Scrubs are the official uniform of medical practitioners. The history traced back to the 20th century, when surgeons started wearing an apron to protect their clothing during surgical procedures. The full uniform was introduced in the 1940s when aseptic technique was routinely employed in operating suites to stop infections and pathogens from spreading.

Since the belief of having “too much white” causes eye-strain among surgeons, scrubs were produced in all shades of green. By the 1970s, the surgical greens uniform became the standard uniform for all hospital staffs.

Medical scrub — a billion-dollar business

Today, manufacturing scrubs is a billion-dollar business. Strategic Partners controls an estimated 40% of the US market for scrubs. Unlike other retail businesses that go up and down based on fashion trends, scrubs remain a steady business.

Strategic Partners started in 1995 when Michael Singer bought the scrubs business out of bankruptcy from Cherokee. “The joke at the time was the three best-selling colours were white, white, and white,” he said. At the time, Singer had 40 workers and made about $17 million in annual sales.

The company started adding more patterns and colours to the uniform. It also acquired cut licensing deals, so it can put cartoon characters onto scrubs for use in cheering up sick kids.

In the early 2000s, Strategic Partners started developing web stores for its retail partners. They took charge of orders and shipping the product directly. At the time, internet and online orders wasn’t as big, giving the company an edge over its competitors. By 2005, the company increased into having 500 employees and pioneered the scrubs manufacturing industry. Five years later, it acquired the license to make a line of “Dickies” scrubs and added another 30 employees.

The anti-bacterial scrubs

Singer then teamed up with Ben Favret, a former pharmaceutical executive and founder of Vestagen Protective Technologies, a start-up launched in 2009 that aimed at developing bacteria-proof medical uniforms.

Of his meeting with Favret, Singer said, “He just seemed interesting, infectious in his enthusiasm… And he helped convince me antimicrobial was going to be something in the future.” Vestagen developed an “active barrier” to repel fluid from fabric and kill bacteria via an electrical charge.

Coincidentally, bacterial infection became a problem in America’s hospital and clinics, where CDC estimated that one in 25 patients currently hospitalized has contracted some kind of infection just by being there.

To top it off, health practitioners had to buy their own scrubs, which led to an opportunity seek by other manufacturers to bring the product straight to consumers.

Trina Spear, co-founder of FIGS says her company is the first to bring fashion into scrubs. Photo credit: FIGS/Bloomberg
Trina Spear, co-founder of FIGS says her company is the first to bring fashion into scrubs. Photo credit: FIGS/Bloomberg

In 2013, FIGS was launched. The brand offers antimicrobial, wrinkle-free uniforms in a range of flattering designs, via their online store. Founder Trina Spear said she came up with the idea at investment firm Blackstone Group, where she worked on a financing deal for Strategic Partners.

“It’s a massive industry that no one knows about and no one talks about,” she said. “It’s been around for about 100 years with zero change and zero innovation.” FIGS sold out its first batch within 23 days and had since struggled to keep up with demand.

A call for more prominent brand

Seeing the success in scrubs retail, more companies follow up. Jaanuu was launched a year later by Shaan Sethi, a private-equity investor, and his paediatrician sister, Dr Neela Sethi Young. Sethi said he was most encouraged by what he called a ‘broken retail channel.’

“You’d go to a hospital and see 50 or 60 nurses in 50 or 60 different brands,” he explained. “I had this idea in the back of my mind around this concept of trading up.”

Jaanuu plus-size scrubs accounts for 10% of its business. Photo credit: Jaanuu/Bloomberg
Jaanuu plus-size scrubs accounts for 10% of its business. Photo credit: Jaanuu/Bloomberg

Despite the vast emerging manufacturer of scrubs in America, not one seemed to stand out.

Within her two years as a brain technologist, Mandie Wagner who has purchased a lot of scrubs still couldn’t find one that is her holy grail. She said the Dickies are kind of itchy, the Cherokee brand doesn’t fit very well, and the Grey’s Anatomy scrubs collect pet hair.

According to Singer, although scrubs is a simple product, it requires a complex supply chain.

“There aren’t necessarily high barriers to entry, but there are high barriers to scale,” Singer said. “There’s styling complexities. There’s sourcing complexities. There’s long, long lead times and you have to manage all of this inventory as you go.”

“You have to remember, this isn’t Nasty Gal going after Forever 21,” Sethi said. “We’re going after a really, really sleepy market.” MIMS

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