Lunya is a luxury sleepwear company for the modern woman that Ashley Merrill, CEO and founder, created when she came to the realization that even though we spend over one-third of our lives in bed, sleepwear tends to be the most undervalued part of your wardrobe. We sat down to talk to Merrill about the increase in demand for loungewear while people are spending more time at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, how she kept her team motivated while working remotely, what she’s most looking forward to when the pandemic is over, and much more. (Note: Merrill was also a guest on our Women in Retail Talks podcast recently to talk about Lunya, its unique store design, and why her customers are willing to pay more for high-quality fabrics.)
Inner Circle: Can you tell us about how Lunya has pivoted since COVID-19 has spread?
Ashley Merrill: We’ve pivoted out of brick-and-mortar retail and heavily into online. We’ve also slowed our opening plan for new stores. And then we’ve continued to diversify our supply chain.
IC: As a guest on the Women in Retail Talks podcast, you talked about the struggle to find comfortable and cute sleepwear prior to launching the brand. With more people spending time at home, have you noticed increased interest in loungewear?
AM: Absolutely! We’re seeing strong demand like we normally do, so it’s almost like we’re following our pre-planned growth trajectory. And I know that in a [world with COVID] that’s unusual for brands. I think most fashion is down, but I would say we’ve been lucky to be able to sustain demand. And I will also say, there was a dip in March. I always call this out because in March it went down pretty dramatically, but we’ve seen a strong rebound, which to me is suggestive that people have kind of realized that they’re going to be home for awhile.
IC: Being a leader during this time is tough. What strategies have you used to lead your team and to keep them motivated?
AM: Two things have been key. One is a lot of honesty and transparency. I think that sometimes there’s the perception that leaders know what’s going on and maybe they’re just not telling you. And so, one of the things I’ve tried to do is spend a lot of time dispelling that notion. This is an unusual circumstance that I don’t have answers for. I’m having meetings with people just to tell them that. I think they’re realizing it’s bringing us closer. We’re sort of bonded in the “not knowing.” It’s really one of those senses that we’re all in this together, and I would say that in tough times, which we’ve been through a lot this year, I do feel that [my team] feeling like they can trust my decision making and transparency and authenticity is very valuable.
I would also say structure. We’ve actually been working very well from home. I haven’t seen a drop in productivity. But I think that requires a lot of structure and management, maybe even more so than normal. Normally, it’s more apparent how people are doing and what they’re working on because you’re actually sitting next to them. So in this world, you need to have a decent amount of structure. We start and end every day with team meetings to help create a sense of normalcy […] so it’s not like this amorphous day that just kind of doesn’t end and blends into your personal life. We try to punctuate the days with a start and a close, and that’s been helpful.
IC: How are you managing work-life balance, and do you have any tips you can share with our audience?
AM: I’d say that’s still a work in progress. Like I said in the previous answer, I do think creating an official start and end [to the workday] is useful. But with so many emerging moments, [first] with COVID-19 which was an emerging world moment and now what we’re seeing with the Black Lives Matter movement […] is a real emergent moment. Our well-laid plans aren’t always the right solution, and so I think there’s been a lot of trying to just be adaptable in a changing environment. And sometimes that doesn’t fit perfectly into my structure of work-life balance.
IC: What are some social responsibility initiatives Lunya is focusing on right now?
AM: A couple of weeks ago we started this initiative called Share a little hope. It’s a partnership with SoLa, which is a South Los Angeles program which basically gives job re-training to the people who are most affected by COVID-19. So you already had a huge wealth discrepancy and socioeconomic divide, and then COVID-19 made that worse with 20 percent unemployment. And most of the people who lost their jobs had maybe part-time work or hourly work, so those are already people who are most vulnerable to poverty.
One of the big concerns I felt immediately and really wanted to be a part of a solution for was how do you create hope for people who are in that moment. Some of it is philanthropic and a giving campaign, but what we’re asking from people is more oriented around words of hope because it’s an actual problem of maybe not being able to pay your bills, but it’s also an emotional problem, which I think is getting forgotten in some of this. When you’re just in a really bad place, how do you pull out of it? What we’re trying to do is create this campaign [Share a little hope] that can help give people in that community both financial support in the form of job re-training into fields that might have better long-term pay opportunities, as well as emotional support.
IC: When the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, what are you most excited about in the world of retail going forward?
AM: My hope would be that actually we see a decline in the more superficial fast-fashion world. I hope that people buy clothes more for longevity and utility. I love fashion and I think it has its place, but I don’t think that it should be our every day go-to because fashion can be very wasteful. It’s very hard on the environment. Ideally I would see people owning maybe fewer, but better things.