines will be made from recycled material.

"Our products are kids' products," she said. "It's about the future. We need to also protect their playground."

Hootie Hoo is sold on the company's website and at evo, a Seattle-based online retailer with stores in the western U.S. and Canada. Zhu said she has met with REI Co-op and local outdoor retailers, and she hopes to have her products in Vermont stores by next winter.

HootieHoo Kids' Jacket - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • HootieHoo Kids' Jacket

"What sets Hootie Hoo apart is the 20k/20k tech fabrics used for young kids," Sarah Ziffer, an outerwear buyer at evo, said in an email that Hootie Hoo's fabrics set the brand apart. Claire "really understands the benefit of keeping your kiddos warm and dry for the entire day! Wet, cold kids can quickly put a damper on a family's day out at the mountain," Ziffer wrote.

Ziffer also appreciates the "fun prints" and gender-neutral designs, which make passing along kids' gear a lot easier.

So far, Hootie Hoo has been a friends-and-family effort. Zhu designs the overall look and features herself and has leaned on a handful of independent designers to help bring her visions to life. Two friends in China, where Zhu grew up, monitor clothing production, which happened at three factories in the Shanghai area last year.

Her kids have modeled for promotional photos, many of which Zhu took herself. Her daughter, Elle Winters, also provided product feedback. Elle pointed out that a test product's neckline was too tight, so Zhu changed the design. "I really rely on their comments," she said.

Zhu said the name Hootie Hoo is a nod to her family tradition. Her husband grew up hunting in Vermont with his family, and when family members tried to locate each other in the woods, they would call out, "Hootie hoo, hootie hoo." Zhu said her family uses the owllike call when they snowboard, hike or get outside together, and she wants her brand's name "to call kids to go outside and enjoy it."

When kids get outside, Zhu said, "They build up that perseverance. I feel like this heartiness can really help them to be stronger mentally. If they are outside, they really learn to appreciate life."

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Call of the Wild"