Heather Shore knew breast-feeding would be complicated once she returned to her job. She expected to feel overwhelmed and conflicted by her new role as a working mother.
But her feelings of embarrassment? That came as a surprise.
“On my first day back, I ran out of a meeting after leaking through my dress,” recalled Shore. “I made it to the mother’s room to pump. Hormones racing, I threw off my clothes and sat there shivering in my pantyhose. I thought, my life is tough enough but it adds insult to injury that I’m half-naked.”
When Shore went looking for clothing adapted for nursing mothers, she was surprised to find there wasn’t much for professional women.
“I wanted the kind of clothes that I could wear when I gave a presentation to clients,” she said. “And I wanted to be able to pump in them without taking my top off.”
With a background in fashion, design and merchandising, Shore went to work.
Today, her baby is in kindergarten and Shore, 41, is busy launching her own fashion line, the Nourish Collection. The four dresses and two tunics all feature camouflaged openings that can easily and quickly accommodate a hungry baby or a pump attachment.
“Moms don’t want to draw attention to themselves,” she explained. “They want something effortless, without weird buttons, snaps and flaps. The top shouldn’t look like she’s trying to hide a cat.”
The pieces Shore designed are like the Swiss Army knives of dresses — they feature slits concealed by fabric that is strategically layered, zippered, gathered or ruched. What Shore calls the “access methods” are so cleverly engineered that she has three patents pending.
Mai Lor, a mother of two, tested the effectiveness of the design when she posed for Shore’s publicity photos. Lor brought along her 10-month-old and nursed the baby girl in the middle of the photo shoot.
“Heather really thought it through,” said Lor, 35. “There’s an opening in the seam line and the fabric drapes so you don’t notice. These are outfits you would wear after you’re done nursing. I gave away all my maternity clothes, but I’m keeping these.”
Using a color palette of gray, black, dusty coral and lilac, Shore’s garments are fashioned from a forgiving jersey rayon knit. The pieces come in sizes XS to XL, with prices starting at $68 for a double-cowl tunic and extending to $158 for the full-skirted maxi-dress.
Problem-solving by design
Shore’s lifelong interest in fashion emerged while she was still in elementary school in Minneapolis. She used to spend hours sketching outfits for her paper dolls. She studied apparel design at South Dakota State University, including a semester spent interning in Manhattan’s fashion district, before taking jobs with several women’s apparel retailers, including Maurice’s in Duluth.
As she researched her start-up, Shore augmented her hands-on background with business skills training though WomenVenture, a St. Paul nonprofit that supports female entrepreneurs.
“Heather saw that when you solve a problem, people are willing to pay for the solution,” said Thea Gaither, Shore’s adviser through WomenVenture. “For the woman who wants to stay fashionable when she’s at work, these dresses fill the need. They are functional and beautiful. She did the research on her niche.”
That niche — postpartum women returning to the workplace — is ever-expanding. According to research by Barkley, an independent ad agency, 9,000 millennial women give birth every day. And 40 percent of adults between 18 and 34 are already parents.
“Coming back to work the first day after having a baby is often the single hardest day of a woman’s career up to that point,” said Jessica Shortall, a well-known advocate for nursing moms in the workplace. “Many mothers feel guilty about returning to their jobs and pumping is so important to them. They see breast milk as what they alone can provide.”
Texas-based Shortall is the author of “Work, Pump, Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work.”
“Saving a little time during the pumping session does matter,” she continued. “We have the gear and gadgets to make it easier getting in and out of the mother’s room. We need business-appropriate clothing that meets women where they are and empowers them.”
Word of mouth
Working out of a studio in her Minneapolis duplex, Shore currently sells her collection online at nourishcollection.com. She expects that her pieces will soon be available through Amazon.com and will be carried in select Twin Cities boutiques next year.
Phase One of the Nourish Collection was manufactured in Asia, but Shore is now working with an East Coast manufacturer to produce new items for spring.
Shore’s long-range plan envisions bringing production to the metro area.
“I want to create an operation to train and employ women, mothers, as sewing operators,” said Shore. “I want to keep it sustainable and keep it in Minnesota.”
So far, word of mouth and social media have spread the news about the collection. And the most effective salespeople for these versatile outfits are the breast-feeding women who wear them.
“When a mother wearing one of my dresses is pumping in the office lactation room and another mom comes in who’s going to have to practically disrobe, that woman will say, ‘Where did you get that and how do I get mine?’ ” Shore said. “I talk to moms who ... jumped on their phones and placed their orders while they were sitting there pumping.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.