Alexandra Suhner Isenberg has serious fashion cred: When she was 19, the Vancouver-born designer went to Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, then went to Central Saint Martins in London, where she completed the MA program under the tutelage of Louise Wilson. She's also worked for Sonia Rykiel and Burberry. But when it came time to strike out on her own, instead of staying in the world of high fashion, she turned her attention to sleepwear.
Specifically, sleep shirts. It all began when Suhner Isenberg spotted a vintage nightshirt in London's Spitalfields Market. She bought it and wore it constantly. "You know when you find something really nice and you panic and you’re like, 'Oh God, what happens when I wear it out?' I started thinking about that with the nightshirt, so I decided to start making my own." She tweaked the shape and collar a bit to make it look more contemporary and turned The Sleep Shirt into a business, producing everything in Canada, where she was based at the time.
It's exactly the type of thing you don't know you want until you see it. Despite being such a niche product, it's available in many of the world's top retailers, including Barneys, Selfridges, Le Bon Marché, Net-a-Porter and The Line.
Of course that list of stockists took some time to build. Like any designer just starting out, Suhner Isenberg bootstrapped in the beginning, doing sales on her own using contacts she had from her former job at "a website that is like the equivalent of Daily Candy in Canada." She got picked up by several stores in Vancouver, but her wholesale business really accelerated when she partnered with Rainbowwave, a respected sales and PR firm based in London that's known for bringing emerging brands to market. Under their guidance, she expanded the collection to include a wider variety of styles. "That’s when we started to get the more serious retailers like Barneys and Bon Marché."
Of course, The Sleep Shirt does come in at a luxury retail-level price point, ranging from $110 for a lounge pant to $290 for a long sleep shirt. While not outrageous, that can be a lot for some to justify spending on pajamas. "It’s just about educating people," insists Suhner Isenberg. "People spend so much money on their bedrooms and sheets and it seems kind of weird not to buy some decent nightwear." She also points out that they're something you can just buy one or two of and wear every day, depending on how often you do laundry — the nightshirts can be machine or hand-washed depending on the fabric and, according to the designer, they get softer and better with age. She envisions her customer as "someone who likes to be around the house and have breakfast on Sundays and read the paper and keep [her] nightie on."
Suhner Isenberg is now based in Sweden with her family, but still produces everything in Vancouver, while her business partner Megan McEwan lives in Montreal. "We’re not like womenswear where you have to do fittings once a week; our product range is quite small," she explained of the arrangement. "So we’re able to do a lot by Skype, email and traveling."
As for what's next, Suhner Isenberg wants to build on the theme of creating a more beautiful, comfy bedroom situation — slippers and some simple knits and jersey pieces her customers can pair with the higher quality pajama pants and shorts she also sells. The brand also recently began selling handmade Amish quilts on its e-commerce site.
"One thing we try and talk about is that sleep is good and we love it and it’s nice to have nice things to sleep in," the designer said at the end of our conversation. We couldn't agree more.