A NEW MODE FOR CAREER MATERNITY
Byline: Julee Greenberg
NEW YORK — After seeing years of frustrated moms-to-be who couldn’t find something to wear to work, maternity clothing has finally taken an overdue turn toward fashionability.
Designers such as Anna Sui, Nicole Miller and Diane Von Furstenberg have added maternity to their collections for those fashion-conscious mothers-to-be, while smaller firms like Lauren Sara, Liz Lange and Pumpkin Wentzel have also added their fashion senses to the market.
At the same time, stores such as Barneys New York have introduced exclusive luxury maternity lines and Gap.com has gotten into the act, as well. Now, women who become pregnant don’t have to buy clothing just because it fits, but they can buy outfits that make them feel and look good.
A pioneer in the field of career maternity with a fashion mantra was Mother’s Work, which has come a long way in the more than 19 years it has been in business.
It began in 1982, when expectant mother Rebecca Matthias, a civil engineer, stood in front of her closet in her Philadelphia home and could not find appropriate clothing to wear to work. Since the existing maternity market consisted only of casual clothing, she knew something had to change. So, with $10,000, Matthias began a business.
Now a $366 million company, Mother’s Work has grown to enormous proportions. The firm still maintains its roots as a manufacturer of work-worthy maternity wear, but has become a major retail force, with a series of acquisitions raising its retail roster to 754 stores nationwide.
Carrying names like A Pea in the Pod, Mimi Maternity and Motherhood, each store is geared to a different customer. A Pea in the Pod is for a “designer-minded customer,” Mimi Maternity is for the “Ann Taylor and Banana Republic shopper,” and Motherhood carries moderate sportswear and ready-to-wear, the company explained.
“Our client needs to replace everything in her wardrobe,” said Jeri Ben Sayeh, divisional merchandise manager for A Pea in the Pod. “If she is required to dress a certain way for work, she has to find the right clothes to carry her through her pregnancy.”
That’s where A Pea in the Pod steps in, she said. The store carries its own name brand, along with merchandise designed especially for the store. Over the last year, designers such as Lily Pulitzer, Allen Schwartz and Nicole Miller have designed exclusive items for the 41-store chain, and now Anna Sui’s maternity wear will hit A Pea in the Pod’s selling floor for spring.
“This is all real-life clothing,” Sayeh said. “It’s fashion for women when their body is changing.”
Also understanding of the need for chic designs for pregnant women, Lauren Sara’s creations were also inspired by personal need. Sara launched her own sportswear collection in 1991, but in 1995 she decided to move away from sportswear and into maternity.
When Sara became pregnant, her maternity style caught the attention of Ellin Saltzman, Bergdorf Goodman’s fashion director at the time. Saltzman persuaded Sara to create a few maternity items for the store’s pregnant customers. Sara agreed and that lead to her closing her existing sportswear collection to concentrate only on maternity for the designer customer.
“I try to give my customer fabrics and details she is accustomed to wearing normally,” said Sara, noting that she does not want to see her clothes sold through traditional retail outlets, but likes to keep her business going only through her Web site and a 1-800 number.
Realizing that her customer is a busy, working woman, Sara runs her business by appointment only and will go to her customer, wherever she may be. She will even travel to her work with a rack of clothes and a roll of measuring tape.
“Lauren was the answer to every prayer I ever had,” said Stacy Cook, a devoted customer of Sara’s, who is now eight months pregnant. “She is incredibly responsive and so professional.”
Cook, who works as an investment banker, found out about Sara’s designs from a magazine feature. Cook said she leads a busy life and finds it hard to find time to shop. She said she wore classic clothing by designers such as Calvin Klein before her pregnancy and was overjoyed to find that she didn’t have to change her style with Sara’s help.
While her long list of celebrity clients includes Katie Couric, Cindy Crawford and Jodie Foster, Sara has also designed clothing for the many pregnant women on several TV series. She dressed Julia Louis Dreyfuss in order to hide her pregnancy on “Seinfeld;” created looks for cast members of “The Guiding Light” and “Friends,” and even for guests on “Oprah.” Plus, she designed most of the maternity clothing for the film “Dr. T and the Women.”
“When I found out they were pregnant, I sent sketches to Demi Moore, Deborah Norville and Paula Zahn,” Sara explained of the start of her celebrity clientele. “And I heard back from each of them right away.”
While she dresses pregnant women for work by using fabrics such as cashmere and silk, Sara also creates eveningwear by using fine Italian fabrics and antique beading.
More of a newcomer is Pumpkin Maternity, which began in 1996 when Pumpkin Wentzel, who was named because she was a 10-pound baby, was touring through Europe with her rock band. Not pregnant at the time, Wentzel was looking to change her career and decided to design maternity clothing for fashion-savvy women when her best friend and sister each became pregnant.
“Being pregnant is such a wonderful time in a woman’s life,” said Josie Cartridge, a designer for Pumpkin Maternity. “It shouldn’t be a painful thing to get dressed in the morning.”
The Pumpkin Maternity line carries anything from swimsuits to dresses and has been seen on notable celebrities such as Kate Winslet, Melanie Griffith and Celine Dion. Fabrics used are mainly stretch jersey and cotton, although georgette, fake leather, merino wool and denim can also be found in the collection.
Liz Lange began her maternity wear business three years ago and has since opened one boutique here in Manhattan and one in Beverly Hills.
“Designing these clothes was a fun hobby at first, but has quickly taken over my life,” Lange said of her business, which has grown 300 percent since the first year.
Feeling that quality and style are the most important aspects in her designs, Lange said she is inspired by designers such as Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. She said she strives to give pregnant working women clothes they are desperate for at reasonable price points.
“The thing about buying clothes for a pregnancy is that you live in the things you invest in,” she said, noting that women’s bodies often take time to get back to normal after pregnancy. “And these are clothes that the women can wear even after they give birth.”
Even Barneys has tapped into the market by beginning its own maternity collection called Pro Creation, which came about when a customer mentioned that she would love to buy her maternity clothes in the same store she always shops in. Now going on its third season, Pro Creation has done well for the store.
“The Pro Creation line is full of great basic items to supplement with regular clothes,” said Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Barneys. “The shapes of the clothing show off the pregnancy, instead of hiding it.”
In addition to Pro Creation, Diane Von Furstenberg has created a series of dresses exclusively for the upscale store.
“The response has been really great” Collinson said of the new addition.
Gap Inc. has also begun to sell a maternity line exclusively online at Gap.com. Launching last May, Brooke Baldwin, senior manager of public relations for Gap, said there’s been a good response to the new line.
“Our customers have been asking for this for a long time,” said Baldwin, noting that she wore the clothes herself when she was pregnant. “It’s a comfortable transition, which lasts through a woman’s entire pregnancy.”
Selling at the same price points that can be found at Gap stores nationwide, Gap maternity offers casual sportswear, dresses and suits.
Above all, whether a woman needs a suit for the office or a bridesmaid’s gown, the most important aspect of designing maternity garments is comfort. As designers are known to say, women must look good to feel good, and that is never more important than during the nine months of pregnancy.
“Clothing says something about you,” Lange said. “It’s important to make pregnant women feel normal and sexy.”