Author: Walker, Meagan
Date published: September 1, 2011
IT STARTED WITH a call from her lawyer. One afternoon in 2008, Suzy Kogen Friedman asked her counsel to contact Jessica Ralli, founder and creative director of Soft, a clothing line designed for children with sensory sensitivities. Friedman was suspicious that Ralli was part of a corporation with which she had shared her business concept, since Ralli's idea was so surprisingly similar. As they talked, it was evident that the designer was unaffiliated with any corporation and in fact was on the search for someone with Friedman's business expertise to help run the company. Within a few weeks, Ralli flew from NYC to Chicago to meet Friedman, after which they proceeded full speed ahead- as a team. The two found great minds really do think alike.
As a mother to a child with Autism and sensory sensitivities, Friedman knew daily dressing challenges well and could confirm what Ralli had found in two years of tireless market research conducted on web forums and parent surveys. "The recent research reports one in 20 children experience [sensory sensitivity] symptoms," Ralli explains. "For parents, it's a huge power struggle, and it can even prevent children from focusing in school." And with that they were sure there was a need for their product.
The point, though, was for the clothing to look stylish and not like any special consideration was taken, Ralli says. "A few companies out there were making clothes that looked very clinical," she explains. "There was no design concept behind them; they were just about comfort." So with the help of three of Ralli's closest friends, who designed for Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and Alexander Wang, the new business partners were able to produce a line that not only made children comfortable with flat seaming, tubular knits and out-facing seams, but that was also chic.
While Ralli says the goal was to create a core line of basics that provides parents with everything they need day to day, Spring '12 will bring some flashier duds, as well as an all-organic cotton collection. Gingham, floral and stripes dominate the upcoming range, and a special line inspired by surf will debut for the spring. "It's a very Australian collection," Ralli says. "I feel like it works very well for the change of seasons, with jean jackets, long-sleeve tunics, short shorts, rompers and mini skirts." Soft will also release a rain jacket for the first time- something Ralli says was difficult to design with sensory sensitivity in mind. Rather than using plastic, Ralli designed the slicker using waxed canvas. And looking forward to Fall '12, Soft gets luxe with faux shearling, a cape, a kimono and a full suit for little professionals, truly helping fulfill the company's mission: Dress up without the drama. -M.W.