Nick & Nora: Reawakening the Sleepwear Market

 

Humor and retro-Americana prove a successful blend for a popular new line of pajamas.

 

When Linda Rae Tepper first told people about her idea to create an original line of pajamas, they thought she was crazy: Nobody wears pajamas anymore, they informed her. True as that fact may have been, Tepper believed it was because, with the exception of the very expensive variety, there were no appealing pajamas on the market. So Tepper forged ahead with her idea and designed a line of sleepwear she hoped would make people smile.

 

However, even Tepper didn't realize then that her whimsical "PJs" would do more than make people smile; they would cause people to buy them by the bushel. The quirky flannel pant-and-shirt sets whose designs include "Cowhide" (a cow print), "Counting Sheep" (sheep jumping over fences), "Breakfast in Bed" (bacon, eggs and coffee), "Cloud Nine" (clouds), and "Jungle Jim" (leopard print) are now pampering slumberers across America. Even FOX's Ally McBeal is wearing them.

 

These now-famous pajamas are marketed under the label Nick & Nora, a Manhattan-based company that evolved out of its founders' previous entrepreneurial ventures. Tepper and partner Steven Abrams entered the fashion business in the mid-1970s when they opened Ruby Slippers, an antique clothing store that sold clothing and accessories from time periods ranging from the Victorian era to the early 1960s. The entrepreneurs, native New Yorkers who grew up within blocks of each other in Brooklyn and attended rival high schools, scoured old warehouses and department stores and purchased never-been-used inventory to sell at Ruby Slippers. In one warehouse, the pair fortuitously discovered an immense stash of vintage eyeglass frames dating back to the 1920s, and stumbling upon a gold mine in the process. The discovery of the eyeglass frames led Abrams and Tepper to found another company, aptly named Shady Character, in 1976.

 

"We went all over to find warehouses that had vintage eyewear and bought everything we found," says Tepper, who first met Abrams when she was just 14 years old. "We began to focus our efforts on selling vintage eyewear and accessories."

 

Tepper and Abrams went to international trade and boutique shows to market their old-yet-new products, gaining Shady Character international attention at a time when punk was just hitting the scene, but before the era of what Tepper calls the "mega fashion brand." As Shady Character, which resided in a little warehouse in the basement of a Greenwich Village yogurt store, built up an international clientele, it began having trouble keeping up with the demand for vintage eyewear. To meet the demand, the founders took to manufacturing reproduction frames, using old factories in the United States that had produced similar types of frames at one time.

 

In the process of building up Shady Character, Tepper and Abrams found that they could no longer support Ruby Slippers, so they closed its doors.

 

"Shady Character became so big that we had to devote all our time to it," says Tepper. "Also, it got hard to find really fabulous old clothes like the kind we had always sold at Ruby Slippers."

 

In the mid-80s, Abrams and Tepper expanded their offering beyond eyewear. This time it was boxer shorts, originally created and marketed under the label Shadow Boxer, and other accessories, such as suspenders, caps, hats, gloves, scarves, shawls and pajamas. However, to avoid confusion with the Joe Boxer brand, Abrams and Tepper changed the label name to Nick & Nora, after "Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man," Dashiell Hammett's novel chronicling the escapades of private eye Nick Charles and his wife Nora.

 

In the midst of all this, Tepper, in true entrepreneurial style, taught herself the art of textile design to create the designs for the Nick & Nora product line. "We design all our own textiles," Abrams says. "That way, we're able to produce a better, more fashionable line."

 

Although Tepper says it took about three seasons for the pajamas to catch on with customers and industry insiders, once they did, the response was impressive. In 1987 and again in 1989, Nick & Nora won the Printed Textile Council's Tommy Award for the use of printed fabric in the men's sleepwear and loungewear category. And that was only the beginning.

 

Sleepwear for the Stars

Any "Ally McBeal" fan can recall the show's famous "dancing baby" episode the show in which Ally, clad in, yes, Nick & Nora pajamas, dances with a computerized baby to the tune of B.J. Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling." It's not the only episode in which Ally can be seen in the whimsical pajamas, but it perhaps the most well known. And it was the show's staff that solicited Nick & Nora, not the other way around. Originally, Loree Parrell, the show's wardrobe supervisor, bought the pajamas at retail. And at the time, Calista Flockhart, the actress who plays Ally, already owned Nick & Nora's "Counting Sheep" pajamas. Now, when the show needs pajamas, Parrell calls Nick & Nora and orders them.

 

Being featured on the hit show brought Nick & Nora quite a bit of recognition and new business, says Abrams. And the additional revenue that followed allowed Abrams and Tepper to contract a product-placement company that represents the Nick & Nora line to movies and television shows needing pajamas and other accessories. "Friends" and the recently cancelled "Cybill" are among the other series that have featured the company's loungewear.

 

"People go into stores and say they want the pajamas Ally McBeal wears," says Tepper. "We gained enormous recognition from being on the show."

 

In addition to Nick & Nora's success on the small screen, the company also won a coveted spot in the Victoria's Secret (VS) catalog in August 1997. Once again, the business came to Nick & Nora. As often happens via the networking process, the Nick & Nora name came up at Victoria's Secret business meetings through the persistence of a woman who had previously worked with Abrams and Tepper on a private label. Now Nick & Nora pajamas boast a full-page spread in the lingerie catalog, complete with brand name and trademark, in the Victoria's Secret catalog an honor not bestowed on any other private label, according to Tepper. The comfy, full-coverage Nick & Nora sets may seem an ironic addition to the skimpy teddies and negligees typically found in the VS catalog, but their inclusion illustrates what Tepper and Abrams have known all along: When consumers want to relax after a long, hard day, they want feel-good loungewear in which to do it.

 

Some of Nick & Nora's retailers fretted that the Victoria's Secret deal would draw sales away from them, says Tepper, but they soon realized that the exposure gave Nick & Nora national credibility, which actually bolstered their sales. "'Ally McBeal' gave the pajamas visibility, and Victoria's Secret put our name on the map," she explains.

 

Despite the extensive play the Nick & Nora line was receiving, the company still had to do its share of work to market its products and promote the label, especially since it competes with the likes of giants Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. But Tepper and Abrams are steadfastly confident in their competitive edge: knowledge of the market and a superior product.

 

Says Abrams of his strategy for dealing with the competition: "Other designers have their own look, and we have ours. We rely on the integrity of our product, [and we] make ourselves visible and important in the market."

 

Classic Americana: Like Mom and Apple Pie

Abrams and Tepper consider their target market people who yearn for nostalgia, and they have developed a strategic plan to effectively reach that group. The plan combines the insistence upon a quality product, controlled distribution and a throwback to "retro Americana," all blended together with the intention of making people smile.

 

"We're not selling a commodity. We're selling a lifestyle. Our product puts a smile on people's faces," says Tepper, who says that she designs for customers, not for buyers. "I know that if I design something that makes people smile, they'll come back."

 

All Nick & Nora products are completely produced in the United States and distributed, aside from the Victoria's Secret channel, through boutiques and lingerie stores. The Nick & Nora line also retails at higher-end department stores, such as Nordstom and Bloomingdale's. Abrams says that customers appreciate that the company's products are only available in select stores.

 

The "retro Americana" feel of the Nick & Nora product is evident in all of their pajama designs, including the one they designed for Nabisco last year featuring Oreo cookies. Additionally, every year Tepper designs a set of pajamas based on a different episode of "I Love Lucy." The theme has also been extended with a line of matching slippers and fleece robes, and a line of infant pajamas, which debuted in Spring 1999.

 

The company has strategically aligned itself with various other companies and licensed its products in order to expand the Nick & Nora brand and product exposure, says Abrams. For instance, the company's recently developed line of bedding and bathroom accessories are licensed for sale by Wamsutta, while Nick & Nora table linens and other kitchen accessories are under license with Bardwil Industries. And, according to Tepper, a children's sleepwear company also wants to license Nick & Nora's designs for their own flame-retardant pajamas.

 

Abrams says this approach has turned the Nick & Nora brand into a lifestyle. "People can sleep in it, on it, have it in the kitchen, the bathroom," says Abrams. "People want our designs around them."

 

A Comfortable Growth Pace

Nick & Nora's growth has not been without its share of hurdles. As Tepper says, in the fashion business, a label is only as good as its next season. However, Abrams and Tepper have stuck to their vision over the span of Nick & Nora's existence, and thus far it has paid off for them. At this point, all profits are fed back into the business and debt is paid off as quickly as possible. This fiscal conservatism has led to financial stability, and stability can be a rarity in the fashion business, says Tepper.

 

"A lot of fashion is hype," Tepper says. "The question is, 'Do you have a bottom line?' Volume doesn't mean anything. We're not greedy; we just want to build a brand."

 

An unwavering commitment to brand growth keeps Tepper and Abrams globetrotting regularly to trade shows in California, Tokyo and Paris. And the knowledge that Nick & Nora merchandise makes consumers happy reinforces Tepper and Abrams' feeling that they've started something big.

 

"We're proud of our product and love what we're doing," says Tepper. "Money was never our first priority when starting the business. We're so fortunate to make a living doing what we love doing. Our product is us."

 

Nick & Nora is in the heart of the busiest time of its season. And on top of that, they just added a new design facility, established an e-mail system, and a Web site is on the way. In the midst of all this, Abrams and Tepper are not losing sight of their short-term goal, which is the same every year: to get through the season, keeping the customers and consumers happy. Not far out of their minds is their long-term goal: to truly make the Nick & Nora label a well-known brand people can trust. Through licensing of their product and other joint ventures, Tepper and Abrams hope to do just that.

 

"The business is growing very well, but it's controlled and solid," says Abrams. "We can't be everything to everyone, and that's part of our philosophy. We've created a niche and we're sticking to it."

 

Nick & Nora's success is evident in the numbers. Although this privately held company declines to share specific revenue information, Abrams will say that Nick & Nora's business has increased 100 percent during each of the last two years.

 

As a team, Tepper and Abrams are on the same wavelength. Nick & Nora is a completely joint venture between these two Brooklyners who nearly grew up together. Yet when it comes to favorite designs, the pair parts ways. Tepper's is leopard. Abrams' is whatever is selling best.

 

Company Snapshot

Company: Nick & Nora

Founders: Linda Rae Tepper and Steven Abrams

Industry: Fashion

Location: New York City

Employees: 12 full-time (plus additional temporary help during the peak times of Aug.-Dec.)

Revenues: undisclosed

 

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