Designer Liz Lange revolutionized the world for pregnant women when she launched her line of chic maternity wear in 1997. Until then, pregnancy and fashion hardly went hand in hand, and major retailers scoffed at her idea.
Lange is now the high priestess of maternity style, with a $10 million business and partnerships with Nike (NKE) and Target (TGT). Her success has transformed the industry, propelling big-name stores like Gap (GPS), Old Navy, and Barneys to launch their own maternity lines.
CELEBRITY DRAW. It has been quite a journey for Lange, who has turned into a widely known brand name in barely eight years. Once pooh-poohed for thinking that pregnant women would even consider -- let alone buy -- stylish outfits for just those months, Lange took inspiration from her pregnant friends who tried to fit into regular clothes. Despite the warnings from friends, retailers, and financiers, she decided to follow her instincts.
Starting in 1998 with a $50,000 loan, Lange opened her first store on Lexington and 72nd Street in New York City, selling her line of chic clothes for moms-to-be out of a second-floor space. Customers came in droves. Those who couldn't fit into the store waited on the stairs, and the line would often spill into the street.
From there, Lange opened two flagship stores, one in Beverly Hills and the other on Manhattan's Madison Avenue. Her clothes become a favorite of such celebrities as Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet.
Lange now keeps offices in Manhattan's Garment District, where she can tap into the latest stretch fabrics to spew out ever better designs for pregnant women. She sat down with BusinessWeek Online reporter Pallavi Gogoi to talk about how she built her business and brand. Here are edited excerpts.
Tell us about how it all began.
In the mid-1990s I worked with Geronimo, a struggling designer in a gray office in the gritty Garment District. I had all these pregnant friends come visit me and try to squeeze themselves into nonmaternity designer clothes. They all complained they couldn't find anything regular and stylish to wear -- and that everywhere the outfits were either oversized or too frilly, which didn't look appropriate at work.
I also noticed that, as they squeezed into these clothes, they looked better even though the outfits weren't quite big enough, just because the clothes were better designed. That was my aha! moment.
So, you started doing designer maternity?
I looked around the market to see what was out there and was frankly horrified. It was all so un-upscale, and much of it was oversized so that a woman could get through nine months in the same outfit. During her early days, a mother-to-be had nothing she could really fit into. It was all frilly -- I mean, you are having a baby, not becoming a baby.
I wanted to design something that fit well and resembled what I liked to wear. I was looking to design something that allowed a woman to look stylish at work and also when she went out in the evenings. At that time, I had also discovered the stretch fabric, which I started using -- so a woman can wear the clothes when her body starts to swell and until it's full form.
Did you launch the company soon after?
Oh no. There were so many naysayers. Most people said it was a bad idea. Some said that if it was such a good idea, why wasn't somebody doing it?
So I was in complete paralysis. Many retailers I approached with my designs refused to carry my line. They said women just want to get past those nine months and not spend money.
So, what gave you the final push?
It was all these pregnant women that kept coming back. So, undeterred, I finally started in the fall of 1997 and opened a 12-by-12-foot office on 61 Street between Park and Madison, where I sold clothes by appointment only.
The response was overwhelming, and I soon had more orders than I knew how to fill. It was then that I decided to open a store, and borrowed about $50,000 from my parents, much of which I used to buy the best fabulous stretch material imported from Italy.
What were your initial pieces?
The wardrobe consisted of eight easy pieces: pants, skirt, jacket, dress, white button-front shirt, and a turtleneck. They were not cheap -- the average price was $250. But that place was like a sample sale every day, and we couldn't even stop for lunch.
Pregnant women were lining up down the staircases all the way down to the street. Women were stripping themselves naked in the store to try out our clothes, because they couldn't wait for the dressing rooms.
It was obvious that I could easily expand. I opened my Madison Avenue store in March, 2000. Indeed, now when I think back -- if I were bolder, I wouldn't have gone with that interim step.
So, word of mouth played a big role?
I've read about people spending huge dollar amounts on building brands. But I believe that a brand has to resonate with people. It has to be honest and true. In my case, I really believed that pregnant women wanted to look chic and glamorous and maintain their sense of style. And the women agreed. They validated my brand -- I didn't.
Was that when Nike happened?
Nike approached me in 2000. I was away on vacation and got a message that Mindy Grossman from Nike called. I assumed that someone at Nike was pregnant, but Mindy is the big deal at Nike. [Grossman is Nike's vice-president for global apparel.] And she wanted to partner with me.
It was one of the best compliments that anyone could ask for. Nike always partners with the best in class in any business, and they wanted me to design special Liz Lange for Swoosh maternity wear.
Many people, including my lawyer, were skeptical about me partnering with a big national name. I was warned that they would take my ideas and launch their own line, but it all worked out well. That contract ends in 2006.
How has the industry changed since then?
There's much more competition. Gap and Old Navy have launched maternity lines. The largest maternity-wear company, Mothers Work (MWRK), which owns leading brands like A Pea in the Pod, went through a revamp. In New York, it shut down one of its top stores and opened a store a few blocks down from mine.
What have you done to stay ahead?
Because of all the competition and my own desire to grow, it was time to think strategically. At the same time, I was getting a lot of e-mail, and two negative themes kept nagging at me. At $100 to $150 apiece, my clothes are significantly lower in price than when I began, but that's still a high price point for a majority of America.
The other constant e-mail was from women around the country who couldn't visit my boutiques in New York and LA. I saw an opportunity to revolutionize the lower end of the business but didn't want to compromise my designer status.
So, I immediately thought of Target and their reputation for how they treat designers. I placed a call. I was lucky that I approached them at the right time. Target was looking for an upscale brand to enhance their Mom and Baby section. They saw me as a gateway to that.
Before long, I was on a plane to Minneapolis [where Target is based]. And we inked a deal to deliver the designs at a different price point.
Were you concerned about cheapening your image?
A lot of people were. I wasn't. As long as you can keep the integrity of the product, I think such relationships actually enhance your brand. Everyone knows that what you get at my boutique and off the rack at Target are two different things. Some like to even mix and match the two. Consumers are very smart.
How has the Target relationship affected the brand?
Around January, 2003, Target launched an ad campaign, and there I was in magazine ads, in newspaper inserts, on TV. Suddenly, all of America got to know my name.
The Liz Lange brand was already fairly well-known before the Target deal. How had you managed to build your name?
All my designer counterparts in the industry were dressing celebrities. But no one at that time was dressing the pregnant ones. Cindy Crawford was the first. She went on the Today show and was photographed at all kinds of events wearing my clothes, and soon the word spread.
I also called editors at major magazines like In Style and Vogue. Initially, they weren't interested. They said they don't really cover maternity. But I told them that this was not just maternity wear -- it was fashion.