The discount retailer began its partnership with Liz Lange Maternity in 2002, starting a revolution in how pregnant women dress.
Not so long ago, pregnant women hid their baby bumps under fussy reams of fabric intended to mask their "condition."
But spurred by the high-profile, red-carpet pregnancies of celebrities such as Heidi Klum, Angelina Jolie, Gwen Stefani and, more recently, Jessica Simpson, maternity wear has become a fashion phenomenon that rakes in an estimated $2 billion a year. The mantra is simple: If you're expecting, baby, flaunt it.
Most major retailers -- including Gap, H&M, Forever 21 and Wal-Mart -- are in the game, not to mention hundreds of niche boutiques across the country. Yet New York designer Liz Lange and Target Corp. have helped to transform maternity wear over the past decade with their long-standing partnership -- Liz Lange Maternity -- sold at the Minneapolis-based discounter's 1,764 stores nationwide and online.
"There has almost been a revolution in terms of our society in the past decade among pregnant women, and I'm thrilled to be leading that charge, or at least be a part of it," Lange said in a recent interview. Lange recently celebrated the 10-year partnership with a party last month at the Glasshouses in New York City's hip Chelsea neighborhood. There were appearances by the very-pregnant model and actress Molly Sims and celebrity designer and Target collaborator Nate Berkus.
While Target doesn't break out sales for the Liz Lange line, research firm IBISWorld Inc. estimates the company holds a 15 percent stake in the maternity apparel market, with annual sales of about $303 million. Still, Target trails market leader Destination Maternity Corp., parent of value-priced Motherhood Maternity and the upscale A Pea in the Pod stores, and behemoth Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The Lange maternity collection was introduced at Target about the time the retailer collaborated with designer Isaac Mizrahi. Both were early participants in the company's largely successful partnerships with designers and celebrities that cemented the $70 billion company's cheap chic reputation.
"Liz has had an enormous impact with maternity wear," said Trish Adams, Target's senior vice president of apparel and accessories. "She essentially created the idea of celebrating the baby bump instead of hiding it."
While changing pop-culture trends have altered the maternity market's fashion sensibilities, giving it more glam appeal, it is still is a category intrinsically tied to birth rates and overall economic conditions.
The number of births in the Great Recession remained stagnant at roughly 4 million a year as people delayed having children, and shrinking disposable incomes have together dampened maternity apparel sales. The overall growth rate has declined 1.4 percent annually since 2007. That's not a double whammy experienced in other areas of apparel.
Pregnant women in the tough economy have opted to buy fewer pieces for their maternity wardrobe, shopped at discount outlets and resale stores, and scouted hand-me-downs from friends and relatives.
"It's not an industry that's recession-proof," said Nikoleta Panteva, senior analyst with IBISWorld.
Generally, first-time moms spend more than those who have already had children, according to Target's Adams. "I spent more on my first baby," said St. Paul mom Mary Hansen, who gave birth to her second child, a boy, last week. "With the first one, you're really excited, and you think about what you're going to wear. This time around, I picked up just a few things and I didn't spend a lot of money."
She shopped the Lange line at Target, Old Navy ("Their stuff shrinks, that doesn't make me feel good."), Motherhood Maternity and consignment shops.
Consignment and resale shops have emerged as a potent competitor in the field in recent years.
Entrepreneur Crystal Pollard's maternity resale business, Bellies to Babies, began after she held a garage sale to sell off her pregnancy clothes. The demand was phenomenal, and she continued holding maternity garage sales that were advertised by word-of-mouth and on Craigslist.
Figuring she was on to something, Pollard and fiancé Brad McManus moved the business to a storefront at 66th and Penn Avenue S. in Richfield.
"Women come from all over the state, and from all over the country," Pollard said. Prices are generally marked 75 percent off retail. Tops, the most-popular piece purchased by pregnant women, sell for $7 to $10 for value merchandise (that includes Lange's Target line) and $21 to $45 for upscale brands.
Lange, who holds a comparative literature degree from Brown University, began designing maternity wear while working at Vogue and a small design firm in the 1990s. It was at the behest of pregnant friends who were desperate to avoid the tent-like dresses of the day and struggling to shimmy into regular-sized professional wear. Lange says her signature fitted silhouette was intentional, and made possible by new kinds of stretchy fabric that emerged at the time.
Lange's high-end designs were worn by celebrities such as Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts and Cindy Crawford, and touted by major fashion magazines and style maven Oprah Winfrey. Target's trend watchers took note, too, and the partnership was born in 2002. (Lange subsequently sold her business for a reported $50 million, but she remains its creative director.)
Lange's collection takes up a relatively small footprint in Target stores -- eight racks out of 120 ready-to-wear racks in the women's section, according to Adams. "We have to edit the selection very carefully," she said.
But overall, Liz Lange Maternity has grown from 12 pieces initially to about 40 now, all with price points under $60. Lange says her "clean and classic with a twist" style appeals to "trend bunnies and 45-year-old professional women alike. A pair of skinny jeans can be paired with wedges and a skinny top, or with a navy blazer and white button-down."
Likewise, the line has evolved to fit the needs of Target's core customer -- an educated 25- to 35-year-old woman who wants maternity wear for work, gym, play and travel. But, as Lange points out, "there's always a nod to trends."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752