Executive-styled maternity clothes are an expanding business

When Rebecca Matthias was pregnant with her first child, she was finance manager for a large computer company. She wanted to continue working until her baby arrived, but could find no good-looking business suits designed especially for pregnant women executives. ``Then it occurred to me,'' she says, ``that other pregnant working women might be encountering the same problem.''

Five years ago, she went into business making such clothes, envisioning a small mail-order operation that could be run from home while she cared for her son.

Although Mrs. Matthias had a degree in civil engineering and had worked on architectural and construction projects and with microcomputers, she had little experience in sales and marketing.

``I opted against business school and for jumping right in and learning as I went,'' she says, ``because I knew I had the ability to get things done and to learn quickly.''

When she made the rounds of manufacturers in New York, however, she discovered that the type of businesslike maternity clothes she had in mind were not even being made. She picked the best examples available, then invested $10,000 to print and advertise her first ``Mothers Work'' catalog.

The response was good but sales were poor, so she telephoned 100 women around the country who had ordered the catalog and learned first-hand what they wanted, what they were willing to pay, and what was lacking in their local stores. This basic research, she says, convinced her that she would have to design and manufacture fashions that women said they wanted and needed.

Mrs. Matthias developed maternity business suits with skirts that adjust at the waistband and expand through the pockets by means of invisible inside buttons and tabs. Such a skirt (which she has patented) will take a woman through the first six months of pregnancy. A matching jumper can then be worn with the jacket for the final three months.

After the birth of her baby, a mother can adjust the skirt smaller as she returns to her usual size. Mrs. Matthias sells the executive jacket for $119 and the matching adjuster skirt for $49.

``I keep things at moderate prices,'' she says, ``whether it is our 35 different types of business suits, or long-sleeved coat dresses, or conservative dresses in pretty prints and plains for dressier occasions.''

Three years ago, she realized that mail-order alone could not maintain the volume that the manufacturing effort required. She opened Mothers Work retail stores as well. She now has 10 company-owned and 20 franchise stores as well as a factory outlet in Philadelphia.

Mrs. Matthias and her husband, Dan, who is her executive vice-president, plan to open 100 more company-owned stores across the country over the next five to seven years. The company, which has about 30 employees, has a factory in Philadelphia where about 50 percent of all cutting is done and garments are warehoused. The remainder of the cutting and stitching is contracted out.

``Mine is a very specialized market niche,'' Mrs. Matthias admits, ``but I expect continued growth, because we haven't begun to reach all those thousands of women who now hold jobs outside the home and who want to work through their pregnancies and return to their jobs afterward. I see no reason to think this trend will change in the foreseeable future.''

She has watched similar catalogs come and go, following on her success. Most have failed, she says, because the companies have not been ``vertically integrated, including both manufacturing and sales.''

But the competition has been good, she says, ``because it has produced styles that are a thousand percent better in design and sophistication than they were five years ago when maternity clothes were the stepchild of the fashion industry.''

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