Written by Anthony Moujaes
The success of Jan Erickson's clothing company began with a simple mission – to assist one of her fellow church members recovering from a stroke.Today her Colorado company and clothing line, Janska, is on the rise, selling to more than 700 boutique stores in Northern America and Australia and a dozen catalogues.
While working as a minister of care for First Congregational UCC in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2001, Erickson visited Jean Jauchen in the hospital. Because of several strokes, Jauchen was unable to dress herself. After she awoke from a dream, Erickson sketched out a jacket for Jauchen, and asked a local business to make the jacket for her.
That jacket, which brought a smile to Jauchen's face, was the starting point for Janska. Comfort and dignity are important to a person's emotional, physical and social well-being, Erickson explains. Though Jauchen's mental state was unaffected by the strokes she suffered, she was physically unable to dress herself, and during hospital visits was relegated to wearing a hospital gown.
"People didn't see her as person (in the hospital gown). It's so easy to objectify people in that situation," Erickson said, adding that a basic garment with style and color worn around the shoulders, that is comfortable and warm can do a lot to make a person feel better.
Erickson's company, founded in 2003, has gone from start-up to multi-million-dollar manufacturer in 10 years. Business has doubled since 2010, earning Janska regional recognition from the Colorado Springs Economic Development Office as its 2011 ‘Company to Watch,' and an interview on a segment in June for TODAY.
Janska Wellness Wear is a line of clothing designed for people recovering from illness or injury, and people with special needs. With the recent addition of Janska Fashion, the line that focuses on boutique items, the company moved to a new location that combines a warehouse, manufacturing area and corporate offices in the same building.
"It's been really wonderful to be honored, and at the same time it makes us more determined do what we want it to do, to operate by our core values, to keep our mission of creating comfortable clothing," said Erickson.
After the idea for the original garment came to life, Erickson said other ideas starting popping in her head. Within a few months, she had five key garments (items for legs and ankles, a shawl, a cape with pockets, and a roomy jacket) that became the foundation of her clothing line. "There were a few designs that happened kind of quickly once that first jacket came into reality," Erickson said. "But that first jacket definitely was the one that started it."
With no background in operating a clothing line, Erickson said it was "pretty miraculous" how the company grew. People introduced her to a website manager, and a costume designer at a nearby college, as the company gained traction.
"I think the really pivotal point came early on in the first couple years. We thought we were a company for people like Jean. When we took the first five garments to a trade show in Denver in 2004, boutiques came up and started ordering. The boutique side, the more of the fashion-side, started growing fast, and we kept designing with keeping in mind how this suits our original purpose."
One item of clothing -- a cape, for example -- designed for a chemotherapy patient can function for autumn attire with a few touch-ups.
Janska filled a void in the fashion world, designing niche clothing for specific markets that helped the line gain attention. John Thomas, Erickson's husband, searched for companies similar to Janska. "We never found anything that was like what we were doing -- a combination of warmth, comfort, and dignity-fashion in easy-on, easy-off garments," Erickson said. "We just chipped away at it."
It wasn't an easy path for the out-of-nowhere company. "For the first eight years, we were not in the black," Erickson said. "We had to put in from our own savings."
Janska uses Polartec fleece fabric in its designs, Erickson said, since it was "ideal to take what we might think of as athletic wear and use it for a population that isn't mobile." The fleece is light, warm and machine-washable.
All of Janska's products are made using recycled fabrics, while some work is sent to locally-owned business to reduce costs. Leftover fabrics are recycled or donated to nonprofits.
Instead of exporting its manufacturing for reduced costs, Janska buys its resources and makes its clothing in the United States. "There are enough people in the United States who recognize the value of keeping manufacturing in this country," Erickson said.