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Fashion: Front and Center

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Today's maternity chic is body-hugging, not body-hiding. And with a spate of celebs and models doing the baby thing, the trend is even more visible.

Everywhere you look, women are glowing.

Models and actresses, socialites and television personalities - obviously, gloriously pregnant.

Madonna and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Annette Bening and Vanessa Williams, models Vendela, Amber Valletta and Iman are among the many flaunting their bellies and looking fabulous doing it.

Is it any surprise that last year was the Chinese calendar's year of the rabbit?

One of the earliest signs was Demi Moore's voluptuous naked pose on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. Since then, pregnancy has increasingly become something to show off instead of hide.

"It seems women used to wear these big housedresses, and now everyone wears these sexy things," says Nicole Miller, who began designing for Pea in the Pod four years ago.

"There's a lot more freedom and liberty in clothing in general. This girlfriend of mine was pregnant and she wore slinky knits the entire time. I see so many women who from the back you can't tell they're pregnant at all."

She's not the only designer to notice that women are in better shape than ever and that more are working throughout their pregnancies. No ruffles and bows or "Baby on Board" T-shirts wanted here.

Instead, the hottest trends are translated into maternity clothing - whether it's the animal prints of Pumpkin Maternity, crystal beaded pants by Liz Lange or Armani-esque separates from M by Lauren Sara.

Gap started offering maternity basics this March on its Web site, and Barneys New York opened a maternity department in three of its stores in December.

Ms. Lange, a former Vogue editor who formed her chic maternity label about two years ago, says celebrities' pride in pregnancy has helped the average woman embrace more body-conscious designs.

"Over the last five years, something so fabulous happened," she says. "Actresses were photographed wearing things that were more body-revealing, and it's caused a revolution among women. They've followed suit and caused a revolution in the marketplace. Women who are pregnant look phenomenal, and there's no reason not to celebrate that."

Barbie White, founder of the San Francisco line Japanese Weekend, agrees. "We have a whole new group of women getting pregnant, and it's much more hip to be wearing clothing that's closer to the body. It used to be about covering it up, and now it's about showing it off." The Japanese Weekend catalog even pictures a pregnant model lifting her shirt to show off a henna mandala encircling her navel.

Belly Basics founders Cherie Serota and Jody Kozlow Gardner started their company in 1994 when they were working together at Henri Bendel.

"One day over coffee we said, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was a kit in a box?' " says Ms. Serota. "There's a new resurgence of acknowledging the pregnant woman. Women have waited a little longer to have their children, they have a little bit more money and are able to buy more. Customers wanted more and more from us because they got so turned on by the celebration of the belly."

Few places celebrate the belly with as much fervor as ThatGlow.com. The "celebrity maternity" Web site was launched in April by former Vanity Fair writer Angela Janklow Harrington and her partner, Jordan Davis, a former executive creator of the HBO series Dream On.

ThatGlow features clothing for sale and an online magazine with features such as a "Womb With a View" celeb survey, mother-baby horoscopes and advice from famous moms past, present and future.

Ms. Harrington says her partner had been collecting photos of pregnant celebrities for 10 years. "She thought we should do a book, but coffee table books don't sell enough to make it worthwhile. The Internet was an obvious choice. The Demi Moore cover was the beginning of a revolution in pregnancy, and nursing came back in a big way. With nursing comes boobs, and with boobs comes the ability to wear something with a low neckline."

The target market of ThatGlow is an older, more stylish mom. "Jordan was 30 when she had her first child and so was I," says Ms. Harrington, "and that's a big difference from 20. She had a professional reputation that had to be upheld, and she didn't want to be in buttons and bows and look like a juvenile creature or a baby doll."

"Your subscription to Vogue doesn't stop just because you get pregnant," says Ms. Harrington. "You're still going to go to dinner or on a trip, and there's no reason you should be limited to sequin silliness. I went to see the Rolling Stones when I was pregnant with both my kids, and I didn't want to look like a baby doll when I was backstage at a Stones show."

Supermodels Vendela and Frederique appear together on ThatGlow, and Cindy Crawford has aligned herself with another Web site called Babystyle.com. Ms. Crawford is the site's spokeswoman, is on its board of directors and has a role as a strategic adviser.

Babystyle.com goes beyond pregnancy, selling things mother and child need until the child turns 2. The site features a huge selection of some of the most well-known and cutting-edge maternity designers out there, including L'Atessa, Japanese Weekend, Mommy Chic and Liz Lange.

Although most designers say women don't move into maternity clothes until about the third or fourth month, there's enough selection on Babystyle.com to let women figure out their style as soon as they learn they're expecting.

Love designer labels? Longtime success A Pea in the Pod (a division of Mothers Work, which also owns Motherhood Maternity and Mimi Maternity) has brought in the likes of Vivienne Tam, Trina Turk, Nicole Miller, Anna Sui, Lilly Pulitzer and Three Dots to create fashion forward clothing.

Maternity companies such as Belly Basics and Japanese Weekend have devised special design touches for the pregnant woman who wants fit and comfort.

Belly Basics' four-piece Pregnancy Survival Kit was launched in 1994, and Japanese Weekend's Obi Kutsorogi ("sash of comfort" in Japanese) and Hug waistbands are best sellers for their lines.

Annette Bening had Giorgio Armani design a special maternity evening gown for this year's Oscar ceremony. The average woman can find the same look in separates by M, a line that actress Natasha Richardson calls "the Armani of maternity clothes." M creator Lauren Sara, who used to design for Calvin Klein, flew to Los Angeles to fit Ms. Bening with a tuxedo for another formal event.

Ms. Sara already had a successful sportswear business when Bergdorf Goodman executive Ellen Saltzman persuaded her to make custom maternity clothing in 1995.

"She started sending me their very important customers who were pregnant," Ms. Sara says. "I had just had a baby, but I wore the same dress throughout my pregnancy. I made clothes for these clients, and Demi Moore and Deborah Norville and Paula Zahn were all pregnant. I sent all three of them letters and they all called me back within 24 hours. Paula was doing the Olympics at the time, and I did her entire wardrobe. This was the impetus to start the collection."

She first showed her maternity designs at the end of her regular fashion show, and it wasn't long before she was concentrating strictly on the maternity line. Ms. Sara says the woman who wears Armani, Calvin Klein or Jil Sander will wear M, and her designs fall into a similar price range. Pants start at $250, jackets go as high as $500, and Ms. Sara has even been called upon to make custom wedding gowns for the pregnant bride, which can cost up to $8,000.

"It's for the customer who's accustomed to wearing designer fabrics. People say, 'Who's going to spend that kind of money?' But these clothes become the wardrobe. My philosophy is, you stick to the style you had before you were pregnant."

Likewise, Rebecca Matthias, who founded the Mothers Work corporation 18 years ago, says, "We still try and outfit women when they're pregnant in clothes they wore when they weren't pregnant. A Pea in the Pod is the most expensive. If you shop at Bloomingdale's and buy [the trendy sportswear line] Laundry, you'd buy Mimi Maternity. Motherhood Maternity is like Old Navy or Target."

Vivienne Tam's stretchy mesh prints of Asian characters and smiling buddhas were already favorites with pregnant women before she was approached to do maternity clothes. Today, she adapts popular designs from her existing line to create specially sized pieces for A Pea in the Pod.

"There was an article in The New York Times two years ago with two pregnant women wearing my chakra dress," she recalls. "The fabric I offer is very comfortable, and women feel peace and calm with a buddha on their belly. When you have a baby, you want that feeling."

Women who wear the newest East Village designers and consider Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon their pregnancy icon will find the funky designs of Pumpkin Wentzel up their alley. Ms. Wentzel (whose nickname comes from being a 10-pound newborn) was a bass player in Guv'nor, a band she formed with her husband, when she got the idea to make a line of clothing.

"My sister was pregnant, my best friend was pregnant, and I thought, 'What can I do besides driving around with this band?' What I wanted to do was great basics a lot of people could wear. My friends who were 5-2 were swimming in pregnancy clothes."

Since she began Pumpkin Maternity, she's delivered a daughter named Poppy, and roped in a few friends to help with Pumpkin's cute and affordable aesthetic.

"We have guest designers like [New York's] Sally Penn, who did a dress and tank top and [Phare boutique owner] Jane Mayle, who is doing a twin set for us. It's a great way to make you feel normal - if you shopped at Mayle or had a Sally Penn outfit, you still have one."

Most designers say that even the most showboating celebrity or model mom-to-be tends to stay clear of the limelight in her last month. But in the meantime, the clear skin, shiny hair and cute clothes associated with pregnancy chic may make the nonexpecting a little envious.

We've come so far from polyester and appliques, is there any chance that pregnancy will go out of fashion?

Brooke Baldwin, Gap's manager of global public relations, says hip maternity clothes are here to stay. "I don't think the consumer is ever going to allow anyone to go backward to the costumes that you used to have to wear."

And the latest baby boom won't end anytime soon, says Mothers Work's Ms. Mathias. "There's 4 million births a year, and the demographers say there will be the same amount the next few years, so it's going to keep going. It's hot - pregnancy is hot."
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