Lunya: How One Founder Kept Customers Lounging in Luxury During Lockdown
The idea for Lunya came quickly.
Standing in front of the bedroom mirror one evening wearing her husband's old frat T-shirt and boxer briefs, Ashley Merrill realized clearly this time of day had become an afterthought, despite it being the time she looked most forward to.
“I realized I had picked this outfit based on comfort alone.” Ashley recalled. ”Could there not be something comfortable that didn’t look like I’d hung it up at 28?”
Immediately, the thought struck her: why don’t women have comfortable, flattering sleepwear options that actually make them feel as strong, sexy, and powerful as they want to be?
While the concept for the company was staring at her in the mirror, Ashley already had a lot on her plate. She had just enrolled in business school, and in the same month, discovered she was pregnant with her first child.
"When I got pregnant, I realized I had an opportunity. I realized the only thing holding me back was fear," said Ashley.
"It would be worse to tell my kids that I didn't do it because I was afraid, then to do it and to fail."
With that driving motivation, luxury sleepwear brand Lunya was born, designed to bring confidence to the modern woman during at-home leisure hours and beyond. However, while the idea came quickly, it also became clear that nothing about this was going to be easy.
“For two years, I toiled on how to make clothes in fashion,” Ashley said. “It started with me Googling ‘How to Make Clothes.’ But I made the commitment that this was a good idea—I started telling people about it, and what’s weird is that when you put your dreams out into the universe, you find that people want to help you!”
Starting with a small-batch production with high unit costs, Lunya spared no expense to bring ultra-high quality and ethically-sourced materials and fabrics to customers, many of whom had never even considered luxury sleepwear in the first place.
“The opportunity I saw was that nobody bought sleepwear. My job wasn’t to sell you my sleepwear—it was to sell you the idea of wearing sleepwear at home at all.”
With pop-up shops, robust DTC marketing campaigns, and savvy insights into consumer trends, Lunya made a name as one of the top brands in luxury sleepwear, even recently launching a new line, Lahgo, for men’s garments.
Of course, the pandemic changed everything. With people locked at home in quarantine, and many jobs going fully-remote, millions of people across the country were now spending time lounging around without a need to put on ‘outdoor clothes.’
Lunya’s foresight into at-home luxury wear was validated as demand increased, but at the same time, all retail operations were immediately impacted and had to shut down. With retail and supply chains in disarray, the company needed to adapt quickly in both brand and business operations.
Ashley Merrill sat down with us for a Q&A to discuss how Lunya overcame the challenges of the pandemic, her thoughts on sustainability, building Lunya’s brand, embracing the ancient Roman concept of ‘Otium,’ as well as Lunya’s plans for the future.
On Adjusting to the Pandemic
Brex: The realities of the pandemic really sank in for the world around April 2020. What was going through your mind then as a founder? What kind of changes were happening for you and Lunya?
Ashley: Well, when the pandemic first started we regarded it with distance, not assuming it would ever be as catastrophic as it turned out to be. It wasn’t until mid March that we realized Covid would have a huge impact on us as individuals and as a business. It hit Lunya hard, cutting revenues into one third of what was expected overnight. We closed our stores, cut retail staff and tried to secure ourselves as we heard that we would be encountering unemployment greater than depression era numbers. It was an incredibly hard moment, trying to lead and give hope in what was a very unknowable circumstance. Then, mid April amidst a long lockdown we saw revenue come back— allowing us to rehire staff.
As a leader, I was relieved when I saw the demand increase, but it wasn’t a very clear cut situation. We had cut supply to guard against overage when demand faltered in March, and now many of our suppliers were closed, so we were trying to manage the incoming business with low inventory.
The political and social unrest also created tension in demand and a lot of management hurdles. Despite being incredibly lucky to be online and in sleep/lounge, the year was a rollercoaster of demand and supply chain management. Not to mention that our kids were in and out of school and we were working from home— to say the least, it was a stressful year, and in hindsight, I’m proud of the team for pulling through it the way they did.
Brex: What was the hardest thing about the pandemic for your business? What was the best?
Ashley: Lunya and Lahgo benefited from increased demand as folks were kept at home for extended periods.
The hardest was the uncertainty it presented. There was a yo-yo effect of demand that we are still feeling today.
Brex: Since Lunya launched its first line, it seems like you’ve been focused on
shifting people’s attention to their home lives— to a kind of comfort or self-care they
may have overlooked. But then this tremendous world event came out of nowhere and forced people to care about it. Does that ever feel a little surreal to you?(You were curating these physical stores to resemble bedrooms, and then suddenly everyone is in their actual bedroom).
Ashley: My thesis has always been that the home would become a more prominent place in people’s lives. Before Covid, delivery culture was already allowing me to spend less time running errands, while improved technology made premium TV cheap enough to diminish the appeal of cinemas. I assumed this kind of convenience would continue, but I never expected a pandemic to come along and accelerate this trend with such vengeance.
Now many of us are working from home far more than we used to and I imagine this is something that will continue, allowing people the opportunity to live in a nicer place with a higher quality of life. I’m not entirely surprised we’ve ended up here but it’s surreal that it happened so quickly.
The Importance of ‘Omni-Channels’
Brex: On that note, it seems like Lunya has a really distinct and customer-centric approach to in-person shopping— both in terms of the concept and experience.
But it also seems like you’ve understandably shifted your focus a bit over the last few years. What was your perception of having brick-and-mortar stores in 2016, and what’s your perception of it now? Is it still important to have a physical space that offers a curated experience?
Ashley: Lunya was digital first because our brand was reinventing a category in a way that required more storytelling than a wholesale placement could offer. That said, I’ve always believed in omni-channels, serving customers how/where/when they want to shop, and that belief has only increased. The pandemic cut off physical retail, and the new iOS updates have really hindered digital, so I think to be safe and serve your customer you need to have a multifaceted distribution approach.
The Renewed Shift Toward Self-Care
Brex: Can you tell me about this concept of ‘otium’ for Lunya? Has the pandemic changed your orientation towards otium— the ability to slow down, relax, and enjoy life?
Ashley: I think the pandemic slowed people down in some ways. Remember the bread baking craze? But in other ways it brought work into the home in a new way. People are experiencing burnout now more than ever with the abundance of social media, news, and iPhones blurring the lines between “productive” and “recovery” time. I think the pandemic has forced people to be more intentional about otium and rest/recovery time.
Brex: On that topic, what’s your favorite way to relax? Or, should I say, what’s your favorite ‘otium’ activity?
Ashley: I love reading historical fiction.
Brex: I know Lunya is very innovative in their fabrics in terms of their fabrics having clinical uses. Do you have any future innovations on the horizon?
Ashley: We have a lot of exciting things coming but mums the word for now ;)
On The Future of Sustainable Fashion
Brex: The last two years (or really the last 100 years) have been a worrying time for the environment. Is the environment something that’s on your mind in terms of Lunya’s future? I know you care deeply about sustainable fabrics. Can you talk to us about that?
Ashley: Fashion has been a culprit of greenhouse gas emissions, producing more than 10% of all human-made carbon emissions globally. The two biggest drivers of emissions in fashion are sourcing and production.
Most clothing contains some polyester which releases 2-3X more emissions than natural fibers. At Lunya, we prioritize natural materials that are not just more environmentally friendly in their production and how they break down after washes, but also feel softer to the touch.
It is estimated that over 10 million tonnes of textiles end up in landfills in the US every year. In some countries, nearly 40% of clothing produced ends up in a landfill or is burned. At Lunya, we try to keep our purchasing products as close as possible to diminish waste.
The environment is very front of mind for us from design to sourcing to production. We spend a lot of time crafting trustworthy, environmentally friendly products and tend to think of it in terms of materials, people, carbon footprint and chemicals/water. We rely on high-quality and sustainable fabrics to ensure our products are not only kind to the environment, but feel great and last a long time(less waste!). For example, our soft modal fabric is sustainably made from Forest Stewardship Council certified natural beechwood trees and it also has an incredible stretch that feels like a soft second skin and I’m still wearing [Lunya] pieces that are from 4 years ago, but look like new.
Brex: Do you consider yourself a minimalist?
Ashley: Yes, I’m a minimalist. I really buy into the “fewer is better” mantra. When I was growing up in my family house, my room was always called the “monk” room because everything was white and I had very little in it. Not much has changed.
Brex: Has the pandemic made it harder for fashion brands to ensure their supply chain is ethical? What kind of supply chain changes did you have to make in the last two years?
Ashley: I don’t think that the pandemic affected this area much. The bigger issue I see is scale. If you are a large brand (Nike, Patagonia, etc.) you can swing your weight around at factories and really push for innovation. As a historically smaller brand it’s been hard to make demands at factories that in many ways we were just lucky to work with. As we’ve gotten bigger, the opportunities are starting to present for us to ask more of our factories, have them become partners in growth, and in becoming a ‘good business.’
An important caveat to all this is that being an ethical business is an evolution. It’s about valuing and working towards things that benefit the planet and the people. ‘The how’ is evolving in real time.
Lunya at Work
Brex: There’s a lot of talk about hybrid and remote work models going around lately. What does the work environment look like for the Lunya team right now? What do you hope it will look like a year or two from now?
Ashley: My goodness I wish I had a clearer answer on this. Pre-pandemic I was not a fan of remote work but now that the infrastructure is in place and I’ve seen it work I can’t imagine going back to the status quo. Productivity is better remote, people have the freedom to live and work in a wider range of places and it’s also great in that it enables hiring a wider range of people.
On the flip side, remote makes it a bit harder to build a “Lunya/Lahgo” culture that is bigger than your functional team. It also is a tough format for creativity, spontaneity, and really getting to know one another. We are still remote but we’ve kicked around many hybrid forms: 3-day week, a format that is nuanced with different meetups for different teams, for example, and I wouldn’t say that we have landed the ship on this yet.
Brex: A friend comes to you for advice on how to keep their brand relevant. What do you say to them?
Ashley: I think you need to ask yourself who you are serving and how well you are doing it. It is constantly evolving. I would say they need to get tight on who they serve, why it works, and double down.
Brex: What’s the one lesson you’ve learned over the last insane year that you think would be valuable to carry with you into the distant future?
Ashley: Diversify. If you want to build a big business you can never be all eggs in any one basket. This is true for supply chain, distribution, sales channels, and in marketing programs.
Brex: Did Brex increase the company's confidence during the uncertainty of the last 18 months? If so, how?
Ashley: We have been using Brex for a few years now. I see Brex as a more modern credit line— one that understands the needs of modern business and that has made their model to serve those needs. It certainly helped during the pandemic but also it’s still very relevant for managing growth today.
Lunya is a luxury women’s sleepwear brand that brings attention back to self-care. The brainchild of founder Ashley Merrill, each Lunya piece is the result of years of designing, sourcing, and producing with only the highest-quality, sustainable materials. Learn more.