OH BABY! HOW CHIC

Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — It’s been long overdue, but retailers and designers are beginning to capitalize on a trend that’s gaining momentum: maternity chic.
Forget oversized men’s shirts, A-line tent dresses and blouses with panels. The new look being ushered in is sexy and body conscious — from HotPants and leather boot-cut designs to halter tops and dresses.
In December, Barneys New York launched a maternity department in its Manhattan, Beverly Hills and Chicago locations. The department showcases the store’s new private label collection called Barneys New York Procreation, as well as bikinis from maternity labels Lattessa and silk shantung dresses from Momma Luna by Soledad Twomby. The tony store has also solicited contemporary resources to create special items — boot-cut pants from Chaiken and halter dresses from Tocca, to name a few. Chaiken and Tocca said they are considering expanding their maternity offerings.
Then there’s Gap, which this month began selling a 16-style maternity collection online. The offerings include slim stretch pants and capri jeans. A company spokeswoman said the line is doing well, but noted the retailer has no immediate plans to stock maternity wear in its stores.
Macy’s East, which has maternity wear in 56 of its 88 locations, opened a maternity department this spring at its Herald Square flagship.
There is also a burgeoning crop of 30-something maternity designers such as Liz Lange, a former Vogue editor; Pumpkin Wentzel, a former rocker, and Lauren Sara, who closed her sportswear collection to concentrate on her maternity label M. All three are developing a loyal clientele of women who can afford to pay $500 for a dress to be worn for only a few months.
Why the buzz over maternity wear? Fashion observers said what’s pushing maternity chic into the limelight are the recent spate of pregnant celebrities, such as Annette Bening, Cindy Crawford, Kelly Preston, Elizabeth Shue and Catherine Zeta-Jones, all of whom have been proud to be boasting their bellies in sleek designs, not to mention the recent hoopla surrounding Madonna’s pending motherhood.
“They are coming out…looking incredible,” said Emilia Fabricant, senior vice president and divisional manager of Barneys’ Co-op division. “They are boasting their pregnancy and wearing form-fitting, sexy designs.”
Witness the very pregnant Bening, who turned up at the Academy Awards on Sunday in a sleek custom-made black Armani gown.
A spokeswoman for Armani, however, said it doesn’t plan to get into the maternity business, adding, “Annette is a close friend of the house of Armani.”
Another catalyst, according to observers, is that women are increasingly delaying their decision to have children into their late thirties and early forties, and consequently have more money to spend on maternity wear.
“These women have more money and they have a clearly defined sense of style. They don’t want to be hanging around in oversized men’s shirts,” said Lange, who on March 1 opened a 3,000-square-foot boutique at 958 Madison Avenue featuring denim HotPants, floral dresses, colorful printed stretch blouses, stretch boot-cut pants and apron-style tops.
The store offers a wide span of products, including hats, shoes and bathing suits. Lange, who previously had been working out of a 600-square-foot store and office space on Lexington Avenue, said she has been surprised at how fast her business has taken off. In 1997, her first year of business, sales reached $650,000.
Lange said she has big dreams, and plans to open 20 more boutiques around the country within the next two or three years. She added that she expects to open a store in Beverly Hills in September and envisions boutiques in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and Atlanta. Lange also wants to sell her clothes online by next spring.
“I want to be a designer brand,” said Lange.
Lange said she is not interested in selling in department stores because she believes they won’t be able to give the high level of customer service needed.
Her Madison Avenue store, for example, has five salespeople.
Former rocker Wentzel, who is eight months pregnant, conceived of the idea of starting a maternity wear business in the fall of 1996 when she was touring with her band in a converted fish truck. Wentzel thought of her sister and best friend complaining about a dearth of styled maternity wear. Two and a half years ago, she launched her line under the Pumpkin label and has been able to attract a solid following. Last year, the business rang up $350,000 in wholesale volume.
Her fall collection, which features 22 styles, including leather pants and peasant shirts, is sold through her Web site — Pumpkinmaternity.com — and through her catalog.
Wentzel’s collection is also sold in a couple of San Francisco stores. The Pumpkin collection retails from $58 for a cotton T-shirt to $148 for a bias-cut silk dress.
Next on Wentzel’s agenda is to open a boutique in NoLIta sometime in September. She noted that her celebrity clientele, which has included Kelly Preston, Molly Ringwald and Vanessa Williams, have helped jump-start the business, given exposure in magazines.
“Fashion magazines are paying more attention to maternity wear,” Wentzel said.
Maternity wear designer Sara agreed.
“We are in such a media-crazed society, where the consumer is privy to every intimate private moment,” said Sara, who dressed Bening during all four pregnancies. “Combine that with network anchors who work until the very day they deliver. There’s heightened interest in personal details about celebrities.”
Sara, who operates a studio outside Philadelphia, travels to New York three days a week to see her clients and also spends time in Los Angeles to visit her celebrity clientele.
Last year, her business, founded six years ago, hit $1 million in sales, generated from her catalog and through her Web site, Laurensara.com.
Sara outfits range from $160 for a tank dress to $2,500 for a beaded gown.
Sara got her start in 1994, when Ellin Saltzman, then Bergdorf Goodman’s fashion director, asked her to design clothes for Lauren Tisch and other socialites. That prompted her to get into maternity wear, though despite some heavy lobbying by Sara, Bergdorf’s hasn’t carried the label — or maternity wear.
Being a maternity designer has its challenges, acknowledged Sara, pointing out that there are still plenty of stores not committed to a category that has a limited life span for the consumer.
“It’s difficult. I don’t want to sell to maternity stores,” said Sara. “My customer doesn’t walk into maternity stores. She dresses in Jil Sander and Calvin Klein.”

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