When Yoko Shimada gave birth to her son Hugo in 2010, she was in a state of euphoria as many of us new moms are. But, “there is another side of motherhood that no words can describe,” she remembers. “Nobody really tells you how truly challenging it can be. Sleeplessness, hormone-induced sweating, post-pregnancy excess weight and saggy stomach, postpartum hair loss, lack of time for any form of self-care like showering, putting on decent clothes and exercising.” Sound familiar?
She struggled with breastfeeding, and when that got easier, she struggled with breastfeeding in public. And then she struggled with pumping when she went back to work as a global public health exec. She had to look professional, but also needed easy access to her breasts for pumping. Dresses were impossible. “I had to completely undress, or at the very least, undress from the waist up (if there was a zipper in the back) in order to pump. If someone were to walk in the door while I was pumping, I would look completely naked.”
And so she dreamed up Mitera Collection, a beautiful, functional and practical line of versatile nursing- and pumping-friendly dresses. Three years and one more baby (Emmeline) later, it came to life. The inaugural collection launched this spring and includes 6 styles that range from casual to professional to party. It reflects the sensibility of an urban mom, who Shimada says, “is not just a mom, but a woman who wears many different hats.” Mitera is also committed to newborn and maternal health; a percentage of revenue will support organizations working in that space.
Below, Shimada talks about the journey to launch Mitera, and how it’s helping solve at least one challenge we all face postpartum: what to wear.
Tell us about your own breastfeeding experience.
Society expects and everything in the media tells you that you are supposed to be HAPPY to be a mom. But having done it twice now, it is not that simple. I admit that the first three to four months into my postpartum period was both the happiest and hardest time of my life. As a global health professional who specialized in maternal and child health, I knew the benefits of breastfeeding and I spent my career educating women in different parts of the world about the importance of breastfeeding and its benefits for both the baby and mom. But when it was my turn, I realized how hard it actually was. My nipples cracked and bled and they hurt for a good month and a half (with both kids!). Constant breastfeeding sessions every few hours = no sleep, no rest. Pumping sucked. Period. But after persevering through a few problems for the next two months, I was successfully breastfeeding and came to really enjoy it.
How did that experience plant the seed for Mitera?
Just when I had gotten used to the breastfeeding process, I encountered another problem – breastfeeding in public. On top of already feeling unattractive, I could not really wear clothes that made me feel somewhat normal. Instead, I was wearing ‘nursing’ friendly clothes where I could easily and ‘discreetly’ pop my breasts out for feeding my son or lift a shirt exposing my midriff, the most vulnerable part of my postpartum body to nurse. Both of my babies were extremely unhappy with the nursing cape that they constantly batted away, every time I tried to cover myself. When my son was 3 months old, we took him to Japan (my home country) to introduce him to his extended family. In addition to the stress of traveling internationally with my newborn son, it was also a struggle to feed, pump and store milk at the airport and in the economy seat of an airplane. It was messy and I felt uncomfortable, frustrated and miserable.
What about your back-to-work experience?
Four and a half months after Hugo was born, I went back to work. The lactation room in our building was located in a dark basement. After trying to pump there a couple of times, I started pumping in my office with a big sign on the door saying “DO NOT ENTER.” I pumped while checking emails. I pumped while eating lunch. I pumped while on conference calls. I pumped all the time.
This is when I ran into yet another challenge – my wardrobe. Since my days were so busy with no option to stay late, I had to be ultra efficient while accommodating my pumping schedule. My attire had to be in line with the professional look of the World Bank, but also make it easy for me to quickly access my breasts for pumping.
Out of necessity, I started sketching my ideas out for nursing dresses nice enough to wear to the office. Initially, I never really thought about making them. But, then I realized that I couldn’t find anything in the market that really worked for me. I found a patternmaker in Japan to make the prototypes and had a tiny factory in Kobe produce the first samples of my breastfeeding dresses. I wore them all myself out of necessity and also to test them. It was not long until other moms started noticing them and asking me where I got the dresses. So, I continued working on the design in the evenings after I put my son to bed, while holding down a fulltime job that required constant international travel. It took me another three years and one more baby to decide to develop my idea into a business.
Tell me about the Mitera aesthetic.
Contemporary, Sophisticated, Modern, Chic, Urban, Simple, Inspiring and Empowering. I designed all the dresses from the point of view of a woman who is a mother. Our dresses are designed to be first and foremost beautiful and then functional and practical. I want women to feel like they are done the minute they put on our dresses (as moms, we are always short on time, right?). All of our pieces are designed to be versatile – from day to night, brunch to dinner, playdate to cocktail, office to evening, and kids birthday parties to weddings.
How are they functional for breastfeeding and comfortable for postpartum?
All of our dresses have the patent-pending hidden zipper system which allows for discreet feeding and pumping. Three out of the six dresses have what we call a modesty bra, which is a thin lining or a loose sports bra offering extra protection when the zippers are open. All of our dresses are machine-washable and several come with huge pockets for essential mom items like keys, pacifiers and toy cars. I know how messy mommying can get, so I envisioned those days when I might be nursing a baby while dealing with a toddler covered in Nutella or some other sticky substance! With our timelessly chic design, completely hidden zipper access and practical luxury afforded by details like pockets and washability, our pieces are meant to be worn through pregnancy, nursing and well beyond, through the joys and challenges of motherhood. I wanted to design dresses that women would want to wear even if they are not pregnant or nursing.
What kind of fabrics do you use?
We use only high quality durable and washable fabrics made in Japan. This has practical and ethical reasons. We searched high and low for luxurious yet durable and washable materials for our dresses. While it would be nice to wear a silk dress, it is not practical when you have small children and cost of dry cleaning could be prohibitive. I personally source fabrics from Japan and we know where our fabrics are manufactured and feel confident about their quality, as well as traceability.
Why is wearing a nursing-specific item so important for a breastfeeding mom?
Most dresses do not allow easy access for discreet breastfeeding. Most of the time actually, wearing a dress as a breastfeeding mom means taking it all off or becoming half-naked if there was a zipper in the back, in order to nurse. It is just not practical. There are great designs like the classic V-neck dresses or crow-neck dresses where you can access your breasts for feeding or pumping, but the problem is that these designs are fairly limited. I wanted to wear dresses to go to the office and needed something that was professional as well as elegant and something that allowed me to easily access my breasts for frequent pumping while I was on a conference call or typing an email. I could certainly not wear a deep V-neck with my protruding lactating boobs (lol!).
What can we expect in future seasons from Mitera?
We might be adding fun colors to add to the existing line and our second collection is in the works. We are thinking a jumpsuit, maybe a top and more! We also have plans to design nursing bras and accessories all with the same Mitera aesthetic.
Tell us more about the mother-to-mother program.
Because of my background in global public health, I have always been passionate about issues surrounding maternal and child health. When I became a mother myself, these issues became even more personal. Pregnancy and childbirths should be the one of the happiest times of a woman’s life, yet the reality in the most of the developing world is different.
Each year around the world, 2.9 million newborns needlessly die within their first month and an additional 2.6 are stillborn. One million babies die the same day they are born. Furthermore, approximately 290,000 mothers die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Over 90% of the deaths occur in the developing world, and 90% of them are preventable. While great strides have been made in reducing global child mortality, newborns now account for 44 percent of all childhood deaths. That is why we decided to focus on newborn health.
With our Mother to Mother program, our intention is to help bring innovation to affect social change - in this case, to improve maternal and newborn health. Our focus is to identify innovators and market disruptors who are working to improve maternal and newborn health and partner with them in our program.
Our first partner will be D-Rev, a San Francisco based non-profit product development company dedicated to improving access to world class medical technologies for the population living on $4 a day. We chose to partner with them because 1) they focus in particular on newborn health through their device called ‘Brilliance’ to treat neonatal jaundice, 2) they are innovative in how they aim to achieve their goal of radically improving accessibility to health technologies that can save and improve people’s lives, 3) all of their products are designed to scale on the market, not through donations or subsidies, 4) they are committed to transparency which is important to us in terms of showing our customers where our donation goes.