Santa Barbara News-Press: Daily newspaper since 1855
Saturday, June 29, 2013
Pillow talk : Luxury hotel executive launches new line of bedding to encourage relaxation
Armella Stepan is a woman on a mission that began after a lifethreatening illness, botched surgery — twice — and a lengthy hospital stay, during which she was given last rites of the Catholic Church. Her goal is to improve the quality of people’s lives by teaching them to relax and enjoy a good night’s sleep, preferably in her new line of bedding, which she has named INTENTIONS Linens.
“INTENTIONS because the bedding is uniquely designed with the intention of helping people achieve greater relaxation, and I intend to take my 25-year luxury hotel background and shift the paradigm to make health care more comfortable,” said Ms. Stepan during a late afternoon interview at Rooms & Gardens in downtown Santa Barbara, the only place locally that sells the all-white, 300-threadcount Egyptian cotton bed linens woven in Portugal. Prices range from $90 for a European pillow sham to $500 for a king-size duvet.
At first glance, INTENTIONS Linens seem to be made of plain white fabric, but closer inspection reveals that the duvets, sheets, pillowcases and shams are covered wit nine words, also in white: “rest, sleep, warm, relax, breathe, quiet, soothe, calm and light.” Each piece comes with a booklet, “Breathe New Life Into Your Sleep.” In it are three breathing exercises with three or four steps. They are titled “Quietly Relax,” “Breathe and Soothe” and “Warm Sun.” There is also a throw in Serene Blue with the words “breathe, relax, sleep, rest.” “I chose the words which I heard repeated over and over again while interviewing 30 leading Eastern and Western mental health gurus after I finally recovered from my medical ordeal in 2004,” said Ms. Stepan, 49, who became ill with a “mysterious digestive ailment” in August 2003. “I stopped absorbing food and water and lost 7 pounds in two weeks. I was in the hospital for 10 days and given all kinds of tests and finally discharged with no diagnosis. My doctor sent me to another hospital out of California, where there were more tests and then surgery with a lot of complications. There were two medical accidents. That’s when I was given last rites. I was in the hospital for seven weeks with a constant drip of antibiotics. I survived. My weight when I left was 106 pounds,” said the svelte, attractive Ms. Stepan, who is 6 feet 1 1/2 inches tall and back to her healthy weight of 150 pounds. She discovered later that the “mysterious digestive ailment” was caused by eating too much raw food, like sushi, carpaccio and steak tartare. “Now, I grill and steam everything,” said Ms. Stepan.
There was one bright spot during her stay in the hospital, where the walls were painted a drab gray, the sheets were “rough, and the mattress was horrible.” “A nurse came in wearing scrubs covered in brightly colored balloons and teddy bears and the word ‘Love.’ It made me feel so much better. I got to thinking about my environment and how little things can make you feel better, and it doesn’t cost that much money. Why not say how good you feel, not how bad you feel?”
When Ms. Stepan returned to the job she loved as general manager of the upscale hotel Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, in January 2004, she was still feeling the effects of her medical trauma and was advised to seek help from Boris Bresnev, a Russian hypnotherapist in the Los Angeles area. “In three sessions, he helped me release the stress I was carrying and got me back to the person I was before. He helped me make a connection between the visceral feeling I experienced when the nurse came into my room and visualization and breathing exercises,” she said. “I understood that how we breathe can directly impact our ability to relax. How can I bring this back to the hospital setting became my mission.”
So why sheets? Having worked at luxury hotels in Dallas, the island of Antigua in the West Indies, Miami, New York City and Santa Monica, Ms. Stepan knows bedding. “I wanted to find a way to improve the luxury sleep experience for others. And what do I know? I know linens,” she said. She called her good friend, Mary Ella Bitzer, owner of Peacock Alley Linens in Dallas. “Mary Ella is the inventor of all-white beds. She agreed to help me design commercial-grade linens for hospitals if I would help her design linens for luxury use.
INTENTIONS was launched in 2012,” said Ms. Stepan, who began her career in the hotel industry while attending North Texas State University in Denton in 1982. “I was the youngest of six children and had to work full time to pay for my college education, so I got a job at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel because I knew the Republican Convention would be held there in 1984. I planned to get a bachelor’s degree in communications journalism, and I figured this would be a great way to meet people in the news business. I got to meet Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, Richard Threlkeld, among others. Peter loaned me his press pass so I could go on the convention floor. I was 20 years old. It was very exciting,” she recalled. During her senior year at college, Ms. Stepan was offered the position as director of the front office at the Grand Royal Antiguan Beach Resort on the island of Antigua. “I decided to go for it, so I quit school. My time there was quite an adventure. Antigua is a third world country. While I was there, they had a public hanging,” she said, adding that her unusual first name, Armella, is in honor of a nun who saved her mother’s life during childbirth.
In 1991, Ms. Stepan was offered a position at the RIHGA Royal Hotel in New York City, which was owned by the Japanese. “My first day on the job, the president walked in and said to me, ‘You are very young. You are very tall. You are a woman. This is very unusual for our country. Congratulations.’ I thought, ‘There go my chances for a promotion,’ but I stayed eight years, eventually being promoted to general manager of the hotel, which was a 54-story skyscraper with 500 suites in midtown Manhattan,” she said. When the building sold, Ms. Stepan decided her next move would be to a place where she could play golf, something she had enjoyed as a student at Skyline High School in Dallas.
In 1999, at the age of 35, she became general manager of Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. “I was the youngest female manager of a luxury hotel in the United States. Years before, I had set a goal of becoming a general manager of a hotel by the time I was 35, and I did it,” said Ms. Stefan, who lives in Marina del Rey with her 8-pound dog, Benny, a combination Yorkie and Maltese that she calls a “Morky.” In 2006, she left her job at Shutters on the Beach to start her own company, Withanet Marketing and Branding, working with luxury hotels. “Withanet is the opposite of without a net,” she explained, adding that she has not lost sight of her original goal to get her bed linens into hospitals. Saint John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica now provides Serene Blue throws to patients in VIP caritas suites. They are free to take them home when they leave the hospital. “We’re also teaching patients breathing exercises,” said Ms. Stepan, who will be working with 35 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, at a veterans facility in East Los Angeles. Rooms & Gardens is donating proceeds from sales of the throws to Volunteers of America specifically for veterans. “I want people suffering from PTSD, insomnia or other sleep issues to know that there are many tools for them to learn to relax. Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, internationally renowned author and speaker in the field of self-development says, ‘The most important time of day is the last five minutes before you fall asleep,’ ” Ms. Stepan said. “We spend all day on our computers, emailing, talking, and we’re supposed to lie down and just turn off our brains? You have to consciously decide to focus on words that make you feel good.”
Where to buy:
INTENTIONS Linens can be purchased at Rooms & Gardens, 924 State St., and online at intentionslinens.com, neimanmarcus.com, horchow.com and peacockalley.com.
Prices range from $90 for a European pillow sham to $500 for a king-size duvet.
For more information, call 310-573-8000.