CHICAGO — You don’t have to tell Jennifer Noonan of Naissance on Melrose about the boom in maternity clothing.

Since opening her Los Angeles boutique about four years ago, Noonan, the store’s owner and designer, has dressed a pregnant Madonna, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jennie Garth, not to mention outfitting Jennifer Aniston in mom-to-be mode on "Friends." She also introduced a wholesale line called Naissance on Melrose, which grew from five accounts a year ago to 30, and she says the store’s annual sales hit $2 million last year.

As women had children later in life and more women "in the know" got pregnant, they demanded more fashionable maternity wear, Noonan said, adding that high-profile moms-to-be, such as Sarah Jessica Parker and others, helped the cause.

Women spend about $1.2 billion on maternity clothes each year, according to an estimate by Mothers Work Inc., a retailer that operates more than 900 stores under the Motherhood Maternity, Mimi Maternity and A Pea in the Pod banners.

Maternity wear has evolved to the point that many nonpregnant women visiting fashionable maternity boutiques have to be stopped at the dressing room door.

"Women have everything in their hand ready to go into a dressing room and I’ll ask them, ‘Do you know those are maternity clothes?’" said Angela Mavridis, who opened Glow Girl, a 500-square-foot boutique for moms-to-be in Mill Valley, Calif., near San Francisco, in March 2002. "There was just such a buzz," she added. "Since Sept. 11 [2001], people are coming together more."

"It seems a little more recession-proof," Mavridis said of her store. "Women don’t come in here just to browse. They come in because they’re desperate, saying, ‘My pants don’t fit anymore.’"

In Chicago, several newer boutiques have opened, either as strictly maternity shops or with a blend of "regular" and maternity fashions.

"Maternity is one of the fastest-growing segments of women’s apparel," said Krista Kaur Meyers, who opened Krista K boutique on Southport Avenue last May as Chicago’s exclusive carrier of Liz Lange maternity wear. Meyers also carries fashions from Rebecca Taylor, Beth Bowley, William B and Nanette Lepore, among others."I thought it was a great way to build and maintain relationships with customers before, during and after their pregnancy," said Meyers, who said winter bestsellers included $150 Liz Lange fake-suede pants in chocolate and black; $175 under-the-belly pants in black, khaki, gray and navy pinstripe, and a $175 black matte jersey false-wrap dress. Maternity accounts for about 10 percent of the store’s estimated $800,000 in annual sales.

Including a section of maternity clothing has proven to be a moneymaker for Kate Prange, owner of Shop Girl in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. She created a store-within-a-store featuring maternity apparel under the name of Swell and opened a separate Swell location in the suburb of Winnetka in October. She originally opened Shop Girl with only a small rack of maternity clothes — jersey knit pants and tops by local designer Amy Zoller — amid standard fashions by Theory, Trina Turk and Rebecca Taylor.

Today, maternity accounts for more than 30 percent of Shop Girl’s $1 million in annual sales and roughly a third of the store’s 1,200 square feet. She estimated annual sales at Winnetka’s Swell between $500,000 and $750,000.

In fact, the concept is so hot, Prange is negotiating to open a second suburban Swell and also has plans for a second city location. "I probably will open a total of four suburban stores in the next two years," she said.

Also in expansion mode is Jennifer Strom Simonte, who launched Belly Dance here in September along Damen Avenue, estimating annual sales for the hip maternity boutique, carrying such lines as Chaiken, Olian and Chiarakruza, at $800,000. She also plans to open more metro-area locations this year.

In the Southeast, Pickles & Ice Cream maternity stores are also on the rise. Kelly Fleming, who franchised the concept, said the number of shops rose from five in 2001 to 17 in 2003. Fleming, however, is no longer franchising stores, instead opting for corporate-owner locations. On average, Pickles & Ice Cream reported about $400,000 in annual sales for its 10 units, roughly 1,600 square feet each, located mostly in Southern states, including Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky.

Trine Etoll, who runs Two Generations showrooms in Atlanta and Dallas, said she’s seen an increased interest in her 18 moderate-to-better maternity lines, especially the higher-end lines, such as the Dutch brand Noppies, a leading label in Europe."We’ve had a 50 percent increase from last year," Etoll said regarding orders for Noppies, which features basic pants and sweaters in flowing but fitted silhouettes for $30 wholesale and dresses for $40. Many items are made of cotton and rayon in sherbet-and-neutral color combinations. Looks include wide-legged white linen and Lycra spandex pants matched with a black sweater with white lace-up detailing at the collar and cuffs, and a stonewashed denim V-neck dress with denim flower. "I’m seeing our buyers being more open and interested in that, and not just the basics," she said.

As Etoll noted, specialty stores aren’t the only ones jumping on the bandwagon. Nationally, Target unveiled a cheaper line of Liz Lange maternity wear this year and Old Navy offers maternity fashions online and at 50 stores nationwide. Gap, also is rolling out mom-to-be looks at 12 stores in cities including Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.

Mothers Work Inc., the Philadelphia-based parent of upscale A Pea in the Pod, contemporary Mimi Maternity and lower-priced Motherhood Maternity, also is expanding. Operating 935 stores in 50 states, Rebecca Matthias, Mothers Work president and founder, expects to open at least 100 more stores this year — 80 Motherhood stores, which sell jeans ($15.99) and T-shirts ($9.50), and 20 Mimi locations, which sell georgette blouses ($68) and stretch boot-cut jeans ($48).

"We’ve had a very good year," said Matthias, noting that the company’s quarters ending in September and December netted increases in sales of 6 and 5.1 percent, respectively. She estimated 2003’s sales at $500 million.

"I think there is more attention on maternity," she said. "Celebrities are out there pregnant in fashionable clothes. It’s good for all of us."

One problem small retailers cite is a lack of strong vendors.

"I have to filter through a lot of stuff out there," Glow Girl’s Mavridis said. "There are limited vendors, only about 15 out there."

Glow Girl carries Chaiken, Japanese Weekend, Olian, Nom, Michael Stars, Zoee and Juliet Dream, which represent generally the same lines — minusZoee and Juliet Dream —carried by Swell and Belly Dance in the Chicago area.Inside both Swell locations, Prange stocks Japanese Weekend, Seven jeans (which she has specially made with stretch fabric at the waistline) Joe’s Jeans, Michael Stars, NOM, Chaiken, Cadeau, Olian and European lines, Sara and Linique. She buys lines with two factors in mind: "They want to show their tummies off," Prange said of her moms-to-be, "and comfort, it’s all about comfort."

Generally, women prefer slimmer tops to highlight their blossoming cleavage and stomachs, though Prange also sells looser-fitting shirts.

Prange first steers women to basics — black pants, comfortable jeans and black turtlenecks — and from there encourages bolder purchases, such as patterned or peasant tops.

As time went by, Prange realized high-end "outfitty" clothes, such as $180 pants paired with a similarly priced top, "aren’t as salable. We needed to be more versatile," she said. "That’s a $360 outfit. Some customers want three $60 tops."

At Naissance, "we’re known for sexy, casual clothes," Noonan said, citing $110 side-tie jeans, a $32 ribbed tank and a $98 hemp wrap skirt as bestsellers.

Besides stocking fashions flattering to moms-to-be, a successful maternity shop should operate with a higher level of customer service.

"You have to know the product," saidBelly Dance’s Simonte. "Sometimes it doesn’t look good on the hanger. That’s why I just keep buying mannequins."

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