Kate Zubarieva and Asya Varetsa on Launching a Luxury, Eco-Friendly Clothing Line

Without any prior design experience, former fashion editors Kate Zubarieva and Asya Varetsa have a fashion crowd-approved hit on their hands: sleepwear line Sleeper.

The clothing line, which produces pajama-like clothing made for outdoors in natural, eco-friendly fibers like cotton and silk, is made-to-order — meaning there isn’t any excessive production. Each garment is hand sewn by a seamstress and can take between eight and 12 hours to finish.

The Ukrainian founders spoke with She Spends about how they launched the brand with just $2,000 in six months, why they love Man Repeller and how they hired nearly all women to head up their operations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sleeper launched in 2014. Tell me about the process leading up to it. Did you design the line yourself? Did you have experience working with distributors and manufacturers before to bring those on? 

We launched the label with no experience in designing clothes, just $2,000 in savings and a single seamstress. Asya built the website, and we got talented friends to shoot models wearing the outfits. We reached out to fashion journalists, and within weeks, Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, named Sleeper the brand of the month. Other glossy magazines quickly took notice and top-notch department stores now carry our garments in store. However, our first collection of 24 black-and-white cotton PJs was literally a disaster; we had the line completely re-sewn to get into a top Ukrainian retailer. Now, we have more than a factory. Our own production is based in Kiev and is located in the same space where the headquarters are, so we can supervise the quality of each seam. 

Have you ever run a business before? Was it difficult to transition from working as editors to designers and businesswomen?

We had never run any business before launching Sleeper. We’re from Ukraine and when we started our business, the revolution was taking place on Kiev streets. We had lived through a real nightmare, but this situation had only made us stronger. We stopped being afraid and became ready to start a new page in our lives.

Personally I’m obsessed with the Sleeper Hotel set because I love the sleeves. It’s a small detail that elevates the set from pajamas to pajamas I could wear with heels outside. Is the whole line intended to do just that? How are you capitalizing on the pajamas-but-fashion (insert Tyra banks meme here) trend we’re seeing? 

We believe that the sleepwear as everyday wear trend has trickled into the mainstream as a result of democratization of fashion and is here to stay. At the time Sleeper launched, it was really challenging to find elegant and chic nightwear outside of a luxury end of the market, nevermind the loungewear that could be worn outdoors. So we kind of lived our dream.

With Sleeper Hotel line, we created the dream itself – Sleeper Hotel. We adore the hotels. This place is like a meeting point for diverse people — their paths might never have crossed under other circumstances, but for a few days they all become united by the rhythm and aesthetics that surrounds them there. All the great hotels have their own myths, legends. We are always magnetized by this. When we put on a bathrobe of this hotel, we become involved in the legendary stories; we appropriate these myths. We tried to imagine how our ideal hotel should look like and created it, but with the own fan merch this time. (Editor’s note: The hotel is fictional but the inspiration is real!)

A special feature of the Sleeper Hotel collection has become an absolutely new way of edging for our brand. Pajamas noticeably oversized: with long and flared pants and wide sleeves with cutouts. Pipings turned into lampas stripes, like those that maitre d'hotel usually wears.

These pajamas and robes are not basic at all. We would rather refer to them as the exceptional sleepwear items in the wardrobe. You can easily mix the silk top with a business suit, silk pants with a T-shirt from the fan merch of a music band you adore. The robe can take on the role of a summer coat or just a wrap dress. Although they are great for home, we highly recommend to go out in them: both in the company of friends, and arm-in-arm with a man you love.

Leandra Medine and Emily Weiss are two notable influencers who wore Sleeper in their recent Instagram stories. What is your social media and influencer strategy? How do you determine who is going to be a best fit to promote the brand? 

It’s important to us to love our influencers. It inspires us and it’s a great feeling of accomplishment when people you adore love what you’re doing. We are, in fact, true fans of Leandra Medine and Amelia Diamond, and literally engrossed ourselves in reading their articles. So, when we saw these ladies wearing Sleeper, no surprise it was a real oxytocin injection for us.

Since the launch, have you sought out VC or other streams of funding? 

Not a dime. We only had $2,000 and were constantly reinvesting our profits back into the business. We received our first salary only a year ago. 

Sleeper’s website gave me a really strong sense of its company culture in just a few short sentences on the About page. How many people work for you, and is it all women?

We have 20 employees now. It’s a great team of women of all ages and recently, one man joined Sleeper as operations manager. Some of our employees have 30 years of work experience, some of our interns are right out of college.

Why is it important to hire women and have women at different stages of their careers work together? Do you see view this as part of your company culture?

Experience is not the key criteria to us when hiring. It’s more important who this person wants to become and their desire and ability to grow professionally. We discuss careers of our employees in detail. If somebody’s not experiencing pleasure in work, we can move this person to another department. 

We are concerned about the people who work for us. We want them to be heard and be happy. We want our seamstresses to feel dignified and accomplished. 

Where do you see the company in five years? Do you want to have more categories? Is there a retailer you want to carry your line?
What we know for sure is that we have a big dream to open a huge factory with a learning center where we’ll be sharing our experiences and educate new generations of seamstresses, embroiderers, engineers and technologists to design first-class clothes. 

We never stop dreaming and planning to have an office in New York City and even open a brick-and-mortar store there someday. 

--Amanda Eisenberg, She Spends, Issue 55

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