You're nine months pregnant, en route to a black-tie affair, and the only thing that fits is a tent. What's a woman to do? Well, if you're actress Annette Bening, model Cindy Crawford or American television journalist Katie Couric, you simply call Lauren Sara, maternity-wear designer extraordinaire. Within days you'll have a smart tuxedo or beaded empire-waist gown that fits perfectly and looks fabulous. "Lauren's clothes are so elegant and comfortable," actress Natasha Richardson, mother of two, has said. "She is really the Armani of the maternity world."
Not long ago finding "Armani" and "maternity" in the same sentence was about as likely as pain-free labor. Very pregnant women tended to keep low profiles, comfortably ensconced in their husbands' old work shirts. But maternity clothes are finally coming out of the closet, er, sweat-pants drawer. As more women work in high-profile jobs and keep up their demanding professional and social schedules right up to D-Day, there is a growing need for fashionable pregnancy clothes. Barneys New York recently launched its maternity line, Procreation, which includes jeans, leather jackets, evening gowns and swimwear. "We found that our customer, who is very fashion-savvy, didn't want to change her style even though she was pregnant," says Julie Gilhart, Barneys' vice president for fashion merchandising. In London, Great Expectations has a strong following among socialites and businesswomen, while stylish Parisiennes flock to Formes, the trendy maternity-wear chain, and designer boutiques such as Veronique Delachaux. "Pregnant women today don't want to hide like their mothers did," says Veronique Delachaux designer Betty Serraire. "They want to be feminine, beautiful and to show off their joy."
The secret to making chic maternity attire is to think of it as an extension of a woman's regular wardrobe--"real clothes," as Sara puts it. The traditional overalls, smock tops and pinafores in juvenile prints "don't work if the customer has been wearing Donna Karan and Ellen Tracy," she says. "You still have to be taken seriously." Sara achieves her sleek and--dare we say--sexy look simply by adding a few strategic darts in the back and slightly changing the button placement. Serraire, who designs casual, business and evening clothes, favors soft, stretch fabrics, such as Lycra and jersey, so the outfit moves with the rapidly changing silhouette.
Maternity chic was a natural evolution for the fashion industry. Sara, 38, used to design sportswear. A former assistant of Calvin Klein's, she began her maternity line, M, a few years back when she was pregnant with her younger son and having trouble finding clothes without "fussy details like ruffles and Peter Pan collars," she says. Ellin Saltzman, the then fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, admired Sara's work and asked her to do a few pieces for the store's expectant customers. Not long after--completely unsolicited--Sara sent sketches to the then pregnant actresses Demi Moore and Marilu Henner and newscaster Paula Zahn. They embraced her designs so enthusiastically that Sara launched her ready-to-wear collection. Soon the Philadelphia-based designer was dressing celebrity mothers-to-be Maria Shriver, Jodie Foster and Annette Bening, who wore a Sara tuxedo to the Golden Globe Awards last year. Today her mix-and-match Five Easy Pieces line, with items ranging from $160 to $525, includes a long cardigan, tank-top dress, boot-leg pants, a short cardigan and a tank top. They are available at laurensara.com or, beginning in September, at Saks Fifth Avenue--the first maternity line the department store has ever carried.
Of course, you don't have to be rich or famous to wear hip, trendy maternity clothes. Mainstream stores, such as the Gap and Old Navy, have also recently introduced maternity wear. Still, Sara credits the recent host of oft-photographed celebrity pregnancies for inspiring the maternity-wear industry to get fashionable--and for making a rounded belly something to show off even if you're not invited to the Oscars. "Celebrities don't look better than normal people pregnant," she points out. But they do show you can look great, even if you feel like a whale.