Nursing by Design

When Christina Rojas-Fletes, MSN, RN, ANP-C, began preparing to take her first job as a nurse several years ago, she encountered an unexpected problem. She found that nurses’ scrubs sold in retail and uniform stores were bland, baggy and poorly made.

“There wasn’t a lot of fashionable attire out there for nursing uniforms,” recalls Rojas-Fletes, a cardiology nurse at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles who also works as a nurse practitioner at a long-term care facility. So she decided to design her own scrubs and asked her 80-year-old grandmother, Elma Rivera–a lifelong seamstress–to sew them for her.

“I would give her the idea and she would make them for me,” says Rojas-Fletes, a native of Delano, Calif., a farming community halfway between Fresno and Sacramento. “I would wear them to work and people started to notice them and ask me where I bought them.”

By 2004, the growing demand from her co-workers had spawned a business, Amelia’s Scrubs, named for her now two-year-old daughter. It took a year and a half, between $30,000 and $40,000 of Rojas-Fletes’ own money, plus assistance from friends and other Latina businesswomen to get the start-up business up and running.

Amelia’s Scrubs sells what Rojas-Fletes describes as “boutique-style” limited edition scrubs with designer prints and bright colors. The jackets, tops and pants are made of cotton rather than the usual polyester fabric. Features like asymmetrical necklines, zippers, larger pockets and drawstring ties that create definition around the waist give them a more stylish and form-fitting look. The company’s slogan is “Beautiful scrubs for beautiful women.”

“I think a lot of [other scrubs] try to appeal to a variety of tastes and body shapes. When you try to produce for all those body shapes, you lose a lot,” explains Rojas-Fletes, whose scrubs sell for $25 to $32 a set compared to $15 to $20 a set for most other scrubs.

Rave Reviews

“We are going to change the way you see yourself in scrubs,” the company’s Web site proclaims. And according to Rojas-Fletes, it’s a change that many nurses have been waiting for.

“One client told me that just looking at [these scrubs] invokes a certain type of feeling,” she relates. “It’s more of a positive feeling. [The designs] get reactions from the patients that the nurses really like.”

Her first customers were friends and colleagues at Cedars-Sinai. One co-worker, Sara Goldberg, BSN, RN, says it’s obvious Rojas-Fletes put a lot of thought into creating her designs.

“It is nice to see a nurse creating scrubs, since nurses know what nurses want,” Goldberg comments. “It’s boring to wear the same old thing to work every day. Wearing Amelia’s Scrubs makes me enjoy wearing scrubs.”

Rojas-Fletes believes traditional scrubs sometimes detract from the professional atmosphere that’s appropriate to the field of nursing. After all, it’s a field populated with highly educated and skilled professionals.

“Sometimes when you go to work and [you feel like you’re wearing] pajamas, you feel kind of frumpy,” she contends. “You don’t feel as vibrant as people who get to wear professional-looking work clothes.”

Another customer, Jennifer Betts, MSN, RN, FNP, believes Amelia’s Scrubs target a younger group of nurses, because the patterns are more “funky.” The one improvement she’d like to see in the line is the availability of smaller sizes, since most designers don’t make scrubs for smaller women.

“Extra-small is really needed,” she says. “That’s one of the only reasons why I have not purchased a lot [of Amelia’s Scrubs].”

Growing the Business

Today Amelia’s Scrubs are manufactured in the Los Angeles Fashion District, which is the center of the apparel industry on the West Coast. Buyers, retailers, wholesalers, designers and manufacturers generate more than $7 billion in annual revenues there, according to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Rojas-Fletes turned to the Fashion District for help because her grandmother, although a veteran seamstress, wasn’t set up to mass-produce clothing. And the budding nurse-entrepreneur didn’t have any fashion industry experience at that point. Fortunately, a friend who had attended design school came to her assistance. The friend shared her knowledge of design and how it’s applied in the real world and she encouraged Rojas-Fletes to go into business.

“She kind of gave me the structure and [taught me] how it all works behind the scenes,” says Rojas-Fletes, adding that she then spent eight months researching the design and fashion industries. “I ended up finding a designer who helped me put all my ideas on paper. Then I met some people through her who actually made the patterns.”

The next step was to find someone to make samples to show someone else who would, in turn, be able to mass-produce her line. Rojas-Fletes says it took 18 months to go from her ideas to the finished product. “Throughout that time, I was going to business classes,” she adds. Eventually she had amassed a portfolio of “a couple of hundred” copies of 11 sets of scrubs.

She also received a lot of help from members of the Latina Business Association. These women had a variety of experience in starting, running or working for small businesses like hers. She met an attorney, accountant and Web designer through the association, and they helped her set up a corporation, establish a bookkeeping system and create a site for selling her scrubs online.

Commercial Potential

Rojas-Fletes draws her designs freehand and then uses a computer program to translate her ideas into a blueprint. The manufacturer uses the computer renderings to create pieces that, when sewn together, create the final product. Amelia’s Scrubs markets its products via Yahoo!, Google, nursing magazines, flyers and nursing conventions.

Rojas-Fletes says most of her nursing colleagues own 10 to 20 sets of scrubs. She believes her line, although a bit more expensive, is a better deal for nurses in the long run because the fabric is more durable than that used to make other brands.

“Usually most of the cheap [scrubs] will last for about a year or less, because of the shrinkage factor,” she explains. “Plus with all the multiple washes, the fabric becomes thin and worn and you end up getting lots of holes in the material.” She estimates her scrubs will last roughly twice as long.

So what’s ahead for Christina Rojas-Fletes and Amelia’s Scrubs? The next step in the development of her business, she says, is to create a line designed to be sold at wholesale-to-retail outlets across the country. As she puts it, “The next [line] is going to be a little more commercial. It’s going to appeal more to wholesalers at a more reasonable price.”

While she obviously enjoys this new entrepreneurial direction her life has taken, she still enjoys nursing, too. She says she can envision a day when her business, which currently takes up approximately 20 hours a week of her time, will take on full-time status. But even when that happens, she doesn’t plan to abandon nursing entirely.

“I think I would still do nursing in some form,” says Rojas-Fletes, who earned a BSN degree from Loma Linda University in 1997 and an acute care nurse practitioner master’s degree from California State University, Los Angeles in 2000.

And she’ll no doubt continue to be one of the best-dressed nurses around.