It was the name—”Nap Dress”—that got my attention when I saw an Instagram influencer post about it. To cope with the daily exhaustion of living through a pandemic, I often take a midday snooze. And here was a dress, made by a brand called Hill House Home, that promised to take you straight from a nap to a Zoom meeting. I was sold. I bought it immediately for $125 and have worn it almost every day for the past eight months.
I’m not alone. The Nap Dress came out two years ago but has become a hit during the pandemic, exponentially accelerating Hill House’s growth. The light cotton dress comes in five styles—with prices ranging from $75 and $150—all of which are characterized by smocking at the bodice, a tiered skirt, and dramatic sleeves. That’s right, women around the country have been floating through the pandemic in a gown reminiscent of a Jane Austen heroine.
Over the past year, the brand has struggled to keep up with demand. When the latest collection of dresses dropped on February 10, the brand sold $1 million worth of inventory in the first 12 minutes, and by the end of the day, it had generated more revenue than in all of 2019. (I wasn’t able to snag a green version of the dress I wanted because it sold out within hours.)
Nell Diamond, who founded New York-based Hill House in 2016 and serves as CEO, is now working to transform this sudden spike in sales into a strategy for long-term growth. Until now, she’s been focused on growing at a slow and steady pace; the company became profitable in its second year. But now she’s ready to scale: The brand just landed $6 million in Series A funding, which will help it design new products for a post-pandemic world, build stores, and grow beyond its small team of six employees.
As the name implies, Hill House didn’t start out as a fashion label at all. Diamond, who got her MBA from Yale, left a career in finance to launch a DTC bed and bath company. Hill House was part of a wave of startups—including Brooklinen, Parachute, and Boll&Branch—that had similar business models but catered to different tastes.
In 2018, Diamond wanted to add a dress to the line that was comfortable enough to wear around the house. Even though she has no formal training in design, she created it from scratch: She spent months obsessing over everything from the smocking at the bust that was flattering and not too rigid, to the flutter sleeves that made an impression. “The entire brand, and this particular dress, was really an extension of my identity as an extreme homebody,” Diamond says. “I would spend all my time at home if I could. I want to be comfortable, but I also want my outfit to make me look polished and at my best; I don’t think you need to compromise on that.”
Diamond wasn’t sure whether others would be as excited by the Nap Dress as she was, so the brand placed a small order to debut the new product, but it sold out instantly. This has been true of every subsequent drop, even though they keep increasing the order size. When COVID-19 hit, the brand’s existing relationships allowed it to restock quickly even as the pandemic roiled supply chains. “We have three different factories that make the Nap Dress as far away as Madagascar and Turkey,” Diamond says. “When one had to close because of COVID, we could continue paying for orders because another factory was up and running. Our goal is always to meet demand, rather than to create an air of exclusivity.”
COVID-19 pummeled the fashion industry. When the world went into lockdown and the economy began to look shaky, consumers stopped buying outfits. In April, sales of clothes dropped 79% in the United States, which was the largest decline on record. But when they did buy clothes, Americans were looking for comfy outfits for their lives at home. Sales of sweatpants went up by 80%. Meanwhile, Hill House struggled to keep the Nap Dress in stock. “I had designed the dress before I had ever done a Zoom call,” says Diamond. “But the design was actually perfectly suited to life in quarantine. It is so comfortable you can literally sleep in it, but you can also wear it to a meeting with your investors.”
During quarantine, the Nap Dress grew by word of mouth, rather than by marketing, since the brand only invested 5% of its sales in ads. And yet the average customer owns three dresses, Diamond says. The brand works with 15 influencers—including Katie Sturino and Julia Berolzheimer—who’ve helped make the dress ubiquitous on Instagram. But initially, that was a decision borne from necessity. “We were struggling to safely photograph our upcoming collections during the pandemic,” Diamond says. “Partnering with influencers was like hiring 15 little ad agencies that styled and shot every outfit, which we could then use on [our] website and marketing materials.”
Hill House is among a group of brands that serendipitously made products that consumers happened to want in quarantine—such as King Arthur’s Flour and Peloton. Now, they have to think about how to keep up momentum when the pandemic is over. This is something Diamond is actively plotting out—and where the influx of cash will come in handy.
It helps that the brand already has a wide range of products, which still make up 50% of its sales. Now, the challenge is to introduce Nap Dress fans to sheets and towels. But Diamond also wants to transform Hill House into a fully fledged fashion label. Over the past few months, the team has designed a range of new garments, including sweats, wrap dresses, and cardigans, to pop over the dresses in colder months. With the new funding, Diamond plans to grow her team and open a brick-and-mortar store in New York once customers are ready to venture out into the real world again. “This stay-at-home period is going to eventually come to an end,” she says. “We’re going to want to go out to dinners with friends again, and I want to have outfits ready for my customers when that happens.”