Dreamers: The Making of Not Your Daughter’s Jeans

No matter how much weight she lost or how often she exercised, Lisa Rudes Sandel couldn’t flatten her stomach. “I

Dreamer: Lisa Rudes Sandel
Lisa Rudes Sandel

No matter how much weight she lost or how often she exercised, Lisa Rudes Sandel couldn’t flatten her stomach. “I used to joke that I’d always have a pooch.” And she was fine with that … until low-rise jeans came along.

“I couldn’t fit into my regular size six,” recalls Rudes Sandel, who had to go three sizes bigger to find a pair that fit. “They were uncomfortable, and they felt like they would fall down. I wondered, Why isn’t someone making nice, hip jeans for women with a figure like mine?” Like many entrepreneurs, Rudes Sandel turned her complaint into a business opportunity. The founder of Not Your Daughter’s Jeans (NYDJ) has created a multimillion-dollar business simply by designing jeans for women with womanly bodies.

Since its launch seven years ago, NYDJ has become the largest domestic manufacturer of women’s jeans under $100. The company ships more than 40,000 pairs per week to 2,000 stores and 20 countries, from Australia to Canada. Not bad for a girl who dreamed of becoming a plastic surgeon-until she took a biology course at UCLA.

With only an idea and very little capital, Rudes Sandel and her sister, Leslie, called on the family for help. They lured their father, George, out of retirement (he’d been the powerhouse behind Saint Germain, the women’s sportswear company) and recruited their brother, Kenny, from a denim company in Mexico.

Rudes Sandel had gotten some experience in production and design when she worked for her father, but she still faced a challenge: to design a comfortable jean with a figure-flattering fit. The secret? Recovery. “You know when you wear certain things and the knees get stretched out?” Rudes Sandel explains. “That’s because there’s not enough recovery in the fabric.”

After months of tinkering with the denim, Rudes Sandel determined that 4 percent Lycra—not the usual zero to 2 percent—was the magic amount. “It sculpts you and gives the appearance of a lifted derriere,” she says. And because of Lycra’s give, women can wear a size or two smaller. NYDJ’s patented Tummy Tuck technology debuted in 2005.

Even with the family’s connections, NYDJ had growing pains. “Fabric vendors would give us only seven days to pay them,” she says. “We had to pick up small orders ourselves because they wouldn’t drop them off. We had to prove ourselves at every point.”

But gradually, they did. They started with old-fashioned word of mouth, then took out newspaper ads, landed the Good Housekeeping Seal, and hired a PR firm to “really get the buzz going.” They sent jeans gift wrapped in red tape—measures to magazine editors and touted NYDJ on mall kiosks. Today, says Rudes Sandel, “my biggest problem is I can’t ship fast enough.” That’s a problem any entrepreneur would love to have.
Rudes Sandel, 45, now lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, Alex Sandel, a semiretired engineer who runs NYDJ’s international division, and their 16-month-old son, Max Isaac. Last summer, NYDJ sold half the company to a private equity firm. Rudes Sandel is still very involved in design and marketing, and she serves as the company spokeswoman.

So what’s on her drawing board? Tummy Tuck leggings, slimming tops (“to get rid of lines and bulges from bras”), and a maternity line.

“The truth is,” Rudes Sandel says, “I’ve never forgotten that woman I’ve been aiming for since day one.” She addresses her personally in a note tucked into every pair of jeans: “NYDJ (Not Your Daughter’s Jeans) cannot be held responsible for any positive consequence that may arise due to your fabulous appearance when wearing the Tummy Tuck jeans. You can thank me later.”

Getting Ahead with Lisa Rudes Sandel

Q. How did you come up with the name?
A. Actually, my dad did. We were in my backyard, and he said, “Not Your Daughter’s Jeans. That’s what we’ll call them.” I thought he was crazy. And he said, “Watch, my darling daughter. I know what I’m talking about.”

Q. What was your father’s best advice?
A. That if you have a great fit, you will always have a customer.

Q. As your business has grown, has it gotten any easier?
A. Once consumers accepted our product, yes. Our numbers are still up, even in this economy.

Q. What advice would you give a budding entrepreneur?
A. Don’t give up. It’s not about how much money you put into your business. It’s about being passionate—willing to go that extra mile to put your idea out there.

Q. Were there early signs of entrepreneurial tendencies?
I took a high school photography course, and a friend in the entertainment business hired me to do photo shoots for her clients. I did this for about a year, and some were actually published in the Hollywood Reporter.

Q. Do you ever hear from your customers?
A. One 50-year-old woman had a rough year—her mom died, her marriage ended, her job was reorganized. After buying a pair of Tummy Tuck jeans, she wrote, “Thank you for thinking of women like me. In your thoughtful design and style, you have helped me start to get back a little confidence.” We got a complaint letter from a guy in New Zealand: “After 15 years of marriage, I’m having difficulty keeping my hands off my babe. You don’t do jeans for blokes, do you?”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest