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They make the pandemic uniform of choice for many women. But success sprung from using social media as a listening device, not a megaphone

Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

When Ashley Freeborn and her mother, Teresa, started Smash + Tess in the spring of 2016, they thought they’d be selling cute, comfortable and affordable pyjamas. But when the now-famous Sunday Romper appeared in the company’s first fall collection, the pair quickly recognized their star product.

“The romper took off,” Freeborn says. “So very early on in the business, we pivoted and started to create what we call ‘everywear,’ which is clothing that [can] transition from the sheets to the street, as we say. We realized that women had no problem investing in good quality clothing, if it’s something that we could get a lot of wear out of.”

It was a smart decision. Though the company does sell tops, bottoms, dresses and robes, the now-ubiquitous one-piece garment, which costs between US$119 and US$135, is its top seller and the driving force behind its massive growth.

Neither mother nor daughter had a background in fashion, but they’d spent a long time thinking about pyjamas. Wearing matching PJs on Christmas morning was a family tradition, but they had grown frustrated at the lack of options. They wanted comfortable sleepwear that was fun but not cutesy, a combination that was hard to find. After Freeborn attended the Vogue Summer Intensive Course at Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design in London, U.K., the duo decided to launch their business.

Now, the company reports three-year revenue growth of 4,922%. In addition to its direct-to-consumer sales, its offerings are sold by more than 200 retailers across Canada, including Indigo and Well.ca. And its community of #SmashTessGirls is constantly growing—the brand has a popular blog, 60,000 newsletter subscribers and 186,000 Instagram followers. In fact, Freeborn still devotes time every day to messaging with customers; she sees the company’s Instagram page as a space for discussion and support, not just a source of cute loungewear.

“Instagram in particular has been a top driver for us. I think the reality of our Instagram strategy is authenticity. Where a lot of brands are very curated, we tend to use it as a shared community space,” she says.

Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

That engagement has been a key driver of the company’s success. “If you look on Amazon, there are dozens or even hundreds of competing romper products, and in order for customers to pay two or three times more, they need to have a reason,” says Eric Janssen, an entrepreneurship expert and lecturer at Ivey Business School. “Smash + Tess knows who their core customer is, and what she cares about—and everything they do or say aligns with that.”

That’s true of the actual product; the company’s customers want inclusive sizing, and long-lasting fabric and construction. They also want comfortable clothes that are a little cooler than your run-of-the-mill leggings or athletic wear. So, every garment comes in XXS to XXL (and, soon, XXXL). The rompers are made of a sustainable bamboo and Tencel rayon that retains its shape and softness over time. They’re meant to look just as good on a girls' night out as they do the next morning in the school drop-off line.

But the engagement is also about shared values. Smash + Tess’s target audience—women between the ages of 20 and 40—want rompers, but they also want to shop at companies that share their beliefs. That’s why the brand’s garments are made by a team of B.C. tailors who are all paid a fair wage. Its Instagram page is populated with a diverse range of people who represent different shapes, ethnicities, sizes and skin colours. In May, the brand launched a collection of gender-neutral, size-inclusive bridal party rompers in collaboration with Jessica Mulroney—then just as quickly ended the partnership when news broke that Mulroney had threatened Toronto lifestyle influencer Sasha Exeter’s livelihood. And over the past three years, it has fundraised and donated more than $100,000 to charitable organizations.

“This has become so important because it’s so easy to find competing products that are also decently made, ship quickly and, frankly, look quite similar,” Janssen says. “Finding a brand that is more expensive but does have a face, a voice and truly does care means that customers are willing to spend more for the story that aligns with their own beliefs.”

Freeborn does acknowledge that the pandemic has been good for business. During lockdown, loungewear and athleisure saw huge spikes in popularity among online shoppers. According to data by Adobe Analytics, which tracks top retailers, sales of pyjamas rose 143% between March and April, while sales of pants and bras dropped by 13% and 12%, respectively. “We were in the same boat as everybody else: really scared, not sure how COVID was going to hit. And then literally overnight, we started to see our orders double and triple every day,” she says.

But Smash + Tess is also a (mostly) direct-to-consumer company, and that community space is instrumental in driving sales. The brand operates on a pre-order model, where new drops are announced to existing customers, who rush to place their orders before each item sells out. This helps reduce waste—but it also creates hype, especially around the Sunday Romper, which is forever selling out.

“We never set out to have a scarcity model, but we’ve created it unintentionally,” Freeborn says, comparing it to a smaller-scale Apple drop or release from Yeezy, Kanye West’s clothing line. “It speaks to what the consumer is willing to sacrifice for quality clothes.”

Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

Freeborn’s next move is to open a distribution centre in Los Angeles, which will help the company make inroads into the U.S. market. But even as she plans for greater growth, she’s still hyper-focused on what customers want, especially in a post-pandemic world where online shopping will be even more important. And that presents its own challenges, particularly when consumers can’t try clothes on before they buy. “There’s all kinds of fun things to explore, like being able to virtually try things on,” she says. “But I think if you’re going to ask someone to spend 120 bucks on a romper, it better fit.”


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