By  on April 9, 2007

Fashion lingerie is crossing over into the specialized field of maternitywear.

Helping fuel the demand for fashion undergarments is the glamour factor combined with the baby boom by Hollywood moms — Katie Holmes, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Britney Spears, Brooke Shields, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tori Spelling, Heidi Klum, Rachel Weisz and Salma Hayek, who is expecting her first child with her fiancé, French entrepreneur François-Henri Pinault.

Weisz, who in 2006 won the Academy Award for best supporting actress, as well as a Golden Globe for her role in "The Constant Gardener," told WWD she enjoyed wearing the lifestyle designs of maternity innerwear brand L'Arrivo, designed by Loretta Schneider.

"I wore L'Arrivo all through my pregnancy and then after my son was born," said Weisz. "Loretta's designs are fun and funky, and the clever snap tops are so practical for nursing. The tanks and dresses are indispensable, as are the stretchy pants."

Interest in pretty underpinnings for expectant moms began to bloom in 2004 when supermodel Elle Macpherson was on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Macpherson recalled that she "happened to mention that Paltrow had asked her to design a nursing bra" for her first baby, Apple.

"There were no nursing bras in my collection, but after 'Oprah,' I received so many calls for a nursing bra that I created one," Macpherson said.

Elle Macpherson Intimates, a unit of Bendon USA, now features two stylish nursing bras, La Mere and Maternelle, as well as a style called Evolve by Fayreform, and three maternity styles by Bendon — Yvette, Body Lace and Body Lavish.

Sales of the two nursing bras by Elle Macpherson Intimates in the U.S. reached 16,384 units in the first nine months of the fiscal year ended March 31, from 7,384 sold in the year that ended March 2006, according to officials at parent Bendon Ltd. of New Zealand.

"It's actually shocking, but one of our maternity bras is on replenishment and is our third best-selling bra. Nordstrom is a key store," said Victoria Vandagriff, president of Bendon USA.

Although the category has been dominated by basic nursing bras for decades, there has been a sizable demand from consumers lately for maternity undergarments and related lifestyle pieces that have a fashion twist, such as dual-purpose daywear and sleepwear and lounge items, according to designers and retailers from specialty chains and mail-order and e-commerce businesses.Women are saying that being pregnant doesn't mean they have to forsake fashion, function and comfort, particularly in lingerie and at-homewear. Executives said modern women want to continue to look and feel fashionable, pretty and sexy throughout their pregnancies, while breast-feeding and during the postnatal transition. In addition to updated styling, they demand comfort, which is enhanced by lightweight, soft microfibers like Modal, pliable jerseys and brushed cotton blends that can be layered and draped on a silhouette for an easy, elegant look.

Rebecca Matthias is president and creative director of Motherhood Maternity, a $600 million maternity retailer that operates 1,624 maternity locations, including 794 stores, mainly under the names A Pea in the Pod, Mimi Maternity, Motherhood Maternity, Destination Maternity, as well as licensed labels Two Hearts at Sears Roebuck and Oh Baby by Motherhood at Kohl's.

"Maternity is one of the most steady markets,'' she said. "There are about four million births per year, and it's been that way for the past 10 years. Every one of our brands carries lingerie, because it's the important foundation for everything else."

Matthias, who dresses 2.8 million women a year, said she was not surprised by the preliminary birth data for 2005 released in November by the National Center for Health Statistics, which showed a 1 percent rise nationwide to 4.1 million. "It highlights the importance of fashion for the pregnant silhouette,'' she said.

Liz Lange, founder and chief executive officer of Liz Lange Maternity, said, "Today, you see women who are showing off their pregnancy with stretchy, fitted maternitywear. I pioneered that look 10 years ago when the landscape was very bleak. I started my line, Liz Lange for Target, five years ago, and then thought, What's next? Celebrities would call me, whispering on the phone, 'I just had a baby and I still look pregnant, and I have to go to a party.' The idea of the 'fourth trimester' began with nine months on, nine months off for this collection."

The line consists of tops; easy, pull-on pants; casual separates, and dresses. Lange noted the number-one-selling panty purchased by pregnant customers in her stores was a low-rise thong by Hanky Panky.Meanwhile, the appetite for fashion looks for moms-to-be is growing at such a rapid rate that business has doubled — and at times quadrupled — in some key fashion items and lifestyle collections over the past 12 months, said a number of executives. Those businesses include Liz Lange, British-based Amoralia and Isabella Oliver, L'Arrivo, Freya, Fantasie, Anita, Medela, Lunaire, Japanese Weekend, Bravado, Bella Materna, Bella Band by Ingrid and Isabel, Elle Macpherson Intimates and Le Mystère.

The big hit for Le Mystère is the Florence underwire nursing bra with a clip that requires only one hand to unsnap for breast feeding, and two panties: a seamless microfiber maternity panty and a new Low Rider thong of nylon and Lycra spandex.

Several retailers reported strong sales of maternity innerwear, including Bare Necessities, a four-unit chain based in Avenel, N.J., that also has the barenecessities.com Web site; Intimacy, a three-unit specialty chain with stores in Atlanta, New York and Chicago, and U.K.-based Figleaves.com. Upscale lingerie label and retailer Agent Provocateur, which launched a maternity and postnatal line in 2006, is adding a color for spring: a flesh tone with pink rosettes in the maternity line and postnatal briefs in pink.

Jules Fossett, managing director of Amoralia.com, an e-commerce site that also sells to more than a dozen other maternity apparel and lingerie Web sites, said that since 2005, there has been "massive growth of brands specifically catering to the maternity market, lingerie in particular." Best-selling brands are Isabella Oliver, Materna and Amoralia, she said.

"Maternity lingerie is projected to grow by 15 percent from 2006 to 2007," Fossett said. "For us, a three-year-old company, last year's sales more than quadrupled. Even though this is a niche market, its potential is global. The nature of the demand is constantly changing. Where once they might have been satisfied with a functional cotton maternity bra, they are now looking for pretty, feminine styles, functional T-shirt bras, and comfortable and stylish loungewear."

Clare Kearney, head of buying at Figleaves.com, said, "Fashion choice in the maternity market has mushroomed. The catalyst was undoubtedly Elle Macpherson with her launch of Maternelle. Since then, we have seen the growth of maternity lingerie fashion brands like Amoralia and Emily B, seen mainstream lingerie brands like Freya producing ranges and specialist maternity brands like Anita introducing a fashion element. It is one of our fastest-growing categories."Maureen Stabneau, senior vice president of merchandising at Bare Necessities, said, "Maternity is a growth category at barenecessities.com. Sales for the fourth quarter exceeded our expectations. Maternity currently includes bras, underwear, daywear, camis, sleepwear and loungewear. We have found the Internet to be a valuable resource for the expectant mother. It allows her the convenience, and especially the comfort, of being able to shop easily for all of the lingerie items she wants and needs during her pregnancy."

Top-selling bra brands include Bravado and Bella Materna, while the top-performing fashion brand in bras was Bella Band by Ingrid and Isabel, and lounge pieces by Japanese Weekend.

Eve Turner, buyer for Intimacy, said there had been strong reaction to custom-fitting a fashion bra into a nursing bra with brands such as Anita, Fantasie and Freya.

"We do a lot of converting and alterations. We cut the cup away from the strap and add a hook to the cup and strap," said Turner, a former bra buyer at Macy's South. "They've added cute little ditsy prints that stimulate the baby's eyes. Babies love black and white and primary colors."

Vanessa Knox-Brien, co-founder of the London-based Isabella Oliver, said, "When I went to the hospital to have my babies, all of the women were wearing their husband's pajamas. They looked so dowdy. I had nothing to wear when I was pregnant with Isabella and Oliver, and I thought, Why not do a collection of sexy jersey pieces? So I did a 10-piece collection that can be worn day in and day out."

Knox-Brien, a former designer at the Natori Co. and Victoria's Secret, said her isabellaoliver.com e-commerce and mail-order businesses generate annual retail sales of $10 million.

"We're also targeting the U.S., particularly Hollywood, where we've hired a publicist," she said. "We send items to celebrities like Marcia Cross, who just had twins. The idea is to get customers and photos of celebrities wearing Isabella Oliver."

Schneider of L'Arrivo also created her line of maternity innerwear after "seeing nothing fashionable" when she gave birth to her daughter Madison Emily in 2003.

"All I saw was really horrible, ugly-looking daywear, sleepwear and loungewear," she said. "I felt frumpy. So I worked on the concept for a year and a half with co-designer Roz Harte to get it right."

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