Expect the Best

Posted by Liza Elliott-Ramirez December - 18 - 2008
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TIME magazine

Expect the Best
With Gap, H&M and top designers getting into the act, moms-to-be have new sources of hip, quality clothes
By AMANDA BOWER 


Glow Girl, a hip boutique in Mill Valley, Calif., gives prospective customers clear visual clues as to the nature of its business: the mannequins in the window have protruding bellies, and painted on the glass is the word MATERNITY underneath a silhouette of a woman with a bump. But that doesn’t stop some unsuspecting Ñ and not-expecting Ñ women from entering Angela Mavridis’ year-old store, lured by familiar brand-name fashion and accessories.

“When you come in, you see Seven Jeans, Chaiken jeans, Earl Jeans, which are all names you know if you’re not pregnant,” says Mavridis. “Girls grab the clothes, get into the dressing room and then say, ‘Why do these fit funny?'” The would-be clients are often embarrassed by their mistake, but Marin County’s pregnant fashionistas are thrilled that mainstream designers are finally creating clothes for their expanding waistlines. Over the past two years, couturiers like Chaiken, Diane von Furstenberg, Lilly Pulitzer and Anna Sui have all made their maternity-wear debuts.

It’s not just a high-end phenomenon. Earlier this year, Gap and Old Navy decided to devote floor space in their stores to maternity wear, which they had been selling only online. H&M has also got into the act. Its Mama collection is swiftly gaining notoriety among bargain hunters as the Scandinavian phenom expands throughout the U.S. Other retailers are spiffing up their maternity departments: Target now offers a collection designed by Liz Lange, a former editor at Vogue magazine and the first designer to show a maternity collection at New York’s fashion week. All items cost less than $25.

Whether an outfit is priced at $300 or $30, what’s remarkable about mainstream designers’ and retailers’ maternity wear is that it’s virtually indistinguishable from their regular collections Ñ hence the confusion at Glow Girl and in countless maternity sections stocked with crisp blouses, business suits, cargo pants and halter tops. All the season’s fashions are available, with just a little extra room at the bust and the belly. “Before, you were supposed to be another person when you became a mother,” says Mathilda Jonsson, designer of H&M’s Mama line. “Now you want to keep your personality and follow the style you had before. We follow the same plans, the same colors, the same design ideas.”

That today’s pregnant woman Ñ who, compared with women 30 years ago, is often older, has a more high-powered job and is working later in her pregnancy Ñ wants fashionable clothing isn’t a particularly new idea. One of the first to translate it into reality was Rebecca Matthias, president of Mothers Work, who says she didn’t buy a single maternity outfit when she was expecting her first child in 1981. “The industry was run by men,” says Matthias, whose company claims to be the largest maternitywear retailer in the world. “Everything was pink flowers, frilly, really inexpensive. I couldn’t wear that to work. The good-quality clothes didn’t exist, and they didn’t have clothes to wear out, because you were expected to just stay at home.” She started a tiny catalog business selling suits made by a New Hampshire sample maker out of fabric Matthias bought retail. The first catalog brought in $3,000 in sales. Last year the enterprise, which now includes 1,000 stores in three price ranges (Motherhood, Mimi Maternity and A Pea in the Pod), grossed half a billion dollars.

Matthias’ success has taught mainstream designers an important lesson: there’s money in maternity. “Business school 101 is find a need and fill it,” says Julie Chaiken, whose eponymous high-end fashion label introduced Chaiken with Child two years ago. “A good percentage of our customers are pregnant, and we don’t want to lose them for nine months.” At the request of special clients like Cindy Crawford and supermodel Vendela, Chaiken began creating a maternity version of its signature pants Ñ with elastic in the waistband and an emphatic lack of ugly front pouches. Scouts at high-end department stores like Barneys New York heard about the designer’s expanding waistlines and asked for wider production. “There was initially some trepidation,” says Chaiken. “Other designers would say, ‘Really, you’re doing that?’ A year later, a lot of them had also jumped in.” This year 11% of Chaiken’s spring-collection sales were maternity; for fall it was 15%. “Overall our sales are growing, but maternity is growing even faster,” Chaiken says.

Chaiken with Child has brought the designer new customers, who then stick with Chaiken clothes after they have had their babies. That kind of opportunity is not lost on Gap, which is putting its maternity clothes into stores already stocked with the proven babyGap line. “It’s a brilliant strategy,” says Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Black. “She’s buying maternity clothes and baby clothes. Then the baby clothes turn into kids’ clothes, the kids’ clothes turn into adult clothes. It’s a growing market, no pun intended.”

Spin-off industries are also blossoming, such as Liza Elliott-Ramirez’s Expecting Models, founded in July 2001. “When I started modeling 20 years ago, pregnancy was something you hid,” she says. “But when I was pregnant [in 2000], I never worked so much.” Business has quadrupled since the agency opened, and some of the 100 pregnant models on Elliott-Ramirez’s books command as much as $10,000 a day. “It’s a huge and booming market,” she says. “There are new vendors every day, as they realize pregnant women are consumers who want to look good.”

Andrea O’Reilly, president of the Association for Research on Mothering, says she’s heartened that designers have finally recognized that pregnant women deserve their attention. Still, she’s concerned that the emphasis on looking good could create unrealistic expectations. “It’s double-edged, because it also sets standards even higher,” she says. “It’s hard enough being pregnant … now you’ve got to look stylish?” At least today’s mothers-to-be truly have that option.

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