Jan Erickson woke in the middle of the night from a dream and sketched a design for a loose fitting woman’s jacket that would become a signature piece of her future business, Janska clothing.
She didn’t know then that she would put her house up as collateral for a line of credit, or hire small manufacturing firms across the country, or that sales of her clothing company would surpass $2 million.
She only wanted to give one woman, someone she had been visiting in a nursing home, some warmth and dignity.
“She would sometimes have her coat on backward because people would be able to slip it on her backward; or worse, she was lying there, freezing cold, in one of those horrid hospital gowns,” Erickson said.
Erickson had a jacket, with a slit up the back and large loose fitting sleeves, specially made for the woman in the home. And when Erickson slipped the fleece jacket over the woman’s head, the woman smiled and exhaled.
“Then, all these other ideas just started tumbling into my head,” Erickson said.
From a dream to reality
Janska clothing, based in Colorado Springs, is on track to hit $2.3 million in revenue this year. That’s nearly double last year’s sales. And one financial adviser, giving guidance to the company, believes Janska can quadruple revenue and have most of its manufacturing done in the Springs within the next five years.
“It’s a true success story,” said Gerald Smith, retired businessman and volunteer counselor at SCORE. “I think, sincerely, their future is almost unlimited.”
In 2003 — two years after Erickson dreamed the design of the loose-fitting jacket — Erickson and her husband Jon Thomas put everything on the line and opened Janska. They rented a little warehouse on E. Platte Avenue and contracted a Colorado Springs sewing company, Sew & Sew, to make their jackets, lap blankets, mocsocks and wraps.
Almost immediately, Janska got a big break. It’s easy wear jacket — like the one Erickson had made for her friend in the nursing home — was featured on the Today show segment “Savvy Senior” and the orders started coming in.
The garments, which Erickson calls wellness clothing, sold online and to hospital gift shops. But, something interesting happened when they took their apparel to the Denver Merchandising Market; small, upscale clothing boutiques, including Luma at The Broadmoor, wanted Janska’s jackets.
“People loved the clean, simple design,” Erickson said. “We thought what have we got here?”
Neither Erickson nor Thomas knew anything about the apparel industry. Erickson’s background was in restaurant management and community giving; Thomas had just retired from his law practice and was thinking of spending his time fly-fishing. But, there was something special about the wellness clothing and its universal design, they said, so they pressed on.
“Every single year we grew and I realized in 2005 that Sew & Sew was not able to do enough of our business to keep us going,” Erickson said.
In addition to Sew & Sew, the couple now contracts a half dozen sewing shops in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois to make garments for 700 boutiques across the country and Canada. All of the fabrics are also made in the U.S. and the scraps — about 30 percent of all the fabric — are donated to Project Linus and a group of women in Juarez, Mexico who are learning how to become commercial sewers. (Their work often comes back to the U.S. and can be found in Yobel Market in Old Colorado City.)
Two years ago, Janska hired designer Ann Lindsay to build clothing collections for the company. The idea, Erickson said, is that people typically order one item from a single collection. But, if there are three or more collections, they typically order from at least two of the collections.
“That happened,” Erickson said. “We had three different collections — very different looks from one another — and our sales doubled.”
About that time sales doubled, the couple turned to SCORE financial and small business counselors for help on their financial planning.
“For us, growth can be really scary,” Thomas said. “One thing we heard was that you can run into a brick wall even though you are successful.”
They needed a plan, said Smith, who has been a volunteer SCORE counselor since 2004. Smith and counselor Mike Conway helped Erickson and Thomas build a budget and cash flow analysis. With their new plan, they secured a line of credit from UMB. And, in June, Janska bought the equipment from a small Colorado Springs sewing company that was going out of business and retained five of the six commercial sewers.
“That was a huge step for us,” Thomas said.
They added shifts and today they have 15 sewers who make up their total 28 employees.
“In some ways we both feel incredibly blessed,” Thomas said. “Think of starting a business after age 50, starting with nothing and having it blossom into what it is right now . . . it’s been an amazing journey.”
Next month, Janska will move into a larger facility, one with 15,000-square feet. It’s their goal to bring about 60 to 80 percent of the manufacturing to Colorado Springs. They expect to hire at least a half dozen more sewers and run three shifts.
“When I hear the President talking about manufacturing jobs coming back to the U.S. and I realize that Janska is participating in that — it gives me such happiness,” Erickson said.
This year, Janska will focus on growing its wellness clothing collection. In June, the company’s wellness clothing line will be featured on Jane Pauley’s show “Your Life Calling,” a project in conjunction with AARP targeted to the 78 million baby boomers.
“We’ve seen research . . . on clothing and dementia that says, even people who have severe dementia will be more relaxed, what they wear and have closest to their bodies affects them and the social dynamic,” Erickson said. “And, they are treated better.”
Janska’s new catalog goes to press next month and will include a new line of rain jackets and new items in the spring fashion collection.
“Janska means coming through Jan,” Erickson said. “I really felt that this is a life’s calling, it was something I was meant to do.”