Designer turns grief into pajama business
Three years ago Lauren Raja’s husband, Justin, died unexpectedly while the young couple was on vacation in Greece.
“For months I lived in my sad, gray pajamas and sweats,” Raja said.
These days, Raja has traded in her melancholy jammies for silky sleepwear splashed with polka dots and stripes, complete with a ruffle sewn across the tush, that she designs in her apartment. She named the collection of women’s and young girl’s nighty-night fashion line Justin Jean Pajamas, after her husband and grandmother, two people she loved very much.
“It’s my way of remembering people who meant so much to me,” said Raja.
And it’s starting to get some buzz.
In a little over a year, Raja has sold more than 1,600 pairs of the sleepwear, via her website, justinjeanpjs.com. Raja offers three styles of jammies for girls ($41-49.50): a onesie (with feet), and two-piece styles with long pants and capris. There are four designs for women ($67-$76): long pants, capris, a nightshirt (Raja says men are buying them for their wives and girlfriends), and a pair of ruffled shorts. Every design features the three-tiered ruffle. Hence the hashtag: rocktheruffles.
Each pair of PJs comes in a clear zip-up makeup bag with a handmade scrunchie.
One of Raja’s fans is Real Housewives of New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice. She’s touted Justin Jean as one of her and her daughter’s favorite cozy sleepy-time options.
New York celebrity dermatologist Whitney Bowe wears them while relaxing in bed, and local ABC reporter/anchor Erin O’Hearn and her daughter have matching pairs. Even celebrity blogger Perez Hilton’s 2-year-old daughter, Mia, rocks the ruffle.
And Justin Jean will be the featured sleepwear at the White Dog Cafe’s 30th annual New Year’s Day Pajama Brunch, during which she will donate 15 percent of all proceeds from online orders to Alpha Bravo Canine. This is the first time one pajama brand has worked so closely with the restaurant. (Although, no pressure. If you wear your Target specials, that’s cool, too).
The local love comes just as we enter the winter season, with its mix of modern and old-school traditions: gift-givin’, brunchin’, Netflixin’, and, well, lounging all day, on vacay in our PJs.
“When we wear pajamas, our masks are off,” Raja, 36, said. “It’s a time when you are at you realest, you are laid back, and you are almost always surrounded by friends and family. Pajamas help us make these memories.”
It just so happened that 2017 was the year of pajamas, according to NPD Group chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen. We donned sleepwear for way more than getting a little shut-eye. I don’t know about you, but the moment I walk in the door — whether it’s 2 in the afternoon, or 2 in the morning — I can’t get into my PJs fast enough.
That sentiment carried into street wear. This year’s trendiest tops, whether spotted in thrift stores or in mall specialty shops like J.Crew and Forever 21, were fashioned to look like vintage, striped pajamas, piping and all.
And then there are the plaid, drawstring PJs rapidly became the hallmark of the Christmas season as families posed in baggy flannel two-pieces.
In 2013, a year before her husband died, Raja asked Justin for a sewing machine. At the time, she was thinking about the grandmother who’d raised her, “Mama” Jean Falo, a South Philly-bred homemaker and avid seamstress who died earlier that year at 80.
Raja’s husband, vice president at a bank, bought her the machine. But Raja, who was working as a middle school math teacher, couldn’t find the time to sew.
The following October, the couple went to Greece for a wedding and decided to take a day trip on a catamaran. Raja was upstairs on the boat. Justin took a dive into the water. When Raja came downstairs, she says she saw a friend dragging her husband out of the water and giving him CPR. Justin never woke up.
Raja came back home and buried her husband on her birthday. She felt lost. She quit teaching. She spent her days in her apartment in total darkness, mourning.
One day, she saw the sewing machine in the corner and thought to herself, “What would Mama Jean do?”
Slowly, she started sketching. She’d never taken a sewing class, but she started making “wacky” things: a shower cap with detachable fleece lining; a leather flower that she planned to sell on Etsy, but that cost way too much to replicate. She made a summer dress. But the world didn’t need any more dress designers, did it?
Then she had a thought: Justin loved polka dots, especially on fancy socks. And when Raja thought about Mama Jean, her mind’s eye took her to the ruffled knickers of her childhood. How could those items work together? Pajamas, perhaps?
Raja designed a sample. The first pair were multicolored dots in the same colors you might find on a Twister board. Three rows of ruffles stretching across the hiney. On the left sleeve she added a heart, because, Raja says, “True healing comes from wearing your heart on your sleeve.” And at the center of the heart is a handwritten logo.
Her PJs tagline? Heavenly comfort, superior style.
“This project really brought me back to life,” said Raja.
She designs all of the prints on the fabrics, maintains the website, fulfills orders, manages the social media, and does the packaging.
“Pajamas for me aren’t about sadness anymore. They are about joy, hope authenticity, passion, and celebration.”