Rebecca Smith says her career has been driven by one simple question: “Why aren’t things different?”
It fueled her work in the fashion world, and her drive to learn everything she could about the business along the way. And it’s what led her to launch Recliner, a New York City-based loungewear company, in November 2015.
Before launching the company, she found herself asking: “Why is it that sleepwear has to be stripes or polka dots or lace?” With no good answer, she set out to design, make and sell robes and pajama bottoms and tops in high-quality fabrics and a variety of atypical prints, including newspaper pages and city skylines.
Recliner is tapping a burgeoning market — nightwear was a $29.2 billion global industry as of 2014, according to Euromonitor, which predicted 19-percent growth by 2019. Though Smith declines to disclose Recliner’s annual revenue, she says it has grown fivefold in 2017 from 2016 levels. To meet the increasing demand for her products, she recently moved operations to a large warehouse.
The company’s expansion has been helped along by coverage in publications like The Cut, Fast Company and Racked, and by celebrity fans like singer Katy Perry. Whether a customer is a famous performer, a new mother looking to treat herself, or a businesswoman traveling the world for work, Smith says Recliner is for anyone who “cares deeply about the things that surround her in her personal space.”
Filling a Need in a Sleepy Marketplace
Born and raised in Manchester, England, Smith earned a degree in art history and philosophy from the University of Leeds in 2003, before working in public relations in the United Kingdom for a year. Then, in 2004, she moved to New York City at the age of 23 to work for designer Lulu Guinness.
She remembers the first day of that job, when she became immediately enamored by “the theater” in how the staff displayed handbags in the brand’s now-closed Manhattan location. But more than that, her inquisitive nature drove her to find out how those products went from sketches to showrooms. “The whole supply chain seemed really complicated, but really fascinating to me.”
She grew her career in retail for more than a decade — “in every area, really, from supply chain management to building and distributing brands globally” — working at fashion brands like Want Les Essentiels and BCBG’s Max Azria Group.
She came to notice that nightwear was an often-overlooked product, and offerings at the time “felt so sleepy, for want of a better word,” she says. Leading sleepwear brands in the United States were often developed by men, and their products tended to be “an extension of lingerie” at best and “an afterthought” at worst.
Smith wanted to change the game by catering to women who are “not dressing for their men and not shopping for their men.”
Inspired, she started jotting down and developing ideas for an array of mix-and-match pajama tops and bottoms in late 2014. Soon, she was using her supply chain contacts from previous jobs to bring those ideas to fruition.
Smith spent a year developing the Recliner concept in a self-funded effort. She considered pursuing investors and engineering a splashy launch, but a trusted advisor urged her to “prove the concept and prove the customer” before seeking outside cash infusions and influences — advice that resonated with Smith, who describes herself as “a scrappy type of a person.”
That decision ensured she would have more control — a positive in her mind, since she is “completely maniacal about the types of fabrics we use.” Smith had a lengthy list of requirements for those fabrics: “They have to feel really good on the skin,” she says, and they must be durable, machine-washable and stretchy.
While she uses some silk and satin, she found that bamboo jersey best met those needs, she says. It has proved equal parts giving and long-lasting, as well as moisture-wicking — a plus for the new mothers (like her) who buy her clothing, and whose hormone fluctuations can result in rising body temperatures.
Speaking (Often Directly) to Customers
Smith says that she strives to offer all of her customers both affordability and quality. One of her biggest qualms with most other sleepwear products was that they were either cost-prohibitive for most shoppers, or cheaply made. She sought to fill the gap by offering high-quality products for less than $100.
But that’s where the generalities end for Smith, who is rather specific about reaching hip, savvy women — many of them, millennials. To connect with them, she has focused on cultivating a Facebook community, leaning on real-time interactions via the social networking site’s messenger service as well as highly targeted ads.
This strategy has been crucial to Recliner’s growth, she says, because it “allows customers to think of us not just as this faceless company, but people that you kind of know, who are really geared into service and understand the realities of what it is to be shopping for this kind of product.”
Attention from younger, mobile-addicted shoppers has also informed the design of Recliner’s site. By making shopping especially mobile-friendly, the firm now closes about 70 percent of sales on customers’ phones, she says.
Improving Every Day and Night
Another priority for Smith is executing fast deliveries — in fact, for New York City customers, she offers same-day delivery. And getting products into customers’ hands even faster is a significant short-term goal for Recliner, she adds.
Smith is also working to engage with more customers by partnering with pop-up shops and brick-and-mortar retailers where she and her team can interact directly with clients. And on the digital side, she is producing a short film featuring real customers for release in 2018, and will be launching an interactive site feature that allows users to create sleepwear sets online before ordering.
Further down the road, she sees opportunities for expansion. Smith is interested in growing the company’s unisex offerings, for example, as well as selling slippers, which “need a big come-to-Jesus moment,” she says. But she doesn’t plan to be a lifestyle brand for everybody. Rather, she is focused on fostering loyalty in the communities that Recliner resonates with now, by offering high-quality loungewear that’s easy to order from bed, and can be enjoyed right away.
Despite Recliner’s digital savvy, Smith thinks that technology has made people too immediately accessible to each other — and that many of us have been stripped of vital private time as a result. “If we can add some value to moments of downtime in their physical space,” she says, “that feels really important.”