In 2002, Jan Erickson was taking care of a friend who was recovering from a stroke. The woman had a closet full of beautiful clothes that went unworn because it was too hard to put them on, and was living in hospital gowns.
One night, Erickson dreamed of a solution: a soft, lightweight jacket with no buttons and an opening in the back. When she awoke, she sketched the design and took it to a dressmaker.
The finished garment delighted her friend, and Erickson quickly came up with half a dozen more ideas for stylish, warm and simple-to-don clothing.
That was the genesis of Janska, the clothing company Erickson and her husband Jon Thomas run. At its peak in 2014, the company had more than 10,000 customers, $3 million in sales and 40 employees who worked out of a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in south Colorado Springs. The company received numerous accolades and got national attention when it was profiled on NBC’s “Today.”
But sales have declined precipitously in the past two years. Staff is down to 12, including Erickson, and in January, she and Thomas made the tough decision to close the business when their lease expires at the end of March.
“There are seismic shifts going on in our industry,” Erickson said. “Most of what we buy now is online, but there is another trend that I don’t feel is talked about that much: competition for the lowest price. Our stores would complain that customers would come into their beautiful boutiques, then go online and look for an item at the best possible price.”
Fast fashion out of Asia, produced in great quantities and sold cheaply, has flooded the market.
“People are attracted to prices, even though the quality is not going to be something that will last season after season,” she said.
Janska was a company with a social enterprise purpose before that term was coined.
“I’ve done a lot of research … about clothing and how important it is, not only for a person who can no longer dress themselves,” she said. “It matters in an emotional, physical way. All those pieces are really important in expressing our personhood and being seen as a valued person.”
Janska was committed to “made in the USA,” sustainability and providing a livable wage for its employees. The collection featured adaptive design — zipper or large-button closures, luxurious fleece fabric, generous sizing and easy shapes that were as popular with active women looking for style and comfort as they were with frailer customers.
Erickson expanded the collection, adding more coats, vests, hats, wraps and patented MocSocks — pull-on fleece booties with slip-resistant soles. In 2012, the company introduced a line of wind-resistant, water-repellent outerwear. Buyers at trade shows snapped them up.
But by 2017, the industry reached a tipping point with double-digit growth of online sales.
“We made a conscious effort to get as lean as possible, knowing that we had one shot at pivoting,” Erickson said.
Janska moved into a smaller warehouse off Fillmore Street and avoided layoffs by allowing staffing to dwindle through attrition.
A year and a half ago, Janska recommitted to its original purpose of making high-quality, adaptive clothing.
“We found that, even though there was a lot of interest in adaptive fashion, the market wasn’t there in a way that we needed it to be,” Erickson said. “We looked into social enterprise and working with an advisory board. But it does take being in a profitable position, and we weren’t able to pivot into that profitability place. We’ve had to put money in, and we can’t keep doing that.
“Just before we decided to close, we had finished a collection of adaptive fashions that I hope someday I, or someone else, will be able to take to the market,” she said. “We did not have the capital to launch that, but it’s complete. Maybe in a few years, the market will be ready.”
Meanwhile, Janska is conducting a final sale through its website.
“We gave our retail customers the opportunity to order,” Erickson said, “and we were inundated. We are sewing full time until we close. It’s very affirming how much people love the brand.”
Erickson still believes the company has something of value to offer.
“We’re still exploring ways to keep our No. 1 patented MocSocks available in some way. … We are packing away every single pattern and a sample for every single product so we can actually go back into production, or someone that wanted to produce would be able to pick up and run with it. … If [we could find] a partner who really understood and believed in the whole mission of Janska, we would be a partner in that enterprise.”