He Said, She Said: Part II

At the end of each day, Lynn and Jenny met in their kitchen and each presented one business idea. “…nothing inspired us until Lynn came in one night with the idea to start a women’s sleepwear company. Then we said ‘That’s it!'”

The Girl’s Guide to Starting Your Own Business, by Caitlin Friedman and Kimberly Yorio

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Late at night after dinner, Dad often found creative inspiration at our family’s white Formica kitchen table. A paper napkin under one hand and a pen in the other, he’d puzzle out how best to light a particular scene in a movie or television series; or sketch out his idea for hand-wipe dispensers at self-service gas stations (I still love that one); or come up with a better way to make malts and milkshakes, ultimately drawing specs for an ingenious machine he dubbed “Malt-o-Matic.” So when I eventually discovered that longtime friends and roommates Jenny Maxwell and Lynn Deregowski came up with their idea for a women’s sleepwear company during their nightly kitchen-meet-ups, the scenario reeled me right in.

The pair, Stanford University alums, founded The Cat’s Pajamas in 1998. I discovered their online store in my quest to replace my aforementioned Made in China bathrobe. I simply Googled “bathrobes made in usa.” Can’t get much easier than that. And oh, what cheery-looking pajama sets appeared on my screen. Flannel or poplin, full-length or capri, long-sleeved or capped. Oodles of delicious choices. As with Balboa Baby, the fabric designs make these products stand out. Playful, yummy prints, equally yummy names: “Coffee and Donuts,” “A La Mode,” “Sprinkles,” “Cupcakes.” Or for the health-minded: “Sushi.” And checkout the flowers that bloom  in the springtime prints: “Water Lily,” “In the Garden,” “Mocha Floral.” And let’s not forget designs for animal lovers: “Penguins,” “Fetch,” “Haiku Cat,” “Oh Deer.” What’s not to love here? Nothing. 

If The Cat’s Pajamas seem familiar (as they did to me), it’s probably because they’ve been featured in heaps of magazines and newspapers and frequently worn on TV by so many actors, including Tina Fey on “30 Rock,” Debra Messing on “Will & Grace,” and Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Good for them, but none of that Hollywood-glam stuff really mattered to me. What did matter was this tidbit I found at the bottom of the website’s page: Made in the USA. How could this company do it when Balboa Baby couldn’t? The Cat’s Pajamas website clearly states its top priority: “The Cat’s Pajamas produces its sleepwear entirely in the San Francisco Bay Area. The owners feel it is very important to support their local community and keep jobs in the Bay Area.” Nice. Worth checking into.

When I called The Cat’s Pajamas’ Berkeley office, co-founder Lynn Deregowski answered. Of course I didn’t know it was Ms. Deregowski, but she did say “This is Lynn” and soon confirmed that yes, she was that Lynn. She suggested we stick with her first name because her last name is tough to pronounce. I hated to put Lynn on the spot, but needed a few questions answered. I was relieved that, like Balboa Baby’s Noel Pepys, this company-owner was warm, kind and patient. Beyond that, however, the resemblance ended. The two have totally different business philosophies.

My first question: About The Cat’s Pajamas sleepwear. Are the products truly manufactured in the USA? “Well, the fabric we want to use is hard to buy domestically. We have to buy that elsewhere. But all the sewing and cutting and everything else is done here.” Hmm. So does that change things? Are the products still manufactured here? I’m wrestling with that one. 

And what about labor? It’s supposedly difficult to find people willing to do this type of work here in the highly educated, service-oriented USA. Or at least that’s what other company heads have claimed. “Really? Where are they located? If they’re located in cities it shouldn’t be a problem…we certainly haven’t found it to be a problem. We hire sewers and cutters, independent contractors who also work for other clothing companies all over San Francisco. I like the control I have over the quality of my products. I like knowing my sewers; like the relationships I have with them.” In total–including cutters, sewers, office staff and such–her company employs about 80 people.  

Asked if she has firsthand knowledge of working conditions in, for example, Chinese factories, Lynn answered: “I’ve been to China, of course, but haven’t seen any of the factories. It’s easy to research that, though. Just go online and read about Gap and India and the child labor issues.” You better believe I will.

So there you have it. He said, she said. Balboa Baby’s Noel Pepys said he doubted he’d be able to find enough American workers to sew his products. Lynn from The Cat’s Pajamas said finding American workers to sew her products is no problem. He said products would have to be too expensive. But she never mentioned cost as a problem. He said producing his products makes for a better-balanced, safer global environment. She said it’s important to know your workers, have a relationship with them, have control over how your product is produced.

Increasingly, I see how the products we American consumers buy have stories to tell. When products are made here in the USA, those stories, window-like in their transparency, reveal our country’s foundations and beliefs: two women in a kitchen late at night, brainstorming entrepreneurial ideas; their shared belief in the free enterprise system, decent working conditions, relationships with and loyalty toward the workers; opportunities for those workers to learn the ropes and perhaps create their own businesses. When products are outsourced to other countries, it’s as if someone installed black-out shades over the company’s windows. Maybe products had transparent beginnings (Mr. Pepys talked about how his products were conceived and designed by family members), but with outsourcing that changes. Working conditions can’t be deciphered. Relationships, if any, are between foreign factory owners and the American businesses that work with them. We, the Americans consuming these foreign-produced products, lose any connection we might have to them.

When my Valentine’s Day bathrobe arrives, The Cat’s Pajamas Made {Pretty Much} in the USA story will be included, free of charge. We need more of that, don’t you think?

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