Off Brand is a thrice-monthly column that delves into trends in women’s fashion and beauty.
THE SIRENS of Greek mythology were half-bird, half-woman creatures whose alluring songs caused distracted sailors to crash on rocks. In the mythos of the Internet, online marketers and influencers are like contemporary Sirens. As you steer yourself online to check your email, digital pop-up ads and sponsored social-media posts seduce you with photos of apartments you can’t afford, couches you’re not even sure you like, and sneakers you clicked on once. Before you know it, you crash into a rocky outcropping. You buy the Thing.
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The Thing that followed many women through shelter-in-place orders this summer was the Nap Dress, an unassuming, nightie-like garment. Launched in 2019 by New York direct-to-consumer brand Hill House Home, the frock truly became a viral sensation during our collective quarantine due to a combination of canny marketing, genuine consumer enthusiasm and (accidentally) impeccable timing. When it felt like nobody was buying anything and more fashion brands tanked than launched, apparently all anyone wanted to wear was a nightgown. Specifically Hill House Home’s bestseller, the “Ellie,” a bodice-framing, tiered-skirt $ 125 cotton dress. In between Zooms, home-schooling, caretaking and other pandemic stresses, Americans needed a nap, or at least the possibility of a nap.
“ Judging from their Instagram posts, Nap-Dress wearers are likely to conclude a busy day of Zooms by retreating to a meadow to gather pussy willows. ”
Entrepreneur Katie Sturino, 36, who owns three Nap Dresses, said, “I feel like the dress implies: Aren’t we just tired? And don’t we just deserve something comfortable and cute to put on?”
When Hill House Home’s 32-year-old founder and CEO Nell Diamond dreamed up the Nap Dress over a year ago, she wasn’t initially sure if it was just a “Nell thing” or something that would catch on. It was clearly the latter: By the end of this year sales of the viral gown are projected to make up 50% of the business, which was launched in 2016 to focus on home goods. With a Yale MBA and a background in blue-chip finance—as an analyst for LVMH and Deutsche Bank—Ms. Diamond blends emotional design decisions with a rather conservative approach to business.
Although the term “Nap Dress” was trademarked by Hill House Home in January 2020, that hasn’t stopped imitations from springing up willy nilly. A neat example of perfect branding, “nap dress” has become a catchall for any nightgown that feels remotely appropriate for company, or any dress that feels remotely appropriate for bed. Fashion brands small and large offer their own versions, sometimes outright stealing the term and otherwise just sneakily tagging it into the backend of their sites for search engine optimization. Vintage retailers have seized on the phrase: Search for it on Etsy and you’ll find options including a $ 62 scraggly old Laura Ashley nightgown.
But the winner is still far and away Hill House Home’s original “the Nap Dress,” which is now offered in the “Ellie” as well as five slightly different styles in the brand’s online marketplace, “the Nap Dress Shop.” Hovering between $ 75 and $ 150, these are not luxury items. They’re what marketers would call “premium”—like Tropicana orange juice. You feel like you’re buying something of high quality without being too indulgent. And, crucially, they’re priced accessibly enough that you can buy multiples. Hill House Home reports that the average Nap Dress customer owns three or more, and all the women I spoke to—none of whom are sponsored by the brand—have bought several or plan to.
They wear them for the strange hybrid life to which many of us have grown accustomed: Our work bleeds into our personal lives and we’re always kind of “on” but also always kind of “off.” Hill House Home’s founder Nell Diamond, who is still taking meetings while 37 weeks pregnant with twins, considers the Nap Dress’s name a bit of a misnomer. “It’s so funny because it’s in many ways the opposite of that—it’s a dress for getting stuff done,” she said. Fans of the dress enthuse over its comfort as well as its ability to look polished for remote work. If you wear it during a Zoom meeting, said Ms. Sturino, “you look put together as hell.” Some proponents of the dress lean on lipstick, headbands and other accessories to make it look slightly less like a nightgown.
Judging from their Instagram posts, Nap-Dress wearers are likely to conclude a busy day of Zooms by retreating to a meadow to gather pussy willows. The style brings to mind the romanticism of Gwyneth Paltrow’s empire-waisted gowns in the 1996 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” or Kirsten Dunst’s Petit-Trianon looks in the 2006 “Marie Antoinette.” Images of influencers in their nap dresses share a similar “let them eat cake” willful innocence. Under the hashtag #napdresssummer, women shared photographs of themselves in nature holding babies and puppies. They were not wearing masks; this was a fantasy of the summer we might have had under different circumstances.
La Tiffaney Santucci, a 29-year-old marketing manager in Austin, Texas, bought a Nap Dress from Hill House Home when she was pregnant with twins this summer. She admits to being influenced by the women in her feed, many of them either pregnant or postpartum. “I’ve seen some photos online of that romantic, picturesque type of scene where people are in a field with their Nap Dress on or having a picnic, and I’m just kind of like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t wait until my babies are a little bit bigger, I would love to get that type of picture with them.’”
Most of these social media posts arose organically, photos from fans simply showing their Nap Dresses off. But Hill House Home’s strategic use of Instagram as a platform for both image-building and selling cannot be overstated. Like many direct-to-consumer fashion companies, it buys targeted ads, and uses Shops on Instagram, the platform’s integrated e-commerce experience. Eva Chen, the vice president of fashion partnerships at Instagram, extolled Ms. Diamond’s use of the app. The Nap Dress, she said, “feeds that flywheel of: You can get it really quickly, then you wear it, you post a picture, then three of your friends want it. It has that amazing ripple effect.” She explained that the trend was “Instagrammy,” meaning “it has an ‘I want it in my life right now’ effect.”
That’s exactly what happened to Rachel Smith, the 34-year-old owner of Wordsmith Communications in Sacramento, Calif. “Obviously, during quarantine there’s even more social media scrolling happening, so honestly it came up very randomly in my feed. I saw someone wearing this very comfortable feminine dress and clicked on it and thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cute.’” She responded right away to its promise of prettiness. “I’m a single woman, and even though I don’t live here with anyone, I just love how it makes me feel—even though I’m lounging around the house, I’m not a complete slob.”
Even as picnic weather fades, don’t expect to dodge the Nap Dress just yet. New prints and styles from Hill House Home emerge in regular “drops”—the next one is on Oct. 28. For some women, a persistent trend creates an online sisterhood. Ms. Santucci explained, “It’s kind of like a cool thing to have it and take a picture in it, which reminds me of being in high school when everyone had to have this one thing.”
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