By  on June 3, 2005

NEW YORK — Michael and Nicholas Kaplan like to talk about their great-grandmother, Lena Bryant, who, like Demi Moore, felt women should celebrate impending motherhood, not conceal it. A pregnant Moore appeared naked on the cover of Vanity Fair, while Bryant shook up turn-of-the-century society by inventing an evening dress for pregnant women.

"At that time, pregnant women were not supposed to be seen in public. But my great-grandmother catered to society women, with 'the number 5 tea gown,'" created in 1901, said Michael Kaplan. "She was known for lace trims and fine attention to detail, and wanted maternitywear to be appropriate for an evening out."

Bryant, an immigrant from Lithuania, started her design business in 1899 by pawning her diamond earrings for a sewing machine so she could make a living. Her second husband, Albert Malsin, saw his wife's maternity business as expandable to large sizes, and they opened their first store in 1904, on New York's 38th Street and Fifth Avenue, called Lane Bryant. It was supposed to be called Lena Bryant, but she misspelled her name on a bank loan.

The company grew for decades, went public, was once owned by Limited Brands and has been owned by Charming Shoppes since 2001.

The Kaplans, who are in their 30s, never knew their great-grandmother, though the family had plenty of stories about her. Inspired by her entrepreneurial spirit, the brothers last November opened Fashion to Figure, a store selling special sizes from 14 to 26. Located in The Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y., the 3,500-square-foot shop, with 3,000 square feet for selling, displays large photos of the late Lena Bryant that don't cite her name because of legal concerns with the Lane Bryant chain.

The Fashion to Figure store is projected to post between $1 million and $1.5 million in sales its first year in business.

"We are in the final stages [of signing a lease] for a second store," which will be in New Jersey, Michael said. A third location is being eyed. Michael was a Lazard analyst, and co-founder of alight.comp, a plus-size Web site developed by RRE Ventures, where he was an associate. Charming Shoppes purchased the site in 2000.

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