Former East Lyme residents oversee booming sleepwear line

Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day A display of Performance Sleepware at Smoochie Bird, a gift shop in East Lyme. The sleepwear is made from wicking fabric and was created by Anne and Kirby Best, formerly of East Lyme.

Anne and Kirby Best use wicking fabric for their booming sleepwear line

In December 2000, when she was living in East Lyme, Anne Best was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recalls now that the doctors and nurses warned her about all sorts of side effects of going through surgery and chemotherapy. They did, though, neglect to mention one aspect about the chemo: it can send a woman into menopause - and into night sweats.

"When you're going through something that intense, sleep is just something you crave and really need," says Best, who was 43 at the time. "What was happening was, I would get so incredibly hot, like an inferno, basically, in the middle of the night. Then you wake up soaking wet. If you don't get up and change the bedding and your sleepwear ... you wake up half an hour later freezing cold. So it was just a vicious cycle.

"It was really debilitating and something that wasn't getting better, frankly."

Anne's husband, Kirby, suggested she wear some of his wicking long-underwear that he used when playing winter sports. (He had been a member of the Canadian bobsled and biathlon teams.)

"It helped," she says. "I actually slept through the night. It was remarkable."

It didn't just help her get a good rest. It also sparked an idea. She thought about creating pajamas out of fabric that wicks moisture away from the body, but to do it in a more luxurious fabric than athletic wear - fabric that was "comfortable and elegant and soft and light," she says.

The notion took flight, and the company, Performance Healthcare Products - based in Tennessee, where the Bests moved in 2002 - has grown over its 10 years of existence. Indeed, it's expanded well beyond the initial work. At first, the Bests focused on one design. They eventually added different styles to the mix, including men's sleepwear.

Now, the company has grown to where it has its own plant and has added a second product line - scrubs.

And, as of March, a store in the Bests' former hometown of East Lyme is selling the Bests' Performance Sleepwear. Smoochie Bird, a gift shop in the Tri-Town plaza at Flanders Four Corners, is the only store in Connecticut and Rhode Island that carries the product. Nestled among the displays of jewelry and handbags and greeting cards are samples of Performance Sleepwear.

If someone wants to buy an item, Smoochie Bird owner Cindy Lightner brings them to an in-store computer where they pick the color trim and buttons they want. The fabric, meanwhile, comes in white, pink or black. The order is submitted, and the result is sent to the buyer's home.

As for examples of prices, the full pajama set goes for $99.99, while a cami top is $29.99. (The store currently doesn't feature Performance Scrubs.)

Having an idea like the Bests' is one thing. Taking that concept and making it happen is another. What helped was that Kirby Best has always been involved with manufacturing; it had just been in the book industry as opposed to apparel. His knowledge became a vital component in the company's development.

Important, too, was finding a supplier of just the kind of fabric they wanted - the South Carolina-based Milliken, which has been the Bests' partner ever since.

Since the Bests have done most of their business over the Internet, they realized they didn't need to keep inventory. So, when someone places an order, they aren't taking an existing piece off a shelf; they make it for the customer, turning an order around in a couple of days. Kirby best knew this type of on-demand manufacturing well; he ran the largest on-demand book manufacturing business in Tennessee.

What started out as a hobby has become a thriving business.

"We have thousands and thousands of people wearing our sleepwear. I couldn't even quantify it, honestly," Anne Best says.

***

The Bests lived in East Lyme for seven years, from 1995 to 2002. During that time, they were active in the community. Kirby Best, for instance, helped start the East Lyme youth lacrosse program.

Anne, who had worked for AT&T for 18 years before moving here, was very involved with the East Lyme school system and eventually became a member of the Board of Education.

"I keep saying I'm an education wannabe," she says. "I loved every minute of working with the school district in East Lyme."

Her biggest project was as co-chair of the design committee for the new middle school. The committee was responsible for the vision plan, hiring the architect and the constuction management company, and initially marketing the idea to the town and getting it through a referendum.

The irony was that Kirby Best got a great job opportunity - to build that on-demand book manufacturing business in Tennessee - just as the new middle school was heading toward opening.

Anne Best recalls, "I said, 'No, no, no, no! I've just spent all these years working on this new middle school and it's about to open in September. My children WILL go to this school.'"

And three of their four boys who, at that point, were in grades 5, 7 and 8, stayed long enough to go to the middle school for one month before moving in October 2002.

Anne Best's introduction to the school board began when she was the liaison from the Flanders Elementary School to the board.

"I took my job very seriously and went to all the Board of Ed meetings, to the bitter end when they were discussing garbage contracts. Finally, Mary Broderick, who was the chairperson of the board, came up to me, and she said, 'I can't help noticing you keep sitting here meeting afer meeting,'" Best says, adding with a laugh, "Basically, who the hell are you? Why are you interested in this?"

Best explained she wanted to bring back relevant information to other Flanders parents. Broderick suggested Best might want to join the technology committee. She did. After that, Best became Flanders PTA president and was involved in the high school's math/science and pool additions before the middle school project.

While the Bests moved away from East Lyme, they have remained friends with, among others, Karen Doherty and her family. Doherty was the connection between Performance Sleepwear and Smoochie Bird. She was wearing Performance Scrubs when she wandered into the store to shop. She and owner Lightner began chatting.

Doherty, who has been working to promote Performance Scrubs primarily to the health care field, says, "When I see an opportunity for the sleepwear, I then have a discussion about the line. Cindy Lightner was the very first person who saw the value for her customers and felt Performance Sleepwear would be a fit for her store. That was very exciting for me, as I knew how the community rallied around Anne when she was diagnosed with her cancer. I felt that this would be a long distance but fun way to have Anne part of the community again. And what a perfect place to be, where she called home for seven years."

***

Performance Sleepwear customers are actually from all over the world.

"It's easy to be international because we don't ship masses of inventory," Best says.

Their first buyer was Canadian. (Kirby Best is Canadian, and their sons were born in Canada.) The company has a distributor in Finland. A customer from South Africa was the one who first suggested the Bests make sleeveless nightgowns and not just the long-sleeved ones they were producing at the time.

Best says, "When we first started, what was most gratifying was to be able to speak to women who found relief and some comfort in our product and to hear their stories."

The line now has a wide-ranging group of fans, from new mothers to men to young adults.

The name Performance Sleepwear and Scrubs, by the way, refers to the technical properties of the fabric used.

The scrubs - added to the line four years ago, after hearing requests from medical professionals - are not made from exactly the same fabric as the sleepwear because, Best notes, it has to be "street-worthy," but it still has the same properties.

As for the sleepwear that started it all, Best says she literally has been wearing and rotating the same three nightgowns for 10 years.

"They don't wear out. They don't fade. You don't lose the wicking properties, the odor control. They don't wrinkle. They travel super easily," she says. "Honestly, they just don't wear out."

And, she says of Performance Sleepwear, "I'm excited that people can go and see it in East Lyme and touch it. It's fun to have a representative in East Lyme."

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