Expectant and new mothers are demanding more from maternity fashion, presenting fresh challenges and opportunities for high street and specialist retailers.
Maternitywear is quite literally a growth market, and competition over the spend of pregnant women is increasingly fierce.
The latest launch to hit the headlines is Zara’s first maternity collection. Tucked away in the “Corner Shops” section of its website on the “Mum” page, it has 25 dedicated maternity items – including knitted dresses, sweaters, overalls and jeans – styled with other pieces from the main Zara range, which are either oversized or made from stretchy, bump-friendly materials.
Its maternity styles are on trend – animal print is rife for autumn 18 – and keenly priced, ranging from £17.99 for a slogan sweatshirt to £159 for a cashmere cardigan.
Zara joins the swelling ranks of high street and online retailers attempting to tap into the spending power of expectant and new mothers: H&M, Next, Topshop, Asos and Boohoo are among those with fashionable maternity ranges, while plus-size retailer Simply Be launched its first maternity collection online in September. Research by retail analytics company Edited shows that the number of maternity items sold across 30 major US and UK retailers quadrupled between 2014 and the third quarter of 2017.
Mind the mum-fluencers
GlobalData estimates that the UK maternitywear market was worth £199m in 2017. Growth in the market has been heavily influenced by social media, where there has been a rise in the number of style-savvy “mum-fluencers”, as well as a spate of very public royal pregnancies. Following the “Kate effect” – the Duchess of Cambridge’s maternity fashion choices have been credited with boosting business for brands such as Séraphine – all eyes are now on Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who is expecting her first child in the spring.
However, retailers looking to enter the market need to be aware of changing consumer expectations. Mothers-to-be are no longer willing to compromise on style or functionality of garments: they expect both.
“Maternitywear was marginalised for so long, but that’s changed,” says Edwina Elek, founder of British maternitywear label Clary & Peg. “Social media has played a huge part in this – there’s been a surge in influencers that are mums, which impacts people in the way they think about what they want to wear. People have a different way of looking at pregnancy now – they want to feel great [in what they wear].”
“It used to be that people didn’t go out much when they were pregnant, but now they do,” agrees Tiffany London, founder of made in UK maternity occasionwear brand Tiffany Rose. “Having a wardrobe that enables them to do that helps at a time when their sense of self takes a knock.”
Meanwhile, the influx of high street maternity styles is putting pressure on the specialist retailers and brands to up their game and communicate a clear message about the value in investing in more expensive, technical maternity and nursing clothing, which is not always as fashion forward.
London-based maternitywear retailer Isabella Oliver is focusing on what it can offer as a point of difference from the high street and in January will launch an activewear range for expectant mothers. As a brand, it is also increasingly working with sustainable fabrics, and in October launched a new initiative that offered expectant mothers the chance to mark their child’s birth by planting trees within areas affected by deforestation and forest fires.
“We have seen more competition,” acknowledges Isabella Oliver CEO Geoff van Sonsbeeck. “Versatility and longevity are key, as many consumers are shopping for pieces they can wear pre- and post-pregnancy. Our focus is on fit and clever design that mean a pregnant woman can wear our collection throughout her pregnancy without having to size up. We spend a lot of time fitting each product on various ‘bump’ sizes, to create designs that are practical, comfortable and stylish.”
Laura Tenison, founder of Jojo Maman Bébé, says it too has suffered in the face of competition from more trend-led fashion retailers. Like Isabella Oliver, it focuses on classic styles.
“When designing maternitywear, you don’t want to alienate anyone – it’s such a niche market,” says Tenison. “How do you design a collection that appeals to the rock chick who likes animal print, and to the Laura Ashley brigade? It’s unbelievably difficult. You’ll see a nod to a trend – but just a nod.”
She adds: “We have gained market share in areas we’re good at – the bits other fashion retailers cannot reproduce overnight. Asos and Zalando can make easy-to-manufacture loose-fitting styles that are a bit larger round the bump.
“Making a seamless maternity legging that stays up and is comfortable for nine months is extremely difficult to get right. Our high fashion lines are selling less, but our technical lines are selling more.”
While competition builds over maternitywear spend, one part of the market that is still relatively under-served is clothing specifically for breastfeeding mothers, as most of the nursing styles available are also designed for pregnancy.
“One of the most common problems is that [retailers and brands] tie maternity and nursing clothes together, but they are designed differently and fit differently,” says Emma Harrison, one of the women behind Facebook group “Can I Breastfeed In It?”, which trawls the internet for nursing-friendly fashion. “Breastfeeding mothers want something more flattering to their changing body shapes.”
Since its launch three years ago, “Can I Breastfeed In It?” has amassed more than 68,000 members.
“The reason the group is so good is because breastfeeding-friendly clothes aren’t necessarily identified on retailers’ websites or in stores,” explains Harrison. “When you’re a breastfeeding mum, you go into a shop looking for something you can feed in, but that is also fashionable. We’d like stores to have a tag for breastfeeding-friendly styles, like they do with tall and petite.”
In August, Sainsbury’s Tu revealed plans to expand the number of styles it carries that are suitable for nursing mothers, after one of its jumpsuits was recommended on “Can I Breastfeed In It?” and sold out online within four weeks.
Other brands are cottoning on: SilkFred and Closet London, for example, have edits on their websites that show customers which of their dresses are suitable for breastfeeding.
More attention to the pregnancy and post-childbirth community will play well on social media, as well as having a positive impact on sales. Pregnant women are increasingly willing to spend money to look and feel good.
As more brands and retailers wake up to this fact, the pressure on specialist players to set themselves apart in the comfort and technical design stakes will continue to grow – all of which spells good news for this group of consumers.
As Zara’s “Mum” page puts it: “Shopping for maternity clothes doesn’t need to be hard.”
And with more choice than ever before, that should certainly be the case.