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May 12, 2003
How To

Successful Apparel Entrepreneur Liz Lange's 8 Steps to Build Brand Equity (On a Shoestring)

SUMMARY: If you know anyone who is either pregnant and/or dreams of being an entrepreneur in clothing retail, share this link with them. Talk about inspiration, Liz Lange started her maternity wear company in a tiny, unadvertised, walk-up office across the street from her apartment in 1997. These days her brand is going big-time via partnerships with Nike and Target. Her story here.
When Liz Lange, President & Founder Liz Lange Maternity, set out in 1997 to design a line of maternity wear, she was not thinking too hard about what the approved MBA approach would be. “It worked in my favor that I was not thinking about the birth rates in the US,” she says. “I was worrying about pregnant women who couldn’t find a thing to wear.”

Without exactly planning to, she changed the public’s concept of the pregnant woman.

“I was working in women’s ready to wear, and I noticed that my pregnant friends were squeezing themselves into the dresses that I was making, which weren’t maternity clothes,” she says. “I took a look around, and saw that the styling of maternity wear was ugly and degrading.”

She decided to create a collection that was more fitted, but could grow with a pregnant woman. She began by creating a small line and taking an office in a building across the street from where she lived.

Before long, she had opened a storefront on Madison Avenue and formed partnerships with Nike and Target.

We spoke to Lange about developing her brand equity and creating a new niche for maternity clothing.

Step 1) Focus on what you know.

Lange knew exactly what she wanted in four areas:

a. The clothes: “I knew what I wanted the clothes to look like because I knew, as a woman of child-bearing age, what I would want to wear.”

b. Customer service: Lange started her business in a second floor office, selling strictly to her friends, by appointment only.

“Because I spent the first two years of my business waiting on every customer myself, I had a crash course in what customers need,” she says. She realized that pregnant women need extra guidance and support because their bodies are changing.

Now, her sales associates cultivate intimate relationships with customers and drop clothes off at their houses.

“My customers feel totally coddled,” Lange says. “They’ll stop by after they’ve had their babies and send pictures. Customer service is everything.”

c. Location: At the time, there was a sort of “baby area” in New York where maternity stores did business. “I didn’t want to be in a baby area; I wanted to be in a fashion area, so that informed where I wanted to put my stores.”

When she outgrew her second office (again, a second-floor, non-storefront) almost immediately, lines of customers forming all the way down the stairs, she moved to a storefront on fashionable Madison Avenue.

d. The “look:” “Maternity stores didn’t look or feel like other stores I shop in,” she says. Clothes were jammed together and again, she felt it was degrading to the pregnant woman.

She created stores that would appeal. “Just because a woman’s body is changing doesn’t mean her sensibilities change,” Lange says.

Step 2) Ignore naysayers.

Major retailers told Lange that women do not spend money when they are pregnant.

Maternity wear was not fashionable at the time, and this negativity scared her off trying to find capital investment. Instead, she called 10 friends to ask if they’d like to see the collection.

She hired sewers who made samples and agreed to make the clothes in two weeks for customers. “I thought I’d do a few appointments a day, but instead I was there morning, noon and night,” she says.

Lange believes you do not have to have an MBA to start a business. “I barely know what brand equity means,” she says. What she does know is how to think like her customers and to parlay that skill into success.

“Think about your product, put yourself in your customers’ shoes,” she says. “I ask myself, do I like this dress, would I want to wear this, would I feel sexy or pretty?”

Step 3) Actively pursue PR.

Lange had no budget for advertising, so PR was her only hope. “Maternity is just fashion,” she told the media, and asked if she could bring the clothes by to show them.

“They’re interested in anything new,” she says. “They have pages to fill, remember.”

She started her business in October, and by November she got publicity in the New York Times style section, more in Vogue in January, followed by a spread in In Style magazine.

Step 4) Harness the power of networking.

“Nobody does it like women,” says Lange. Her friends told friends. In her first month, she received a phone call from a palace in Kuwait requesting her clothing.

To help word of mouth along, she started a Web site to display simple pictures of the clothes, mostly because it was cheaper than a catalog. “It was not e-commerce enabled,” she says. There was simply a phone number to call for the clothes. “That number was me,” she says.

Step 5) Never rest on your laurels.

Always consider the next step, Lange says. This thinking led her to approach Target stores about a mass line in 2002.

“I was frustrated, because I was reaching a certain percentage but it was far from everybody,” she says. “I thought Target was the right partner and the time was right.”

How did she do it? She simply called someone she thought was in the maternity area of Target stores: “More senior people called back, they said can you come to Minneapolis, we chatted, I showed them my catalog, and they were interested right away.”

Sounds simple. However, says Lange, “I’m very comfortable with pitching the brand and putting myself out there, not thinking that it’s not possible. I’m always asking, ‘how can I move forward, be better, be the best?’”

Step 6) Grow when it is time

Commit resources to hiring people who can do things you can not do.

“I promote the brand and work on design,” Lange says. “I hire people like a merchandiser and a financial person, so that I can still meet the expectations of the brand.”

Step 7) Do not grow too fast

By maintaining a slower, more organic growth, you can keep better control of your brand.

Step 8) Do not think too hard about the rules.

“The business school approach would say that, if you’re going high-end, you cannot go mass market,” she says.

At the time she formed her partnership with Target, a high-end department store that sold her clothes told her they could no longer work with her.

Be aware, however, that big partnerships can swallow your brand and your brand perception. Be clear on what you are, and be well-established, before taking that step.

Speaking of partnerships, how exactly did she pull off the one with Nike? Nike called her in 2001 and asked if she wanted to create a co-branded line with them.

Lange was almost apologetic because there was no formula she could offer for putting together partnerships, but she is not a big fan of proscribed steps, anyway.

“Some of my experiences were unique,” she says, but that is only because she created a brand that speaks for itself.
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