With Emerson and Friends, alum Nicole Northway has built a booming business offering custom illustrated bamboo pajamas, books, children’s items and more

by | Nov 27, 2023

Northway, who holds a BFA from UMSL, founded the company with her husband, Cody Kirchner, in 2018.
Nicole Northway

Nicole Northway, who graduated with a BFA from UMSL, is the founder of Emerson and Friends, a family-run business in Clearwater, Florida, specializing in bamboo pajamas and other children’s items. (Photos courtesy of Nicole Northway)

When Nicole Northway read a statistic that only 1% to 3% of women-founded companies make a million dollars or more, she wasn’t discouraged – she was inspired.

“I took that as a personal goal to be like, OK, I’m going to be that 1% to 3%,” she said.

And she was. Northway, who earned her BFA from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, owns Emerson and Friends, an apparel company based in Clearwater, Florida, that specializes in bamboo pajamas for the whole family. The brand is known for its fun, colorful prints – all of which are illustrated in house – and soft bamboo material.

When Emerson and Friends first officially hit the market in 2018, it was one of few companies nationwide to use bamboo fabrics, which Northway said quickly garnered interest in the brand.

Emerson and Friends makes bamboo pajamas for the whole family and also produces illustrated books, puzzles, stuffed animals, stickers, quilts and toys to complement the apparel

Emerson and Friends makes bamboo pajamas for the whole family and also produces illustrated books, puzzles, stuffed animals, stickers, quilts and toys to complement the apparel.

“Most commercial sleepwear that you find in big box retailers is sprayed down with a flame-retardant chemical that is very, very bad for skin,” she said. “Legally you have to do that or you have to make the garment very tight-fitting. I have really sensitive skin, so in my research I came upon bamboo. It’s very breathable, it’s cooling and anti-microbial, and it’s just really good for people with sensitive skin. It’s not full of all those harsh chemicals. That’s initially what interested me, and I got a sample from the factory and I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is so soft.’ It’s like the softest thing you’ve ever felt, and you just want to curl up inside it. So I was immediately obsessed.”

Northway launched Emerson and Friends out of a spare bedroom in her condo after she and her husband, Cody Kirchner, relocated to Florida from Chicago with their daughter, Emerson, the brand’s namesake. The early years were certainly challenging, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused retailers to cancel orders and staff members to quit, but Northway and her husband – who had recently welcomed another daughter, Lucy – split shifts working to keep the business going through the tumultuous time.

With many people working from home, they started to see interest in Emerson and Friends pajamas grow, and they wound up making their first million between 2021 and 2022. Northway believes the brand has been so successful in part due to a shift in the culture around motherhood.

“These younger moms are making motherhood cool,” she said. “You have your cute Instagram moms, and they have adorable baby nurseries, and their kids are dressed better than I am. That just wasn’t a thing when I first had Emerson – you just had Target or Walmart or Carter’s. There weren’t that many choices out there, but now I feel like it’s just growing and growing.”

Emerson and Friends’ most popular item is its pajamas, which are available for babies, kids and adults, but Northway is working to branch out into other categories. Last year, she started a second brand, Lucy’s Room, named for her younger daughter. The brand includes illustrated books, puzzles, stuffed animals, stickers, quilts and toys designed to complement the apparel from Emerson and Friends. All of the company’s illustrations are created in house, including animals found in the jungle, ocean and desert, as well as prints like rainbows, florals and holiday images. Northway leans on her fine arts background as well as skills in digital art and illustration that she gained through reading books and watching YouTube videos.

“It’s really important for us to have prints that no one else has, so we do make them in house,” Northway said. “I would say they’re really playful. There’s a lot of animal-based prints because I love animals and nature, and then I really love Florida so you’ll see that a lot of our prints are ocean-driven and tropical. It usually just starts with a sketch or an idea, and then I draw the little characters and we put them into a print and then we just try them on different body styles.”

Wholesale makes up 80% of the business, and Emerson and Friends has formed key retail partnerships to make its products available across the country in stores such as Marshalls, SCHEELS, TJ Maxx and Von Mauer. In November 2022, the company opened its first boutique in Clearwater, Florida.

“I’ve really been trying to grow the direct-to-consumer side of the business, so opening the store was a big part of that to build brand awareness locally,” Northway said. “And to create something in real life so people can test and feel and see the products. It’s been really cool to meet all the moms in our area, especially the kids – that’s the most fun part.”

As CEO of the company, Northway spends her days strategizing, delegating and meeting with different departments across the company, which now boasts 17 employees. Up until a few months ago, she was still designing all of Emerson and Friends’ illustrations herself, but she recently hired another designer so that she can take a step back to continue to grow the business. In three to five years, she hopes to hit $10 million in revenue, but she stressed that that’s not the only benchmark she’s using to measure success.

“It’s not really money that I care about so much as just seeing what I’m capable of and seeing what we’re capable of as a team and how we can overcome obstacles and challenges at each new growth benchmark,” she said. “Every million we add in revenue brings on a whole new slew of problems and challenges that we have to work through, and part of me really likes that – just seeing what I can do and seeing how we can move around those obstacles to get to the next level. Outside of the revenue goal, I would really like to become a household name where people are like, ‘Oh yeah, Emerson and Friends.’ I feel really passionate about having safe products for children and really cool things that make learning fun.”

Share
Heather Riske

Heather Riske

Eye on UMSL: The flavor of homecoming
Eye on UMSL: The flavor of homecoming

Senior business major Jalen Walker-Wright gets a cup of southwest chili from Vanessa Loyd and Erin Schaeffer during last Thursday’s homecoming Chili Feed.

Eye on UMSL: The flavor of homecoming

Senior business major Jalen Walker-Wright gets a cup of southwest chili from Vanessa Loyd and Erin Schaeffer during last Thursday’s homecoming Chili Feed.

Eye on UMSL: The flavor of homecoming

Senior business major Jalen Walker-Wright gets a cup of southwest chili from Vanessa Loyd and Erin Schaeffer during last Thursday’s homecoming Chili Feed.