Liz Lange refuses to be pigeonholed. In 1997 as she was launching the first line of designer maternity wear, buyers at department stores warned that pregnant women wouldn't pay up for high fashion. But affluent women -- later followed by celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow -- flocked to Lange's stores.
In 2002, she jumped categories again, striking a deal with Target Corp. (TGT ) to design inexpensive maternity clothes. Her advisers said she would ruin her cachet, but business has grown 20% in each of the past three years, to an estimated $10 million. Lange herself is as likely to spend a day ringing up fabric mills as she is designing clothes. Her 45 employees need to be flexible, too: Many don't have job descriptions and everyone is expected to chip in with ideas and tasks in all departments. "'That's not my job,' is a phrase that just doesn't belong here," says Lange.
She'll need that sort of toughness as she gears up for an ambitious expansion. "It's time to blow it out and open 35 to 50 stores nationwide," says the animated Lange. She's pitching private equity firms for $25 million open stores in such cities as Dallas, Chicago, and San Francisco in '06. Lange also wants to expand into nursing wear and lingerie, and to enter the baby clothing and nursery furnishing market -- all more competitive than maternity wear.
Lange didn't set out to be a designer. She majored in comparative literature at Brown University, graduated in 1988, then snagged a job as an assistant editor at Vogue. At her next stop, with clothing designer Stephen DiGeronimo, she saw her pregnant friends squeezing into his nonmaternity clothes. The women "looked better just because the clothes were better designed," says Lange. "That was my 'Aha!' moment." Soon she was on her own, borrowing $50,000 from family to get going. "In my family, no one worked for other people," says Lange, whose father owned an insurance business.
She rented a 12-by-12-foot Manhattan office, then phoned a few women she thought might like her clothes. Soon, orders were pouring in from as far away as Saudi Arabia. The next year she moved into a store on the Upper East Side and hired her first two employees. "I was blown away with the incredible amount of dollars Liz was raking in in that 800-square-foot store," says Barry Ginsburg, a developer of high-end shopping outlets who invested in the company in 2000 and sits on its board of advisers.
That investment helped fund Lange's move to a 2,200-square-foot store on Madison Avenue in March, 2000. Six months later she branched out to Beverly Hills, then, in 2002, to upscale Greenvale, N.Y. Dresses and pants are priced around $150 each, and the average total sale is $1,200. Her Target line features $10 T-shirts and $23 dresses.
Lange says her company's flexibility will be vital to outmaneuvering competitors as she expands, but she concedes that some employees do better with defined boundaries. "There isn't a lot of handholding here," says Lange. She has learned to be wary when hiring people who have worked at larger, more structured fashion houses like Calvin Klein Inc. or Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. (RL ), being sure to explain to designers, for example, that they may also be expected to select fabric or help with publicity. "You have to have entrepreneurial spirit here," says Jessica Gold, Lange's director of marketing. Gold started four years ago as Lange's assistant after graduating from college. "It's your motivation that will help you succeed here, because it's such a loose structure."
That might hold true for the folks Lange intends to hire to expand her company, too. She says she's looking for "top-tier management people who have expertise in store rollouts." And if they can fix a mannequin -- well, that would be a plus.
By Pallavi Gogoi