Without a degree in fashion design or business, Liz Lange revolutionized maternity apparel starting in 1997.
In doing so, Liz Lange Maternity and the entrepreneur herself broke rules, as well as new ground. For instance, the upscale
clothing hugged—rather than tented—the wearers’ expanding midriffs. Lange also set up shop without a business
plan or marketing research. And, so far, she is the only designer to show a maternity line during New York’s Fashion
Since selling her majority interest in Liz Lange Maternity in 2007 for a rumored $50 million, she remains the creative director
and face of the brand, which thrives at Target.
But she’s no one-trick pony. Other ventures have included designing Nike active wear for moms-to-be from 2001 to 2005;
creating Shopafrolic.com in 2009, which provides shopping finds and tips; and debuting a sophisticated convertible diaper
bag-overnight bag in 2009. In February, she introduced Completely Me Liz Lange, a non-maternity, ready-to-wear clothing line
marketed through the Home Shopping Network.
She shared these thoughts about her life as a serial entrepreneur with SUCCESS.
Q: What inspired you to start Liz Lange Maternity? My friends were my inspiration for starting the line,
as they were the ones pregnant and complaining that they couldn’t find anything “maternity” to wear, so
they were spending lots of money on non-maternity clothing, which they altered. I thought, Wow. What if I made maternity clothing
that looked, felt and fit like non-maternity clothing?
Q: How did your education and work and life experiences prepare you? I got a degree in comparative literature
from Brown in 1988, but I’ve always had a passion for fashion. I worked at Vogue magazine, writing. Then I was an apprentice
to a designer and learned how a garment becomes a garment. While I was there, I decided to launch my line. I focused on being
the best brand we could be and having the best clothing possible.… I didn’t have a business plan. I just pursued
an idea that came at the right time.
Q: What gave you the confidence to start the venture and persevere? Fitted maternity clothing was a new
concept in 1997. Before that, maternity clothes were big. I was nervous: If it was such a good idea, why hadn’t somebody
done it before? But my passion and my optimism helped me take the leap to start my own business and kept me going when times
Q: What were some important steps in developing Liz Lange Maternity? It didn’t take much money to
start. I rented out a space that was tiny, and I wanted to grow naturally and organically. All the clothing was made to order.
People made appointments. I didn’t advertise. I relied on Fashiondex [a reference to fabric trim, services, contractors,
manufacturers and more] and found a factory willing to make samples and make clothing to order. I didn’t have inventory.
I had only eight styles in the beginning, and they were available in black, brown and navy. I spent a year in that first small
office. Then I had a store with hours, a second-floor retail location on Lexington Avenue for a year. I took in two investors
in 1999 who helped me with capital to open my flagship location on Madison Avenue and my Beverly Hills and Long Island locations.
My deal with Nike, from 2000 to 2005—the licensing brought in money. In 2001, Target approached me, and I took over
their line, and that was very big. [To help with inventory,] I hired a merchant from Ralph Lauren to manage flow to the store.
Q: How have you publicized Liz Lange Maternity? [Starting out,] I got a ton of press. I called editors and
showed them the line. By the time we opened the flagship store on Madison Avenue, we could advertise. I also had celebrity
customers wearing my clothes whose photos were in magazines and with photos snapped on the red carpet. We’re celebrity-obsessed:
People want to have what celebrities have. And the celebrities suggested things that helped me improve my line.
Q: Would you advise other entrepreneurs to be accessible? It’s very important. In the beginning, I
was accessible out of necessity. I answered the phones and packed up boxes. I talked to everybody and heard comments, “This
doesn’t work because of the short sleeves” and “I want pants below my belly.” I put my personal phone
number on all literature. People give advice. I could see what bothered customers—what was right, what was wrong. People
want to be heard. So much goodwill came from me answering e-mail personally.… I built my business on networking and
word-of-mouth. It’s good business. Don’t get too insulated with success, or it could be the death of your brand.
Q: At one point, you realized you needed help from retailing experts. How did you figure that out? I would
talk to people. I had come out of the design world and Vogue.… It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that
I didn’t know everything about merchandising, managing inventory flow. I knew I didn’t know much about retail,
but I learned a lot, obviously.
Q: What was your most costly mistake? How did you remedy it, and what did you learn from it? We did bring
in too much inventory at one point, and there’s nothing more dangerous than having too much inventory that you need
to sell and convert to cash. We set up a sample sale in a second location, at the Lexington Avenue shop we still had. We did
it for three months. I learned how important inventory management is. It was very scary.
Q: You have a talent for seeing and seizing opportunity. Do you test your ideas? I’m a serial entrepreneur,
although at first I was an accidental entrepreneur. I’m very optimistic. If I have an idea, I go for it. I don’t
want to live life with any regrets, to not do something and then see someone else doing it. I know that would make me unhappy.
I usually just go for it.
Q: What advice would you give someone aspiring to start a fashion/clothing/retailing business? Be passionate
about your goal. Be in touch with customers. Doggedly, aggressively pursue press. Contact the editors of publications that
can benefit your line [with buzz]. Have a vision—tunnel vision—and shut out the voices that say it can’t
be done, even that voice in your head. It’s easy to get discouraged, but you must be optimistic.