This article was featured in Bucks County Magazine by author Margo Aramian Ragan
“My glass is broken, just as I am,” New Hope resident Lauren Raja wrote in her blog, graphically and symbolically describing the intense grief she was experiencing after the unexpected death of her husband Justin Raja. At the time Lauren thought she could never get past the depths of her pain. To her credit, her grief has led her to change her career of being an elementary school teacher, to become an entrepreneur, establishing a company which makes comfy pajama and loungewear sets and marketing them worldwide. How she went from there to here is a story that brings a message of hope, support and encouragement for anyone who feels overwhelmed or defeated by life’s challenges.
The love story of Lauren and Justin has all the elements of a great romance. They met in Neumann College, but did not take their relationship to the next level until seven years later, although Justin did admit that he had had a crush on her for all that time. Their love grew out of their mutual respect for one another, their willingness to share their lives together, even as Lauren admits, sharing socks since they were both the same foot size.
Lauren and Justin were married for three blissful years when the unthinkable happened during a family vacation in Santorini, Greece. Justin died. The family had gathered for a wedding celebration, but were instead faced with a tragic funeral. Justin was buried on October 18, 2014, which coincidentally is Lauren’s birthday.
‘At this point in our conversation, I knew I was speaking with a very special person. “People often say how sad it was that he was buried on my birthday, but I regard the day as a time to honor him and the love he so willingly gave me,” explained Lauren. To give her strength, Lauren has used a quotation from the poet e.e.cummings, “i carry your heart with me … i am never without it.”
So how does a young woman come back from such a traumatic event in her life? The answer lies in Lauren’s memories of her grandmother, Giovina, or Mama Jean as she was called. “My grandmother was a first generation Italian who grew up in South Philly,” Lauren recalled. “Her life was difficult. One of her siblings died at an early age, and Mama Jean stepped up to care for her remaining sister Julia as well as managing the household. Both she and Julia worked as dressmakers, and that is where my love of sewing was fostered.”
Lauren’s family lived for a time with Mama Jean. “Here was a woman who could have been crushed by the events of her life,” Lauren said. “Instead, she talked with me about our relatives, telling tales that I cherish to this day. She showed me the intricacies of making a dress pattern, the art of dressmaking. Most of all, Mama Jean shared a joyous view of life which was a special bond she had with Justin. Both of them had an innocence about them, being genuinely happy and wanting their loved ones to feel that same happiness.”
The shock of losing Justin sent Lauren into a deep depression. “I learned that some friends were very uncomfortable with my sadness, others just did not understand,” she said. “But my New Hope family did.” That family included Sal Savioni, who is the owner of Savioni Designer Boutique in New Hope, and his friends who used to gather at the local Starbucks for coffee.
“When Justin and I moved to New Hope, we knew absolutely no one. We used to walk from our townhouse to Starbucks, and these friendly men would watch our dog Finnegan while we went inside to get our orders. They became our family,” said Lauren. “In fact, Sal watched our dog Finn when we went to Greece.”
Was it a premonition of Sal’s, but on the day before Lauren and Justin left for this family celebratory vacation, Sal left a message for them, “If anything happens, I’m coming over there to help you.” As it was, Sal was the second person after her mother that Lauren called to tell about the tragedy. “He brought me soup, daily checked up on me, and was always supportive,” Lauren remembers.
Lauren’s depression stretched from days into weeks into months. A visit to the doctor became a wakeup call. “I was in a great state of despair. The task of cleaning out drawers only reminded me that Justin was no longer there. I did not need to divide drawers into my and his sections. My doctor noted that I had gained a lot of weight and I saw that I had to start taking care of me,” she said. “Once I made that decision, everything else started to fall into line.”
Although Lauren loved working as a teacher, she realized at this time in her life that she did not have the emotional reserve to effectively interact with young people. “I recognized that I had to change the direction of my life, to turn to a career that would be fulfilling, but I wasn’t sure what that would be. And then I saw the sewing machine.”
One of the last major gifts Justin had given to Lauren was a sewing machine. “He encouraged my dream of creating a clothing line, we even had agreed to honor Mama Jean by naming the line Giovina, as well as using her name for our first female child,” she said. Sadly, that was not to be.
Despite the fact that she had no formal technical training whatsoever, Lauren turned her energies into finding the right concept, developing her own sewing skills along the way. “I could hear Mama Jean’s words of instruction, guiding me through the pattern and sewing processes,” said Lauren. “It was as if she and Justin were by my side.”
Lauren experimented with making shower caps, blouses, rejecting one idea after another, until she had an ah ha moment. Why not make a line of pajamas and loungewear that would be fun to wear as well as comfortable? “The idea seemed so right to me,” Lauren said. “I named the line JustinJeanPJs, in honor of the two people whom I adored.”
The logo proved to be a bit of a challenge. Lauren wanted a design that would be definitive of the influence of both Justin and Mama Jean. Then she happened to see Justin’s luggage tag that was still on his luggage. “There was his signature, big, bold with happy strokes, just like his personality,” said Lauren. “I knew instantly that signatures were the way to go.”
She asked her mother to search for Mama Jean’s signature which her mom fortunately was able to locate. A Facebook graphic designer friend designed a logo using both signatures, “and I think she hit the design out of the park,” said Lauren.
Her math major in college became an important component of launching her business. “Suddenly I had to make precise measurements for different sizes of pajamas, I had to figure the profit margins of making pajamas, the costs of marketing them. Now my knowledge of math was essential. Having been a teacher gave me organizational skills, which I definitely needed because there were so many details that needed to be attended,” she said. “Also important was my writing. My mother often asked why I had chosen to study math when she felt I had a talent for writing. After Justin died, I started to write a blog about my feelings and that became cathartic for me.”
Sal turned out to be a business mentor as well as a dear friend. “I used to text designs to him almost on a daily basis, and he would give me the benefit of his years of experience in the retail business. I would go into his store, learn about the process of importing and exporting a product line, and basically get an education in retail,” said Lauren. “I am forever appreciative of Sal’s support. He is even carrying my line in his store.”
Everything about the pajama line has a story line attached to it. Justin apparently was an impeccable dresser who worked in New York as an assistant vice president of a major bank. “He loved to wear suits, even when there were times at work when he did not have to,” explained Lauren. “What he really loved, though, were his socks. He always wore crazy socks, many with polka dots because he felt they were a fun look, and made people feel happy.” Polka dots then became an important element in the pajama line.
Every pajama top has a heart sewn on its sleeve. “I wanted to say that it is okay to literally and figuratively wear your heart on your sleeve. I had spent so much time trying to hide my heartache, but once I fully acknowledged my pain, I was ready to move forward with my life. I started working with a Chinese import factory and I asked if it was possible to sew a heart patch on the sleeve, and they quickly agreed,” said Lauren.
Each pair of pajama bottoms has three rows of ruffles sewn across the rump. Mama Jean used that design technique on many of her own creations, and now Lauren is able to incorporate that memory into her own garment design. “I think the ruffles remind me of authenticity, integrity and passion, which are the core values that have carried me forward in this process,” said Lauren.
Lauren’s collections now include nightdresses for women and pajama sets for women and children. It is no surprise that every design is named for important women in her life, starting with Giovina (Mama Jean) and her sister Julia. “I feel the presence of all these people who have influenced me, and I want to honor them.”
For those people who do not have the love of a Mama Jean or Justin in their lives, Lauren says that she created her brand to inspire them, to show that life can continue. “Some people don’t realize that when you go through a tragedy, you are as exhausted mentally as well as physically. You have to dig deep within yourself, to learn how to channel anger and pain into a positive situation,” she said. “I do not want to be thought of as a victim. That would not be true to either Mama Jean or Justin.”
It has been two years since Justin’s passing. You can hear both the joy and pain in Lauren’s voice when she talks about her husband, but what a woman she has become. “Imagine, in such a short period of time, I am now designing my own line of pajama wear, negotiating with a foreign company, creating a marketing plan for my company, promoting my garment line. I am so far out of my original comfort zone, but actually I believe I am now doing what I was meant to do,” Lauren concluded.
This article was featured in Bucks County Magazine
by author Margo Aramian Ragan