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Lena Bryant Descendants Continue Family Tradition

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.

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.

This story first appeared in the June 3, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Prior to opening Fashion to Figure, the brothers ran what they describe as a “guerrilla retail business” selling large sizes, taking short-term leases and running sample sales in temporary retail spaces.

“We always felt a passion for this business,” said Nicholas, the head merchant at Fashion to Figure who has also been a Saks Fifth Avenue department manager and buyer, general merchandise manager at Bluefly and sales associate at a Tommy Hilfiger store.

It’s not like the country can’t use a few additional stores catering to large-sized women, the Kaplans contend. “Sixty million American women are size 14 or over,” said Nicholas.

The brothers said they have created a store that’s different from the competition. They consider Fashion to Figure value-oriented, even more so than Lane Bryant. The average retail price is $50 for two items. Denim is priced from $25 to $36; woven tops range from $18 to $30; skirts are priced $20 to $35; accessories, including handbags, scarves and jewelry, sell mostly from $18 to $39; outerwear, $49 to $109, including jackets for $79, and reversible fake-fur jackets in the fall for $109.

The store is merchandised to emphasize outfits and items that work together, and brands. Competitors such as Lane Bryant and Catherines sell their own private brands, but Nicholas says the market offers plenty of plus sizes. “There are tons of people making plus sizes,” he said. “I am in the market about two days a week,” shopping Erika, Stephanie Rogers Plus, Venessa, Pink Girl, Apollo Jeans, Jason Woman, Harve Benard, Crest Jeans, Robbie B., L.E.I., Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans, August Silk and Club Z, among others.

According to Nicholas, compared with the vertically situated large chains, “We can react much quicker to trends. We do not work with storyboards 15 months out. For us, it’s a more free-thinking way of merchandising.”

The Kaplans like to think Fashion to Figure is in “the experience business,” which means customers leave the store with a positive impression, said Nicholas. The experience is shaped by three to five “stylists” on the floor at any time, providing “empathy for guests and advice on product,” Nicholas said. “They also help merchandise the floor, and shop the market like assistant buyers.” In addition, large-size model Audrey Smaltz serves as the spokeswoman and stages makeovers at the store.

There are other special touches. “We keep the store at a constant 65 degrees,” Nicholas said because he’s noticed that the plus-size customer tends to get warmer a little quicker than others. In addition, the fitting room is a square foot bigger, he added.

“We have a real passion to do what our family has done, to impact people’s lives,” said Nicholas. “We never ask a woman to conform her figure to fashion. It’s always about bringing fashion to her figure. Gram used to say that.”