Chief Lifestyle Officer, KN Ltd.
How did a Midwestern girl who was surprised by pregnancy at the age of 19 and later paralyzed by divorce, at last find happiness and become a nationally recognized goddess of all things comfy and cozy?
Karen Neuburger, famous for creating the plush pjs that Oprah called her favorites, shares personal stories and those of women bringing one another comfort in her recently published book, The Secret Language of Girlfriends (Hyperion/April). The book sparks some fun ideas. Think: weekly open house parties serving up chocolate, champagne and girl talk, or get-togethers where book-club dropouts discuss People magazine instead of Proust.
Neuburger first became known for her line of sleepwear and loungewear (The lifestyle brand’s products are now sold in 10,000 retail stores in the United States.), but has also expanded into bedding and home accessories, and doesn’t plan to stop there.
Difficult Times in Duluth
“I had a rather tough upbringing. I had a wonderful family, but was raised by my grandparents. They already had 12 children. I became the 13th child. My grandfather, who was my only father figure, died when I was 16. He instilled confidence in me and taught me to believe that I could hold my own with anyone.”
“When I was 19, I became pregnant. I was an unwed mother in the 60s, and it was not cool in the Midwest to be an unwed mother. I went through difficulties and the process of finding myself. I fell into two jobs that really got me started on the entrepreneurial path.”
A Little Success Goes a Long Way
“First I worked for Honeywell out of Minneapolis in the personnel department for the supervisor who was in charge of training. For some reason, he put me in charge of training all the senior engineers. At 25 years old, I was standing up in front of 40- to 50-year-old engineers instructing them in management training. I felt successful. If you get a little success in your life and a little accomplishment, that can take you a long way.”
Entrée Into Fashion
“I moved back to Duluth after being gone for several years. It was my job to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. I walked the streets of Duluth and sang ‘I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar’ to give myself confidence to apply for positions where I didn’t even know what the positions did. I walked into Maurice’s (department store) and managed to talk my way into being a fashion buyer for 20 stores.”
Self Doubt? See Ya Later
“I went home and cried that night, thinking, ‘What was I thinking? How am I going to show up tomorrow, when I have no idea what a buyer does?’ While I was at Maurice’s, we went from 20 stores to over 700 stores. I worked for merchants who knew what they were doing and took the time to show me how to do it. That was my entrée into the fashion world.”
On the Move to San Francisco
“I would probably still be there today except that I met my current husband, Richard, during the blackout in New York in 1977. He was a New Yorker, but I didn’t want to move my daughter to New York. There were no jobs for him in Duluth. We compromised and moved to San Francisco, and we’ve been here ever since.”
Staying at Home and Loving It
“The whole idea of creating comfortable pajamas came from the idea that being comfortable was important, and I needed to be comfortable when at 41 I found myself pregnant with my second daughter. I had been in fashion since the age of 27 and had been working since I was 15. It was the first time in my life that I was going to stay home.”
Don’t Look! I’m Not Dressed.
“I was absolutely loving the change. I was thrilled to shred my pantyhose and toss my heels. It was totally freeing to know that I didn’t have to worry about getting myself into a fashionable outfit. For the first few months, I stayed in my “Mamas and Papas” T-shirt. Often I was still in it when my husband came home. Maybe I had brushed my teeth, but that was it.”
“After being embarrassed by a neighbor knocking on the door, I decided that my at-home comfort had to take a slightly more modest approach. When you’re in the fashion business, you always have a closet stocked with fabrics you love, but you’re not sure what you’re going to do with them. I picked a fairly expensive piece of fabric out of the closet, a soft knit. I used Richard’s pjs as the model and that became my first pair of all-day sleepwear.”
Friends Say, “You Should Sell These!”
“After several months, it was not only the mailman who was catching me in my pjs, but my friends also. They kept telling me I should take the idea of all-day sleepwear to some of the stores. It was the silly conversation you have with someone where they say, ‘You could sell these!'”
“After a few more conversations of encouragement, I drove in my Volvo station wagon, brushed the mashed peas off the samples and made appointments with the buyers at the Emporium, Macy’s and Nordstrom. Macy’s and Nordstrom placed orders. It was 1991 when I did my first shipment and the company was born.”
Meeting Department Store Demand – from Her Living Room
“I shipped them out, but was really much more interested in my baby and my oldest daughter, who was getting married at the time. I was having a lot more fun doing those kinds of things, until I started getting calls from Macy’s and Nordstrom that the line had done really well in sales and they wanted to know when I was going to have my second collection.”
“Here I am sitting in my house with tulle all over the living room from the wedding. I hired (an assistant) and along with her came her Singer sewing machine. She and I made the next collection. In 1994, KN became an official company – before this we were working out of my home. It was a real homespun company.”
Winning Oprah’s Favor
“We kind of limped along, but in 1996, I sent a pair of pajamas to Oprah. One of her producers handed them to her as she was leaving to go to her farm in Indiana. She said, ‘These are kind of cute, maybe you want to take them with you?’ When Oprah came back from her trip, she called me herself. She hadn’t taken them off and wanted to give them to all of her girlfriends for Christmas.”
“Ten days later, I got a call from one of her producers saying, ‘Oprah has come up with an idea for a new show. We’re going to call it her Favorite Things show and we’re going to build it around your pajamas. We need 300 pjs by November and of course we want you here in the studio.'”
Becoming a Household Name
“The timing, the stars and the moons could not have lined up any better for me from that one show. People went out all over the country trying to find KN pajamas. When they did find them, they were fighting in the aisles. Stores in Chicago literally sold out within hours of the show. From then on, all the stores in the country started asking for them.”
“Before I was calling the stores and people were saying, ‘What could possibly be different about your pjs? They sound high-priced. Who are you again?'”
All the Comforts of Home
“A year after that, customers started asking for the same emotional and physical comfort in other areas of their lifestyles – robes, socks, slippers, baby clothes, bedding, mattresses, tapletop and china. Our whole home area is beginning to evolve. There’s an enormous potential to expand the KN brand into any and all products that make life more comfortable.”
“Every day brings new challenges, and every day, the new challenge seems to be the most difficult one.”
“Besides my two girls? That women feel comforted by KN products. I get a lot of letters from women who have been ill and in the hospital or letters saying ‘I brought my pjs when I had my new baby.’ They feel comforted by the experience of having the pjs with them, and that makes me feel terrific.”
Words of Advice
“Remember that no matter how many employees you end up with, your consumers are really the people who sell your brand.”
Top Ways to Comfort Yourself
“My favorite ‘treat time’ consists of curling up in my favorite red easy chair, wrapped in a cozy throw, to read a juicy book.”
“I am a time-deprived working mom. So, in order to squeeze some fitness and comforting girlfriend wisdom into my schedule, I phone my friends for a ‘net-walking’ party. On a weekend morning, we hike over the mountain, enjoy a delectable seafood lunch complete with a frosty beer, and discuss the mysteries of life. What could be better?”