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Liz Lange married fashion to pregnancy

Renee Martin
Renee Martin is co-author of the new book, The Risk Takers: 16 Women and Men Share Their Entrepreneurial Strategies for Success, which profiles founders of Geek Squad, Kinko's, PatrĂ³n Spirits, Spanx, Curves, and other successful businesses.

A career in fashion wasn't something Liz Lange ever envisioned for herself until in 1994, she launched her own maternity clothing line --a business she eventually sold for an estimated $50 to $60 million.

She'd charted a career path in the field of writing and landed a position at Vogue magazine as an editorial assistant. Then Liz met a young, struggling fashion designer, Steven DiGeronimo, visited his small studio, and just felt this connection. "I just had to be a part of this," Liz explains and plunged headfirst into the fashion industry as an unpaid apprentice. She learned every aspect of it.

Friends visited Liz at work to buy at a wholesale price. "I'd say, 'What are you doing here? You're pregnant. They'd always have the same answer: 'You don't understand. There's nothing out there.'" Those friends managed to wiggle their way into the new dresses made with stretch fabrics. "I noticed that they looked so much thinner and cuter and better." At the time, stretch fabrics were new to the fashion industry. These garments provided a fitted, chic look, and that meant her pregnant friends felt more attractive and self-assured.

That's when Liz got a big idea: launch a maternity line using stretch fabrics. Fashion-conscious, expectant mothers could trade in the circus-tent look for haute couture. She presented her idea to DiGeronimo--and he promptly nixed it. Merchandise buyers at high-end department stores pooh-poohed the idea saying there was no money in retailing maternity clothes. 'Women don't care what they look like when they're pregnant,'" Liz remembers. "Everyone gave me reasons why it was a bad idea. But I was in love with the idea."

So in 1997, Liz just started her business, against the advice of others, and set out to start a new line of maternity clothing that bucked conventional wisdom. She trusted her gut that if pregnant women saw how flattering her maternity clothes looked on them, they would in fact be willing to pay extra. She had discovered an underserved niche--high-fashion maternity clothes.

She borrowed less than $25,000 from family and started calling garment factories, trying to find one willing to construct her maternity designs in tiny volumes. One factory after another rejected her. "I finally found one that was willing to work with me the way I wanted," Liz says.

Liz gave the factory her general designs and the staff there created the patterns. She chose high-quality Italian stretch fabrics for the garments. The designs were clean and sophisticated. Competitors in the maternity category offered designs that were ill-fitting, dull and uninspired in comparison. Liz exploited her competitor's weakness and made it her strength.

Liz saved her bucks and got noticed without expensive advertising. She knew the power of celebrity endorsement in the fashion world. She contacted the personal assistants of pregnant celebrities and offered to dress their clients for high-profile events, like award shows, in exchange for a plug. Soon celebrities such as Cindy Crawford, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kelly Ripa were being photographed wearing Liz's designs and singing their praises. The press took notice.

A one woman operation in the beginning, in 1999 Liz hired more help and moved into a retail space at 75th Street and Madison. She opened a second store in Beverly Hills and signed an exclusive five-year licensing deal with Nike.

Liz's maternity line had inspired a host of copycat maternity designers. The brand's control of the high-fashion/fitted maternity niche--a niche that Liz invented--was diminishing somewhat. She got letters from pregnant women frustrated because Liz's clothes were out of their price range. Liz decided it was time to reinvent the company and offer a secondary, discount version of her line.

"So I approached Target and Target loved the idea," she said. "In 2002, we rolled out Liz Lange Maternity for Target, a diffusion label that's much, much, much less expensive." And in 2006 it became the only maternity product sold at Target's 1,500 stores nationwide. In late 2007, Liz sold Liz Lange Maternity to Bluestar Alliance. However, she remains involved with the company creatively.

The six traits that were key to Lange's success were bucking the conventional wisdom, identifying an underserved niche, trusting her gut, making her competitor's weakness her strength, and continually reinventing her company. They just might work for you too.

By Renee Martin

 |  April 6, 2010; 11:04 AM ET |  Category:  Business Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The quality of Liz Lange for Target rivals any other maternity wear I found. I quickly spend several hundred dollars on a maternity wardrobe and would have spent more if I could have found the right outfits. Far from pregnant women not caring how they look, it's retailers not offering any options. It took weeks of diligent searching to find a suit that didn't have unraveling seams or irritating material (pregnancy is definitely NOT the time for pants that squeak when the fabric rubs together). Enough with the yoga pants- there is a huge need for maternity business wear.

Posted by: siviyo | April 16, 2010 10:48 PM

Yeah, well, Lange & maternity stores are all well & good if you're size 16 or under. Otherwise, go get yourself a bag. Same for nursing bras. If you're well-endowed (say, a 36I-G when nursing), then you are sol.

If you're over 5'8" and a size 16 or larger, the designers don't want to hear about your needs, pregnant or not.

Posted by: dahozho | April 16, 2010 3:39 PM

I LOVE Liz Lange Maternity for Target and wore her clothes while I was pregnant in 2007. It was great to find affordable, well-designed cute clothes. It was a nice niche between Mimi Maternity/Peapod (pricy) and Motherhood Maternity (less expensive but not well made).

Posted by: climategirl | April 16, 2010 2:55 PM

there are countless maternity lines that focus on this-year's-chic. For my generation it was Pumpkin Maternity. Liz's line is nothing out of the ordinary and in fact quite commonplace.

Posted by: bbcrock | April 16, 2010 2:36 PM

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