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A Growth Industry

Expanding moms-to-be don't want sweet or frumpy clothes. Some companies have gotten the message and are turning out maternity wear with flair.

June 25, 1998|ELLEN ROONEY MARTIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maternity clothes have a dirty little secret: Nobody wants to buy them. Conventional wisdom has it that they're expensive and about as fashionable as a canvas pup tent.

But the reality is a bit more complex. While there are plenty of overpriced and ugly clothes in the maternity world, there are also chic styles available from companies that are better known for making clothes for slender--and decidedly nonpregnant--waifs. There are also maternity clothes available from designers who couldn't find what they wanted when they were pregnant.

Many of these designs are available by catalog, and they are not expensive--repeat, not expensive--especially when you consider how often they are worn. In fact, many women have a fantasy about a ritualistic burning of their maternity wardrobe after the baby is born. They have worn them that much.

Los Angeles real estate agent Penny Williams, who had a baby in November, is typical of many moms-to-be. Early in her pregnancy, she wore her husband's shirts and bought a few nonmaternity items in sizes larger than usual. But she quickly outgrew those and wound up in the maternity aisle at the local mall.

She ended up returning the entire lot.

"They just weren't made well and didn't hold up to repeated wearing," Williams says. Still, she a needed more tailored look for work, and her husband's shirts didn't offer it.

Williams invested in "cute basics" that rotated with other clothes in her wardrobe.

She advises: "Break down and invest some money in the clothes, because they will last."

One place to start for casual maternity clothes is Fitigues. This Chicago-based company started out in the 1980s designing waffle-weave clothes for women and added maternity items after it became apparent that pregnant customers were buying larger sizes to accommodate their expanding bellies, said owner Steve Rosenstein.

"The customer is just starving for hip maternity clothes," Rosenstein said. "Maternity used to be one shot in our catalog, and it's now two pages, which is a lot for a 36-page catalog."

Fitigues' summer catalog carries lightweight terry short overalls with pearl snaps in black for $124; thermal bike shorts for $42 in ash or black; and a big shirt for $112. In all, the company offers six maternity items, ranging from $42 to $124. Contact the company at (800) 235-9005 for a catalog or retail sites.

New Hampshire-based Garnet Hill offers maternity classics appropriate for everything from a big client meeting to a backyard barbecue.

Cotton knit tops, made from Danish green cotton, have an A-line shape, rounded neck and long sleeves in red or gray heather stripe or plain white for $36.

Pair the shirt with ribbed shorts or pants, at $38 and $48 respectively, and a pique maternity cardigan for $64, and the look is complete.

For dressier occasions, the catalog offers a cotton knit T-shirt dress or linen maternity pants paired with a embroidered cutout maternity blouse. The entire collection ranges from $36 to $68. Garnet Hill can be reached at (800) 622-6216.

"We looked at the business and decided it was the same customer who when pregnant didn't turn into some kind of goofball wearing clothes she wouldn't normally wear," said Diana Rush, director of merchandising for Garnet Hill.

New York's Belly Basics started in 1994 with a now-famous line called the Pregnancy Survival Kit, which for $152 includes a dress, slim skirt, tunic and leggings made from cotton and Lycra. The company was born out of the owners' (Cherie Serota and Jody Kozlow Gardner) own maternity frustrations. It has since expanded to include twin sets, boot-leg pants, a long slim skirt and a swimsuit. Belly Basics' clothes can be dressed up or down. They come in basic black and, for some items, trendy colors such as French blue, melon and chocolate.

The team has gone on to publish a book about fashion during those long nine months called "Pregnancy Chic" ($16.95, Villard Books, 1998).

"We're never into trendy items," says Serota. "We do cool basics because that's what women want."

San Francisco's Japanese Weekend offers contemporary clothing for pregnant women, including a specially designed waistband that supports the growing belly and wraps around the back.

Called the "OK" waistband, it is incorporated into everything from leggings to sexy lingerie. The company's top seller, however, remains its pair of leggings, available for $40 through its San Francisco store and catalog, (800) 808-0555.

Nancy Bombard, Japanese Weekend's store manager, developed a helpful list that breaks down maternity clothing needs at three, six and nine months.

At three months, for instance, she notes that your pants may be tight, but you're probably not ready for really big maternity clothes. Bombard recommends a couple of pairs of leggings, twill pants, several shirts and a suit.

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