A native Vancouverite Alexandra Suhner Isenberg recently made a move to Växjö, Sweden, but her label The Sleep Shirt still calls Canada home. Although she’s living the idyllic country life now, this designer cultivated her skills working in Paris and London. As a graduate of Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne (yes, the couture school!) and Central Saint Martins, she’s worked for Sonia Rykiel, Burberry, and helmed her own luxury lingerie label, State of Undress (with fellow Canadian, Emma Cheevers). Upon returning to Canada, Isenberg made a name for herself through her smart, fashion insider blog Searching for Style, and through her work as a fashion editor for VitaminDaily.com. On a visit to London’s Spitalfields Market, she discovered a 19th century sleep frock, and got the idea for a new line. Thus, The Sleep Shirt was born. Now in its 2nd year, the label is experiencing a great deal of buzz and success, with big retailers in the works. (Keep an eye on the stockists list exponentially expanding.)
You’ve been fully engrossed in the fashion world since your teen years. What was your first fashion memory?
I think it was France when I was 11. My aunt wasn’t a fashion fanatic but being French, she had style and a great wardrobe, including a beautiful Hermès Kelly bag that I now own. I was in France for the summer and I remember she lent me some clothes that she later gave me. The first was a hot pink one-piece bathing suit with a super low back and a massive bow on the bum. The second was a pair of royal blue suede pointy-toe sling back stilettos (only a few inches high) with a silver leather star on the back of the heel. They were the first real fashion items I remember coveting and wearing — and now that I think about it, they would have gone really well together. Ironically, the new wardrobe I had chosen for that trip consisted of neon coloured harem pants and wide, almost cropped tees. Style was apparently not something I was born with.
Having worked for big luxury brands, what are some of the challenges of running a small independent label?
Cash flow is a big one. Recognition is another — and I don’t only mean in the press and with customers, but being able to call a factory and say “I work with famous brand X” is a lot different to calling them up and telling them you are a new or small brand. It’s harder to get people to hustle for you and take you seriously. The other big challenge is that you have to be an expert multitasker. This month I’ll be dealing with production, development, sales packs, technical drawings, social media, press, design, accounts, finance, and I’ll spend a lot of time yelling at people who are doing things wrong or too slow. I would rather just be a creative.
Has maturing and motherhood changed the way you think about sleep? It must be a luxury!
Funnily, I think maturity has more of an impact on the way I think about sleep than motherhood has. I know myself well enough now to understand that I don’t function well on little sleep, so it is a priority. I can’t remember the last time, aside from when I am traveling, that I’ve had less than six hours, and usually it is seven or eight, even with newborns — although the eight hours would have been broken up. A few years ago a friend, who didn’t sleep much, told me that he didn’t bother because it was a waste of time. I remember thinking that I completely disagreed. Who wakes up after a ten hour stint and thinks “Gosh, I just wasted a lot of time?” Not me. I think, “That was amazing.” And I’ve also realized I am a morning person, I am at least three times more productive between 6am and 9am than I am between 6pm and 9pm. Which is why I am usually in bed by 10pm. As far as motherhood goes, yes, it is tiring but I was a vigilant sleep trainer and both of my children were on a schedule from the day they were born. It worked very well for us and I can thankfully say I never felt sleep deprived due to children keeping me up all night. That said, I would have had a lot more sleep if I hadn’t been trying to expand a business with a newborn and an eighteen month old. That I don’t recommend.
Since we’re talking sleep, what is currently on your nightstand?
A lamp, a pot of Zibadel honey cream — for lips and dry skin — it is my favourite beauty product, Kleenex, The Minimalists’ memoir Everything That Remains, Jolie Kerr’s My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag… and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha — after nine years with a cleaner I am going to take a stab at cleaning my own home; I doubt I will last more than three months — and my phone, which doubles as an alarm clock, although my kids are much more effective.
The Sleep Shirt is growing, what’s ahead for the label?
We’ve got our foot in the door with a lot of amazing retailers for Fall 2014 and we need to increase our brand awareness so that the product flies off the shelves. I want to make sure we are at the top of a lot of people’s Christmas lists this year, and now that I am working full-time on the business, I think things are going to start to move faster. Fall is a much bigger collection, with a larger selection of fabrics, including linens, and more shapes like a long sleeved nightie, a raglan pajama top, and an eyemask, in addition to our traditional nightshirts. Everything is still made in Canada and we only use Japanese cottons. It looks great! And it is all very comfortable, of course. In the long term, our goal is to grow the brand and business without compromising our lifestyles, our ethics, or losing any sleep.
Alexandra Suhner Isenberg photographed by Nicole Gurney.
The Sleep Shirt Fall 2014 lookbook photographed by Jennilee Marigomen, art direction by Ryan Willms.