About five years ago, fashion publicists Kate Zubarieva and Asya Varetsa were broke and cold yet in a comfortable apartment in Kiev, Ukraine. At 25 and 23 years old, respectively, the two watched from their living room as the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 got underway. "It was a really, really hard time there," Varetsa says, referring to the violence that ultimately led to the ouster of Ukraine's then-president, Viktor Yanukovych. "We just sat in our apartment, trying to figure out what we were going to do next."

While cooped up one afternoon, the two found themselves engrossed in the 1991 Christmas movie Curly Sue. Varetsa envied an outfit worn by the actress Grey Ellison's character--effectively, souped up pajamas that doubled as day wear. Despite the fray outside--and virtually no experience actually designing clothes--Varetsa and Zubarieva decided then that they would start their own company, called Sleeper, focused on manufacturing "walking sleepwear." They launched the label in 2014 with just $2,000 in savings and a single seamstress, together creating a basic and unassuming collection of 24 black-and-white linen garments.

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Over the past four years, Sleeper has experienced rapid growth, garnering the attention of high-profile fashion publications including Vogue and Who What Wear and landing distribution in major Western retailers including Barneys New York and Harrods in London. Customers, as it turns out, clamor for pajamas that they can also pass off as evening wear or a professional outfit. Sleeper doubled sales between 2016 and 2017, generating more than $300,000 last year alone.

It helps, the founders suggest, that they've never billed themselves as niche or luxury; indeed, their items range from around $190 to $390--by no means cheap, but certainly less expensive than sleepwear from brands such as Olivia von Halle or La Perla. "We got a lot of support because we weren't a designer brand," Varetsa explains. "We were just a lounge-wear company with the idea of wearing your pajamas outside." These days, the 20-person startup says that the vast majority (80 percent) of sales come from the U.S., enough for Varetsa to justify moving to Brooklyn and focus on setting up a New York City branch for the firm. 

Despite Varetsa's optimism, Sleeper has faced major challenges that at times tested the founders' resolve. In the early days, back in 2015, she recalls that the label struggled to meet the demand of its first-ever large order from a major U.S. client, Moda Operandi. "At the time we only had three people on the team and one seamstress, and needed to ship those items in one week," Varetsa recalls. She made the mistake of outsourcing the manufacturing to a local factory, only to discover afterward hat the garments had been botched. "It was messy and the seams weren't right, so the whole office spent that night just cutting off the pockets so our seamstress could [resew] them," she adds. The experience taught her a valuable lesson and shaped the direction of the company: No matter how short the timeline, or how meager the funds, Sleeper would commit to handcrafting each of its now dozens of garments in-house.

Moving forward, Varetsa says that she's hoping to raise some venture capital to continue growing. For one thing, it can be a challenge to ship garments from Ukraine quickly and inexpensively, particularly as it must compete with behemoths like Amazon, which offers Prime customers free two-day shipping on their purchases. (The majority of Sleeper's revenue to date has come from sales on its own e-commerce platform.) She hopes an infusion of capital will help to expedite the process.

Time will tell if so-called "walking sleepwear" is indeed a long-term business strategy, or an of-the-moment trend that the company will struggle to profit off of over time. But in the interim, at least, the founders say they're pleased with the company's international success--particularly since they launched in a city with virtually no entrepreneurial culture. "It is really hard to build a business in Ukraine, because there are not a lot of loans that can support businesses like us," Varetsa adds. "But America is such a great country. There are so many diverse people who come here to try and build something and make the world better."

Even so, they're proud of their roots, which they say has helped them succeed. "Coming from Eastern Europe, we're used to not having easy living," she says. "It only makes us stronger." 

Adds Zubarieva: "We [have] lived through two revolutions, and now the country is at war. Those are real problems. Everything that [others] might consider to be a problem we treat as an exciting challenge of tomorrow."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the co-founders' ages when they came up with their idea. Zubarieva was 25 and Varetsa was 23. The story also misstated the number of items in their first collection of sleepwear; they started with 24 garments. The earlier version implied the co-founders' apartment in Kiev was in a state of disrepair. It was a comfortable apartment in the historical heart of Kiev.

Published on: Apr 2, 2018