As the only female executive at her cookie company, Megan Bruton didn’t want her pregnancy to make her stick out even more. But as her bump grew, Bruton said, she struggled to find clothes at maternity retailers beyond stretchy pants, flowy T-shirts, or items she described as “frumpy."

Bruton — who worked until two or three days before she gave birth — is part of a generation of women who are staying in the office later in their pregnancies. Many are seeking the hard-to-find apparel that fits professional standards and their personal style.

“I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose that professionalism,” said Bruton, now 36, of Downingtown, whose daughter is 2. “Anytime you’re not feeling confident in your clothing, it kind of shows to the outside world.”

Moorestown-based Destination Maternity, the largest retailer in this field, hopes to grab customers such as Bruton. As it seeks to recover from years of a tumbling stock price and the shuttering of hundreds of stores, its first permanent female CEO, Marla Ryan, who has been on the job for less than a year, has added more options in professional clothes and upgraded how they are showcased with a redesigned section and a poster declaring “Work it, Mama.”

A recent customer survey showed that upward of 65 percent of their customers are working moms or moms-to-be, Ryan said. She also found that certain wear-to-work styles were selling particularly well, even though they took up about 150 square feet — a small corner — in stores.

Destination has products featured on Rent the Runway and Le Tote, subscription services that seem well-suited for this transient time by allowing expecting mothers to rent clothes as their bodies change.

Well-known brands such as Target and Topshop, have also added or expanded maternity sections in recent years. However, overall maternity apparel was down by about 12 percent in fast-fashion private labels such as ASOS’s Maternity brand and down 35 percent in the luxury market, according to Edited, a retail data company.

Newer direct-to-consumer retailers, such as Hatch, are courting the mothers-to-be who are looking for stylish clothes that can fit any lifestyle — before, during, and after pregnancy.

“I don’t know why this trend didn’t pick up sooner,” said Ashlee Neuman, senior editor at pregnancy and motherhood blog The Bump. “Just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you can’t look good.”

Women working

Every couple months, Alyssa Schatz’s job as an health policy advocate for a healthcare nonprofit takes her to Washington to meet with policymakers on issues related to health care and access.

At 30 weeks pregnant, Schatz, 33, of Mount Airy, has trouble finding the business professional maternity clothes that she needs to make her feel “ready to bring my A game.”

Searching for business-professional clothes is not "the great trial of my life, really, I just find it mildly annoying and just a little bit offensive,” said Schatz, who acknowledged there were some options she liked at Destination stores. “It feels like the marketing should be a little bit more advanced in terms of how many women are in the workplace now.”

A new display at Destination Maternity in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Monday, February 4, 2019 shows business professional maternity clothes.
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
A new display at Destination Maternity in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Monday, February 4, 2019 shows business professional maternity clothes.

The percent of women who are working while pregnant has increased dramatically since the early 1960s. By the early 2000s, almost 70 percent of women who were pregnant with their first child stayed in the workforce, a rise of more than 55 percent from the early 1960s, according to census data.

Women are also working later into the final days before delivery, census data show. By the early 2000s, more than 80 percent of women who worked during pregnancy continued working into their final month before birth, up from about a third in the early 1960s.

“More highly educated women are having babies than was the case in the past,” said Gretchen Livingston, a Pew Research Center senior researcher. “We also know that highly educated women are the ones who are more likely to continue working during their pregnancy and return to work afterward.”

These women, more so than in generations past, are demanding maternity clothes that look good and feel comfortable, said Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the Wharton School.

“If you’re not taken seriously in the workplace, can you imagine how you feel when you’re nine months pregnant while working, if it’s exacerbated by ill-fitting clothes that don’t look professional? That’s not helpful,” Kahn said.

Millennial mothers-to-be are also redefining what it looks like to be pregnant. No longer are women expected to cover up their bumps, as if pregnancy is something to hide, said Nioka Wyatt, a fashion merchandising and management assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University.

Women are increasingly celebrating their pregnancy by embracing their bump and expressing pride in being an expectant mother. Pregnant celebrities, public figures, influencers and everyday mothers-to-be are posting photos on Instagram and sharing stories about pregnancy. Destination Maternity has also embraced the trend with bump-focused Instagram posts.

“Remember when we couldn’t even breastfeed in public? It was against the law,” Wyatt said. “As the laws change and we become more comfortable with our women’s movement, we see the changes trickle down through various industries and the way in which we do things.”

Retail responding

When Rebecca Matthias struggled to find clothing to wear to the office, she founded Mothers Work in 1982. Decades later, her company is now Destination Maternity, which has about a quarter of the market share in an industry with $1.2 billion in revenue.

Destination Maternity, which operates the brands A Pea in the Pod and Motherhood Maternity, has 1,108 retail locations, its most recent quarterly report shows. As of this time last year, the company had about 1,100 full-time and 2,600 part-time employees.

Though the company expanded beyond its original mission and into other clothing categories such as athleisure, Ryan, the new CEO, is reemphasizing clothes for working mothers-to-be. The company also created an internal innovation committee to zero in on such solutions-based products as dresses with hidden zippers that make it easier to pump after a baby is born.

“It’s so appropriate that here we are all this time later, and we are now able to solve the problems for the mom who is pregnant and going to work or is going back to work,” Ryan said, “and allow her to feel beautiful and confident.”

In the last five years, Destination Maternity’s stock price has dropped to about $3 a share from almost $30, and the company is trying to turn around its business.

Meanwhile, other companies are appealing to mothers-to-be who are disappointed with the current maternity-wear selection.

Ariane Goldman founded the maternity brand Hatch in 2011 when she couldn’t find clothes to fit her style while pregnant and working on Wall Street. The New York-based company has nearly doubled its revenue each year. Meghan Markle recently wore one of the brand’s items, a simple, short-sleeved black dress.

Items displayed on the site are equipped with a “bump slider” feature so a buyer can see how the apparel will fit before, during and after pregnancy. Dresses usually cost between $150 and $300.

The most searched term on Hatch’s site is nursing, but “workwear” is soon after. Hatch is in talks with a well-known retailer to collaborate on a workwear maternity line to launch this summer, Goldman said.

“It’s very clear to us that women are asking for it,” Goldman said. “Maternity wear has never been fun or sexy or happy. ... I think women want to maintain not only their sense of style, but they want to shine.”