By Jay Cheshes
Most disruptor stories start with a dying business model. FIGS began with a corpse. Heather Hasson, a premed student at the University of Wisconsin, was working with cadavers when she put on her first set of “boxy, baggy, itchy” scrubs, as she recalls them. Though she switched gears into fashion after graduation, launching her own handbag line at age 22 while living in Rome, she never forgot about those scrubs. They came to mind one evening back in her native Los Angeles when she was catching up with a nurse-practitioner friend who had just finished her shift at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. “We were having coffee, she was in her scrubs,” recalls Hasson, 35. “‘I deal with patients every single day,’ she told me, ‘I deal with blood, I deal with liquids, and this is what I have to wear, a big giant box.'” Hasson suggested it didn’t need to be that way. She offered to find her friend a better pair of scrubs. When she came up empty-handed, though, she went ahead and made her a bespoke set instead.
“I did the inseams, the front rise, the shoulders. I took the chest measurements in and gave them back to her,” Hasson recalls. “And then a colleague of hers called me, and said, ‘Hey scrubs girl, can you make me a pair too?'”
Soon enough, scrubs girl had a business plan and a business partner in place, Harvard MBA Trina Spear, who moved west from New York. Together they launched FIGS in 2013, building brand awareness and early sales by popping up on the sidewalks outside emergency rooms, with models showcasing their launch collection of five colors. They named their start-up after Hasson’s favorite fruit. “I thought about fantastic companies, like Apple and Lululemon, and I decided, ‘Hey let’s do a fruit,'” she says.
The company, which recently began wallpapering the subway lines serving New York hospitals with irreverent ads and the Los Angeles skyline with enormous billboards, has grown exponentially, and now boasts 47 manufacturing facilities and 175 employees. And the “Warby Parker of Scrubs” as the Wall Street Journal described FIGS last year, has moved onto reimagining the “wrinkly, baggy” lab coat. “We design for different professions,” says Hasson, “so if you’re a dermatologist or plastic surgeon, you might want to wear something a little more tailored, more modern and current.”
To Hasson, doctors and nurses working on the front lines in hospital emergency rooms and surgical theaters are no different from professional athletes. “They’re on their feet for 14, sometimes 24 hours, and it’s really intense, dealing with microbes and liquids and sweating under these heavy lights,” she says.
So FIGS makes medical apparel as responsive to the endurance needs of health care professionals as Nike might be to kitting out Kobe Bryant, replacing the ubiquitous one-size-fits-many unisex scrub with a sleekly tailored alternative in stretchable, breathable, moisture-wicking fabric with pockets sized to hold car keys and the latest iPhone release, along with surgical tools and cotton swabs. “We spent a lot of time talking to different types of health care professionals,” Hasson says. “We really wanted to know what people need.”
FIGS scrubs now come in an ever-expanding range of colors and styles, with limited editions released like sneaker drops that court millennial medical students and doctors via influencer YouTube videos and a street-styled Instagram feed that could pass for an athleisure brand. #allthecoolkidsaredoingit
The company debuts a new color wave every month and a new style every week – “infusions”, it calls them – all sold online through its cheery website or through its New York pop-up-shop, with permanent retail locations coming in 2020. Dark Harbor, an intense shade of blue, launched in 2017 and was reintroduced in October in cargo and jogger pants.
It’s a complete reimagining of medical clothing that’s already upending an industry worth $10 billion in the U.S. Hasson’s company isn’t just revolutionizing work uniforms but creating a full-fledged lifestyle brand with a built-in audience of 19 million American health care workers (the company plans to go global later this year).
“You’re a whole person, not just a doctor or nurse, and you live your life holistically,” Hasson says. “How do we make clothes that get you to and from the hospital and office? What are you doing after? What are you wearing?”
And so there’s a FIGS raincoat with an inside pocket large enough to stash a stethoscope. The company has just unveiled its own washable anti-slip medical sneakers, a collaboration with New Balance, designed to support at least 15 hours on your feet and resistant to liquids and punctures from errant tools or needles. “They’re super protected,” says Jerry Seyfried, VP of Brand at FIGS. “They look awesome and they have functionality.”
Not insignificantly, the company’s design team comes from outside medical apparel, including Lululemon, Ralph Lauren, and the world of technical skiwear, where fiber durability against extreme weather is paramount. At FIGS, they all bounce ideas off each other in the 2,000 square foot design lab in the company’s Los Angeles headquarters.
“We’re inspired by anything our design team can think of. Sometimes it’s our travels, sometimes it’s art,” Hasson says. In fact, as part of its charitable initiative, the PJ Project, for hospital-bound kids, the company is working with Urs Fischer and the nonprofit RxArt, which brings contemporary art into hospitals, to create playfully printed pajamas, donating 1,000 pairs to patients at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
Hasson and Spear, who have thus far raised more than $75 million in venture capital, plan to continue expanding their company’s scope. “I think about designing in different categories for health care professionals,” Hasson says. “There’s so much left to do, so much that we haven’t given them yet.”