How Dôen Made Motherhood Seem Aspirational and Attracted a Cult Following

Everyone loves a bargain, but it takes a special kind of enthusiasm to attend a mobbed sample sale a mere week after giving birth. Amber Hay, a 34-year-old director of product and development at a beauty accessories company, was still wearing a pair of hospital-issued postpartum underwear when she made her way to Dôen’s New York sample sale in early February. It was a madhouse, she says: There was a line around the block, a line to look at a rack of clothing, and a line to get into a closely-packed changing room filled with women who were “all very sweet and apologetic with one another.” Over five days, 5,000 people attended the sale.

Nobody looked twice at Hay’s disposable mesh underwear; they all knew what was up. Dôen, which launched in 2016, isn’t a maternity brand, but it’s quickly become a magnet for women in search of stylish, pregnancy- and breastfeeding-friendly clothing. The appeal is partly practical: Empire waist dresses and trapeze smocks accommodate changing bodies (albeit up to size 12), and loose button-downs and wrap dresses are well-suited for nursing babies. But Dôen devotees will also tell you that the brand’s pastoral-feminine designs also have a certain psychological draw. Rooted in founders Katherine and Margaret Kleveland’s Santa Barbara upbringing, the brand’s breezy dresses, billowy blouses, and chunky knit sweaters evoke the kind of easygoing, sunny coastal California lifestyle. This is the Brandy Melville girl, all grown up and on an extended Napa vacation with her kids in tow.

Dôen rarely puts its products on markdown, and when it does host a sample sale, it causes a frenzy.

The Kleveland sisters used to work in the corporate fashion world, at brands like Joie and Equipment. With their own company, they wanted to rethink the merchant-driven process, in which buyers tell designers which colors and trends to focus on for a given season. This kind of mentality results in brands all making the same stuff, they say. Instead, the Klevelands set out to make clothing that they personally wanted to wear, at a price point between fast fashion and designer clothing that they felt was wide open. (The line maxes out at $558.) They declined to share exact sales figures, but say that in its first year Dôen doubled its projected revenue and has grown by at least 120 percent each year since. The brand rarely puts its products on markdown, and when it does host a sample sale, as it did in February, it causes a frenzy.

Hilary Walsh

Motherhood is inextricable from Dôen’s brand identity. The Klevelands started working on Dôen not long after they’d both given birth; Margaret’s son was just two weeks old when they began drafting a business plan. It was in those early days of motherhood that they felt a surge of entrepreneurial spirit.

“Margaret and I both felt that giving birth gave us this huge empowerment, and we felt so capable,” says Katherine. “It makes you feel like you can do anything… I think it puts a light on life is happening, seize the moment.”

Dôen’s clothes are built with pregnant bodies and breastfeeding in mind, though they can be worn just as well by someone for whom those aren’t considerations. Its campaigns always feature women and children (wearing its Yearling kids collection) playing in gardens or tramping through fields. They look gorgeous and healthy and not at all stressed, which I can only assume is aspirational to busy mothers. It certainly is to me, a childless 27-year-old.

‘We both felt that giving birth gave us this huge empowerment, and we felt so capable.’

Like many young brands, Dôen has a direct-to-consumer business model, meaning it sells exclusively through its own website rather than wholesaling to boutiques and department stores. (Following in the footsteps of many DTC companies, it’s now preparing to move from the internet to the real world, with its first store set to open in Los Angeles.) But Dôen doesn’t easily fit the mold of successful startups like Glossier, Reformation, and Outdoor Voices. Not only has it avoided the ubiquitous sans serif, minimalist branding (its typographic style is altogether more delicate and romantic), the Klevelands also haven’t funded their company by raising millions of dollars from Silicon Valley venture capital firms. They decided not to take on outside investment in order to maintain control of their brand; funding came from the Klevelands themselves, as well as friends and family. They describe their company as a collective, with equity shared among its ten core members.

Widely appealing yet hyper-focused, Dôen’s design aesthetic is unapologetically feminine, with an abundance of ruffles and puffy sleeves and floral prints, but it always retains a hippie-ish looseness. Its more obviously wearable tops and sweaters (like the best-selling “Henri,” “Lulu,” and “Jane,” named for Jane Birkin) are often styled with a pair of high-waisted blue jeans, à la Madewell. Dôen doesn’t do challenging clothing. It does clothing that will make you look good. To Hay, the mom who attended the sample sale shortly after giving birth to her second child, Dôen felt like a “graduation” from Reformation, a brand with which she closely identified a few years ago. She discovered Dôen just as her career passed the decade mark and she started having children, and found that its style and ethos — softer and less explicitly sexy than Reformation — resonated with her life and values. She now has a closet full of its dresses and blouses.

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Hilary Walsh

The vision of motherhood that Dôen puts forth hits home with shoppers on a practical as well as an aspirational level. Masa Hensley, a Mississippi-based photographer and an ardent Dôen fan, first fell in love with the brand because of its aesthetic but equally appreciates that she can run after her four-year-old or breastfeed her one-year-old in its dresses. Hensley is just as likely to wear these pieces when she’s not pregnant as when she is, and this versatility points to a key element of Dôen’s appeal to women: It makes no concessions when it comes to maternity dressing.

Dôen felt like a “graduation” from Reformation: softer and less explicitly sexy.

“I’m so glad I live in a generation where you can be stylish and be a mom,” says Hensley, who is 29 and owns seven Dôen pieces. “For my mom’s generation — she talks about this all that time — it was so hard to find cute or stylish nursing-friendly things. This always bothered my mom, that she couldn’t find things that were super stylish, and we live in a generation where we’re knocking it out of the park.”

Dôen gets recommended a lot on the online forums for mothers that Hensley frequents. Thanks to those discussions, it’s got a lot of hype in the mom community, she says.

At the same time, Dôen appeals to Amy Gaudion, a 24-year-old from a village in rural England who says that she doesn’t really want kids. She gravitates toward Dôen’s designs because of their femininity and breathability — “I don’t like to feel constrained” — although the expense of the products plus shipping to the UK limits how often she can buy the brand. (She owns two of its dresses and asks relatives who live in the States to bring purchases over for her when they visit.) In lieu of regularly shopping Dôen, Gaudion, who went to art school, uses its campaigns as source material for her paintings, which she posts on Instagram.

Direct-to-consumer brands rely on social media visuals to do the bulk of their marketing, and Dôen excels at this. Always shot in natural light and usually outdoors, Dôen’s product imagery is compellingly free-spirited: Models—some of whom appear to be over the age of 30—frolic in the surf, cradle baby sheep on a farm, and dunk their bare feet in a stream.

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Hilary Walsh

“Nine months after we launched we saw a huge wave of customers doing their own photoshoots in our clothes and tagging us on Instagram,” says Katherine. “It felt like this whole visibility into our community, and you could tell that they felt beautiful. That’s all you’re hoping for.” If you take a scroll through its tagged photos on Instagram, you’ll see a lot of pictures of shoppers wearing Dôen, photographed in a manner that’s remarkably similar to its lookbooks. “Our photographer and partner Hilary Walsh shoots in a very golden cast and we definitely saw that people were very much imitating her style of shooting,” adds Margaret.

Walsh has done all of Dôen’s campaigns, and, with the Klevelands’ blessing, has molded that aspect of the brand’s aesthetic in her image. When I asked her to describe her photography style, she said she hadn’t really considered that question before; she likes keeping shoots uncomplicated and photographing Dôen’s models in natural light without much in the way of equipment. She doesn’t create mood boards, and, surprisingly for someone whose work is so popular on social media, quit Instagram in January because she was concerned about getting sucked into an aesthetic echo chamber and subconsciously replicating other people’s work. The Klevelands, on the other hand, say that they love the feedback loop of seeing how customers are wearing Dôen on Instagram and getting inspired by them in turn.

With just 33 employees — and with relative freedom from investors seeking a return — Doen can operate differently from traditional clothing brands. The brand’s website touts its commitment to sustainable and ethical production. The Klevelands say they’re taking a methodical approach to achieving its goal of dressing customers from head to toe, rather than chasing down new categories in the pursuit of sales growth. “We’re committed to never just generating product for sales’ sake,” says Margaret. “I’ve seen a lot of fashion brands exponentially grow and have a strong following, then get oversaturated and fizzle.”

Dôen’s photographer quit Instagram, concerned about getting sucked into an aesthetic echo chamber.

For fans, that dedication to slow growth and ethical production is part of the draw. Gaudion says that she doesn’t even mind the prohibitive cost of Dôen’s products, knowing that they’re solidly constructed and made of quality materials.

Hensley expressed a similar feeling, adding that she appreciates its recyclable packaging. Hay, who has worked in the fashion industry, notes that it takes a lot of effort for a brand to do things right — it would have been so easy for Dôen to make its clothing out of polyester rather than silk, she says, and she appreciates that the company didn’t.

“‘Cultish’ is the right word,” she says of the brand’s appeal. “But it’s for really good reasons.”