One of the most important photos you’ll take in your lifetime is the shot of you and your hubby holding your newborn in the hospital. But you don’t want to wear that institutional-looking hospital gown. Rachel Zinny, CEO of dearjohnnies, felt the same way, and created chic, stylish gowns for new moms to wear in the hospital. Here’s her story:
How did you get your start?
I don’t have a background in retail or design. I spent many years working as a college recruiter for a large public accounting firm and then a consulting firm. Most recently I worked as the Director of a Masters Program in Accounting at Boston College’s business school. I helped to start and build the program. A month before my second daughter was born I stopped working. My husband works long hours and travels a bit so I thought it would be a great opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom. But it turned out I like to be busy and I while I loved being home more with my then two year old daughter, I knew I wanted something else too.
How did you come up with the idea for dearjohnnies?
I originally had the idea before my first daughter Cece was born. I was thinking about those first photos that parents send out – usually via email- to all of their friends and family right after a new baby is born. It dawned on me that no matter where in the country a baby was born the mother was always wearing that same UGLY and oversized gown in the blue pattern that looked awful. I wondered why you couldn’t wear a gown made out of prettier and more flattering fabric. I never got around to designing a gown for that big day, but I did look back on my experience (and photos) wearing the drab gown and wished I had had something better.
The idea of wearing a used gown that who knows what had happened in before I got it was disgusting to me. When I stopped working right before Lucy was born I had a few weeks to go and I thought “this time I will design my own and wear them in.” I found fabrics I liked, made improvements to the hospital version that i thought were desperately needed (sized the gowns and put snaps down the back to keep things covered) and had a couple of made. I wore them in and they were a huge hit! All the nurses loved them, my friends wanted to buy some for shower gifts and I realized I was onto something. I came home from the hospital and told my husband I was going to start a little business.
How long did it take for you to build the company?
I would say a good two years. The first 6 months were spent laying the groundwork – choosing more fabrics, finding sources for materials and production, creating a brand and developing the “look” of our business, developing and building a website. I had to decide what I wanted to focus on, whether I wanted to be a retail or wholesale operation and who I wanted my customers to be. I officially launched the website and dearjohnnies in October 2005. The next 12-18 months were spent trying to get press, building a customer base and watching viral marketing take over. Word of mouth was critical and I could see the effect of it as orders came in from pockets across the country. It was so exciting and at times overwhelming – I never thought it would explode as quickly as it did! In year three I started to realize that customers weren’t just buying for expecting moms – they were starting to ask about our gowns for their mothers having hip replacements and their girlfriends having mastectomys – that was the “Ah ha” moment that every patient, not just the maternity ones, deserved and wanted to wear something better while in the hospital. They wanted something functional and comfortable, but NOT institutional. A 100% cotton gown brought from home, that fit and was in a cheery and flattering pattern goes a long way towards making a patient feel better. And studies do show that when you feel better you heal better.
Which are your best-selling designs?
The gowns in the original Wellesley Collection I launched with in 2005 are still best sellers. Customers love the pink, green and blue patterns and the traditional feel of the collection. The black and white Lola gown is extremely popular right now as is Coco in brown and pink. We try to offer patterns for everyone – patients who like a preppy look and those who want something a little more modern.
dearjohnnies has quite a celeb following.
We have lots of celeb fans. Mariska Hargitay, Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling, Samantha Harris, and Poppy Montgomery have all packed dearjohnnies in their hospital bags. Most recently Chyler Leigh, Allison Sweeney and Maxine Bahn and Trista Sutter have become fans. And in February Erinn Hayes wore our Mimi gown in the season finale of CBS’ sitcom Worst Week when her pregnant character Mel went into labor. In real life Erinn choose a Coco gown for her upcoming due date!
I wore the Lucy and Cece gowns when my second daughter Lucy was born. They were my first two gowns. When my third daughter Lexie was born two years later I had a full set of gowns, robes and matching swaddle blankets. I didn’t spend a single minute in a hospital issued garment. More recently I had outpatient surgery and I wore one of new Rory gowns (debuting this April). Once you wear a dearjohnnies gown you never want to anything else.
Now that dearjohnnies has become so popular, how do you balance work with motherhood?
It is a challenge everyday. Especially since the business has grown so fast so quickly. But every time I feel overhwhelmed I just try to tackle one thing at a time and not get bogged down thinking about the 20 things on my to do list and how I am going to fit them all in. Ultimately I love that I have dearjohnnies in my life and also love the lessons it teaches my three girls. Today my oldest daughter was a model for a photo shoot for our kids line that we are launching in May. I talk about the work I do with them all the time – I think it’s so important that they see that i can be there for them everyday as their mom – bring them to school and be present in their lives – but that I also have an identity beyond that and I can create something that makes a difference for other people. Our new kids line was inspired by my experience with my middle daughter three years ago when she was hospitalized for a week.. It’s not easy balancing the demands of the business with my girls – I do have help – but I also made a promise to myself that they would always come first when they needed to. I work a lot in my car while driving everyone around, I work at night and while they are at school and sometimes they come with me. They love coming to the factory and seeing where my products get made. I try not to make it an either or scenario and honestly my iPhone is a life saver!