The Mind Behind the Design

Tina McMillen Built PJ Harlow Around Sexy Comfort

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Though we carry the biggest sleepwear brands on the market, it’s the small L.A.-based PJ Harlow that’s become the most popular of them all here at Bare Necessities.

What is it about this satin-centric, mix-and-match collection that resonates so intensely with women of all ages? That’s an easy one: It looks as amazing as it feels.

We chatted with creator Tina McMillen about her design philosophy, her business sense and how Oprah changed everything. 

Tina McMillen

Q: How did you start PJ Harlow?
A: About 10 years ago, I had a manufacturing company to make satin dresses for girls, and their moms would always ask for stuff. I sold that company to start a little retirement business…and it went nuts! When loungewear first became a category, we were in the right place at the right time.

We started with 10 items. Within six months, Oprah named us one of her Favorite Things, which put us on the map. The company grew over the years, woman to woman; we see a lot of repeat buying and gift-giving. Now it’s for all ages: college students, brides, moms and their moms.

The way I see it, she touches it and loves the feel. Then she puts it on, and it feels good—really comfortable. Then she gets complimented on it. Women look really pretty in it. It’s sweet-sexy. They see it wears and washes well, so it becomes something they wear all the time. Once you buy something this good, you never want to go back.

Q: What’s your background? How did you get to where you are today?
A: All my life, I was in sales. I was raised in the restaurant business in California; my family was all entrepreneurs. I had my own office supply design company, then I fell in love, moved to Arizona, opened a retail store, then three stores, then I had a baby.

Once I had a baby, I thought I would make cute dresses. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I went to the school of hard knocks and came out okay. When I decided to do women’s wear, I wanted to do something really simple, stuff I really liked.

Q: What are your plans for the brand?
A: I just want to keep doing what we’re doing. I want to stay U.S.-made; that’s really important. I don’t want to grow into a million different styles and collections. We’ve created this cult following of super loyal pajama freaks, and if she’s not already, we turn her into one.

Q: Where do all the products’ names come from?
A: “PJ” is for pajamas, and “Harlow” because the name registers in my head as satiny, silky, flowy, soft and sexy. We named each garment based on who we feel she is…and so we don’t have to remember style numbers!

Q: Who is PJ Harlow designed for?
A: I started designing it for women like me. I’ve been in manufacturing for 30 years, and I buy myself a lot of better brands. I’m amazed because now we’re thinking about going into teens, into XXS because her little sister wants it, not just mom and grandma. We really run the gamut.

Q: What are your priorities when you’re designing?
A: I love oversized. The styles always have to be nonrestrictive and comfortable. People say our fit is generous. I’d rather have more room than not enough—what a terrible feeling to wear tight pajamas! At the same time, we also think about how many women a particular style will look good on.

Q: How do you manage both the creative and the business ends?
A: It’s funny, I’m a Ford mind—I like figuring out how to make it quick and simple—but I also love the creative side. That’s actually a way smaller part of this business. You have to squeeze the creative in between the cracks. The bigger part is running it. We produce thousands of garments a week now, and it’s the same as when clothing manufacturing was invented eons ago: sewing at machines, a lot of handwork. You have to have a really good crew. The women on the production line are artisans. They oversee a lot of detail. They have to make sure the things look right when they go in the package, to catch anything wrong with it. Clothes take up a lot of space. When you’re going from cutting table to sewing machine, it’s moving mountains every day. That’s what occupies most of my time.

Q: How do you know when you’ve created a great design?
A: I don’t really follow trends. We’re kind of independent of them. Dressing women and putting them in what they feel good in…we do it for that reaction. We want that moment of awe, that feeling of complete body-clothing harmony. When we’re dressing a woman, we know when she feels really good. That’s an awesome moment for a designer.

Q: When each piece is timeless and trend-resistant, how do you evolve the brand?
A: That’s the tough part. Some buyers want newness because that’s what they’ve been trained to find. Really, it’s tougher to edit than it is to add more. You have to have a lot of restraint because you can’t just take away a style. But if you’re not willing to retire it, you end up too diluted.

Q: What’s new and next for PJ Harlow?
A: Our newest color is coal, a dark, rich silver. As far as style goes, we’re going to be adding a lot of pieces that translate to outerwear, like pants with no ribbing. We know a lot of girls are wearing the pajama tops out with their jeans.

Q: What’s your favorite piece to wear?
A: I wear the Jolie Satin Capri Lounge Pants, I love the Jackie Satin Cami, the new Dena Modal Lounge Pants that we’re doing. It’s twisted that I design loungewear because I never lounge!

Have a thought or a note for Tina about PJ Harlow? Leave it for her below!

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Brooke Glassberg
Brooke is the editor of this here blog. In a previous life, she was an editor at Good Housekeeping and O, The Oprah Magazine. Brooke has written for Glamour, Travel+Leisure, New York Magazine and more. She’s into concerts, travel and her exceptionally adorable daughter and husband.
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