From the success of soothing television shows like Bridgerton to the booming luxury sleep market, the heightened stress of the pandemic clearly had everyone craving rest last year. And while clothing sales across the United States plummeted, one piece in particular rose to fame: the nap dress.
Hill House Home’s signature product was perfectly suited to life under lockdown: made of breathable, stretchy cotton, the dress enabled women to comfortably hop between Zoom calls and home-schooling in style. Then there was the design: a tiered layered skirt embellished with ruffled shoulders, available in an array of dreamy floral patterns. Evoking the cottagecore escapism of the times, the daytime nightgown quickly became a viral sensation. Last spring, the company sold $1 million worth of inventory in less than 30 minutes.
It’s no surprise that a cultural fixation with rest skyrocketed sales for Hill House Home—the company’s roots are in the bedroom after all. “I’m a big sleeper, I love to sleep,” founder Nell Diamond tells Forbes. “I’ve always felt the bedroom is the sanctuary of the home and a little bit of a jewel box.” While sleep has hit the back-burner since becoming a mother of three, Diamond says she intentionally focused on bedding products for Hill House Home’s launch in 2016, due to its unique supply chain dynamics. “I wanted design-led, beautifully finished, monogrammed bedding but I wanted it at a better price point,” the founder explains. Since then, the brand has evolved to sell bath and baby products, as well as their signature Nap Dress.
But the company’s success during the pandemic is explained less by their beginnings in bedding, and more by their business strategy. From an early age, Diamond has been following iconic brands, observing their recipes for success. “My parents used to joke when I was a teenager that every Saturday I would take my field trip to the Topshop,” Diamond says. “That was the early days of building how much I loved brands.” While studying finance in college, Diamond witnessed the next wave of retail companies beginning to hit the market, “I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says. The entrepreneur decided she wanted to create a brand that could span several categories—fashion, lifestyle and home.
Diamond diversified their supply chain and prioritized direct-to-consumer from day one, making Hill House Home particularly equipped to withstand unexpected hits—like a pandemic. “We really saw the benefit of building strong relationships with this diversified group of factories around the world in the past 18 months,” the founder explains. “Because we own our direct sales channel online and we have this direct relationship to our factories, we were able to read and react to how people were shopping; to what they wanted the most, and to the changing world.”
Another pre-pandemic strategy that benefitted the company under lockdown? Their approach to social media. “I’m a social media obsessive, I love Instagram,” says Diamond, whose personal account has amassed over 60,000 followers. Stuck indoors pregnant with twins, the founder says she herself spent a lot of the pandemic on her phone, watching their community “grow like its own little wildflower.” “It was such an incredible gift that our little nap dress nation was able to talk to each other during all those months via social media,” she says.
But beyond communicating with fellow nap dress fans, Hill House Home’s Instagram became a go-to source of escapism during the pandemic for its photography—a grid of dreamy images evoking the whimsical allure of the Victorian era. It’s this time period from which Diamond draws inspiration for her designs. “I’ve always loved pre-Raphaelite art and Victorian artists and poets,” the former English Literature college says. “There are some really wonderful representations of women in their boudoir in that era: brushing their hair, doing these nighttime routine things, I’ve always been drawn to those images. They certainly affect the aesthetic interpretation we have.”
While the nap dress can certainly live up to its name, it wasn’t designed with quarantine naps in mind. “In the first couple months of the pandemic we kept having to tell people, we didn’t create this for the pandemic, this product has been around for years,” Diamond says, describing how the first iterations on the nap dress began in 2018. “By the time 2020 rolled around we already had this loyal group that loved the product.”
The real motivation for the nap dress was to create a versatile product that could allow creative expression while maintaining a busy lifestyle. “I had all these errands and cleaning to do, but I still wanted to feel like myself,” says Diamond, describing how, pre-pandemic, she grew tired of changing out of her work clothes to a more comfortable outfit when she would arrive home each day.
“What’s so compelling about the product is that it’s truly a flexible piece: it has elasticated smocking so it can move and stretch with your body during the day,” Diamond explains. “You can wear it comfortably around the house but then if you throw on a great headband and a nice pair of wedges, you can head out to dinner in it too.”
With all areas of life blending into one under lockdown, the nap dress became a way for people to still signal their style while remaining comfortable through a variety of tasks at home. “This idea that you should have this new outfit all the time is insane. When it works it works,” the founder says. “People have been happy to have this piece of flexibility in their closets.”
Flexible fashion became a priority during the pandemic, look no further than the success of loungewear—a category estimated to reach a value of $9 billion by 2027. But statement pieces that allow women to do it all had enormous appeal long before 2020, evidenced by the rise of athleisure and the success of Lululemon’s Align legging, a product Diamond has long admired for its functionality.
“It’s a technically incredible product, the team that went into choosing that fabric, the fit, the seams—the fundamental focus on the product was big and that’s what we’re trying to do every day,” says Diamond. Like Lululemon, the founder understands the importance of making a product that’s practical. “In the wave of DTC companies, sometimes what people forget is that we’re selling products and those products have to be lived in. It’s not just about the way you find the customer, it’s ‘can somebody live in this product and get real value out of it?’ Lululemon was certainly able to create that with their Align legging.”
The nap dress is in many ways a more whimsical iteration of the Lululemon legging. Where the latter signals a woman’s commitment to their health, through the association of Lululemon with yoga and physical activity, the former gestures towards an expressive femininity. But make no mistake, the dress is not only for the hyper-feminine—describing the dress as flattering across a range of body types, Diamond says it lends itself to all different walks of life.
“We’ve had people get married in a nap dress,” Diamond says. “What matters is not the aesthetic, but what you do in what you’re wearing,” the founder emphasizes. “We’re all in charge of our own destiny, but what’s been exciting is see the variety of lives the women who wear our nap dresses lead.”
Despite maintaining a clear brand aesthetic, Diamond doesn’t intend for Hill House Home to define the modern woman. “We can never sculpt that and we would never try to,” Diamond says. “I have a traditionally archetypal feminine aesthetic—I wear a lot of frilly things, ruffles, bows and jewelry. One of the most fun things for me has been to see how people style it in different ways.”
While Diamond personally likes to wear the dress with chic ballet flats in the summer and layered with a turtleneck in the winter, she loves seeing her friends pair the dress with a leather jacket and Doc Martens, and all the creative ways the wider Hill House Home community make it their own on Instagram. “This product is for everyone,” the founder says. “There is no one nap dress woman.”
It’s this universality that suggests the nap dress will stand the test of time. And while their diverse consumer base helps ensure the brand’s sustainability, Hill House Home’s efforts behind the scenes play a role too. “We make an effort to work with a diverse range of models and influencers,” Diamond tells Forbes. Last year, Hill House Home brought on anti-racism consultant and advisor Dr. Akilah Cadet to help the company embed anti-racism into all their business decisions. From the faces in their marketing campaigns to the partners in their supply chain, Diamond knows prioritizing diversity and inclusion at every level of the company will be integral to the brand’s continued success.
But more likely, it will be Hill House Home’s ability to “read and react” to their community that will determine their future. Recognizing their strength lies in making modern iterations of historical trends, they’re now reinventing the 90’s with their latest Hill House University line. Re-watching sitcoms like Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Sister Sister as inspiration, the founder says the collection is filled with plaids and burgundies and was photographed at one of the Gossip Girl filming sites—the New York Academy of Medicine—to capture “those 90’s back-to-school vibes.”
Only time will tell the fate of the nap dress, but Diamond doesn’t seem worried. What matters more to the founder is seeing how the nap dress community interprets her designs. “One of the great highlights of my career has been to watch people take something we built with love and care, and watch it fly,” says the mother of three. “It’s like a child that went to live its best life, and all the children did different things. That’s been the great joy.”