When Tania Arrayales Stafford became pregnant with her first child in 2019, she had something of a closet crisis. The maternity apparel market was, in a word, daunting, ripe for the kind of clothing waste she had made it her mission to avoid. And I do mean that literally: Stafford is the co-founder of Fashion of Tomorrow, an advocacy organization that strives for a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry. Maternity clothes — the very essence of which are predicated on a speedy, nine-month lifespan — posed a problem of both personal and professional significance.
"I knew I didn't want to buy new things I was only going to wear for a few months," Stafford says, "and then what was I going to do with them?" She considered thrifting to be a viable alternative, but alas: "There was no place I could go for that."
When the secondhand maternity market left her disappointed, she turned to investing in a selection of non-maternity styles in a bigger size. It worked, for the most part.
"You don't really think you need maternity clothes," she says. "You probably buy a few tops or leggings here and there. But other than that, you don't need a whole new wardrobe until your third trimester when you're huge, and, at that point, you're only going to be wearing it for three months, if that."
Yet, for retailers, those are some lucrative three months. Maternity wear is big business: As of 2018, it was valued at $18.3 billion, and it's only growing, expanding at an annual compound growth rate of 4.3% through 2025. But for pregnant people like Stafford, the question wasn't necessarily what to wear, but rather what to do with those newly-acquired smocked dresses when her three months were up. It's not like there's an accessible resale platform dedicated to maternity clothes. (Trust me, I'm pregnant myself. I've checked.)
The thing is, pregnant people have been lending and borrowing their maternity garb in a gloriously offline, peer-to-peer cycle for decades. This isn't just true for the stuff you wear when you're expecting: Only recently have resale and rental platforms exploded to codify and monetize these transactions. For pregnant people, though, the traditional rental, resale or otherwise "circular" shopping channels you see covered on websites like this one are few and far between — in any sort of robust sense, at least. The market isn't exactly void of options; it may just be a question of how, and not where, you look.
It wasn't just a couple decades ago that pregnant people had remarkably limited options for clothing, the majority of which were designed to hide the pregnancy in a modest, tent-like fashion. And as Michelle Gabriel, a lecturer in Sustainable Fashion Strategy at Glasgow Caledonian New York College, reminds me, exactly none of it was considered "fashion." (After all, Vogue didn't feature its first pregnant cover model, Brooke Shields, until 2003.)
"Pants were nearly out of the question until the 1980s, and even that was small-scale and relatively inaccessible for most women in the U.S.," she says. "The 1990s allowed pregnancy to be celebrated in celebrity fashion, which shifted the cultural expectation of what a pregnant woman could or should look like. Clothing could be sexy or fitted or casual, and the person could be pregnant."
By 2021, the maternity apparel sector has grown across price points and retailers. You can find contemporary styles at dedicated maternity labels like Storq or fast-fashion alternatives at ASOS. The largest global maternity brand, Gabriel says, is Destination Maternity, the parent company of mall brands A Pea in a Pod and Motherhood Maternity.
Maternity wear may have entrenched itself in a sort of folksy, hand-me-down cult of personality, but this is no cottage operation. With more than 1,000 employees and a reported 458 stores, Destination Maternity racks up between $100-$200 million in revenue each year. If there was one player to implement a serious take- or buy-back operation, it would be them. But it's not just Destination Maternity that's primed to participate in a circular-leaning economy: Gabriel believes the whole market is primed for it.
"I'd argue that maternity has the longest history and likely the highest level of reuse of any category of clothing because of this understanding that the clothing item only has value for the wearer for a short period of time," she says.
So, why aren't more end-of-life product options functionally available for pregnant people? Gabriel has the answer to that, too.
First, she says, a pregnant body, just like many other body types, is outside the aspirational fashion body ideal. Second, the type of brands carried on blue-chip resale or rental platforms — which carry higher-end fashion including contemporary, designer and above — don't typically make maternity clothing. This isn't to say that marketplaces like The RealReal, Rent the Runway or Vestiaire Collective don't offer maternity wares. They do, but the offerings are small, and often confined to just a handful of brands.
At press time, Rent the Runway had 148 dedicated "Maternity & Nursing Styles" available for subscribers. Compare that to its "Vacation" section, which housed 495 garments — nine full pages — of festive, sun-soaked garb. Now, theoretically, wouldn't your beachy attire have a much shorter use-case than the clothes you wear while growing a human for months on end?
"High-end online fashion resale companies peddle in the same cultural tropes that high-end fashion brands themselves are trading in, the most significant of which is class aspiration," Gabriel says. "In falling outside of that narrowly defined vision of what is aspirational in fashion, pregnant people are often left out of higher-end fashion consideration."
Mass-market retailers — like Destination Maternity, indeed — consider aspiration differently. The same is true for resale platforms. Take online consignment marketplace Thredup, which, with the help of its annual Resale Reports, has worked hard to cement itself as the eyes and ears of the secondhand clothing market. Its maternity section, Gabriel says, has grown exponentially, but an inventory problem may soon become inevitable: The high-end market doesn't have much product for pregnant bodies that can then be resold on a secondary market, period. Still, options abound outside capital-F Fashion's four exclusive walls.
"There's a relatively robust secondhand market for maternity clothing," Gabriel says. "It's just happening on the mass or affordable fashion level at companies like Thredup, not to mention countless mom-and-pop secondhand stores exclusively focused on [that]."
Because this is 2021, those hyper-local options also exist online, most prevalently on Facebook, where groups welcome parents looking to buy and sell used maternity clothes, toys and baby gear. It's very often where you'll find clothing at the lowest price, with order fulfillment often being as easy as in-person drop-off across town. Stafford, who's based in New York City, joined one of these groups after she gave birth.
"We do share a lot of information, but we also sell a lot to each other," she says. "It creates this cult following. You have a community where you can resell and buy and get ideas from."
Storq, a contemporary line of what it calls "daily essentials" for pregnancy, is considering maternity wear from another perspective: What if we put a new premium on cost-per-wear, not just for pregnant people?
At the time that best friends-turned-business partners Grace Kapin and Courtney Klein co-founded Storq in 2014, neither had been pregnant. But a lack of gestational experience themselves didn't preclude them from understanding what was intrinsically wrong with maternity wear and the attitudes that surround it. The label has kept the same tagline since it released its first collection seven years ago: "You don't need a whole new wardrobe, just the basics."
With just 16 elevated styles, Storq's small-but-mighty maternity line-up bucks the category's age-old tradition of ruched seams, scratchy fabrics and flouncy ruffles. (Oh my god, just so, so many ruffles.) Its signature garment is arguably its Instagram-beloved leopard-printed bike shorts, which come certified by Oeko-Tex's Standard 100, one of the world's best-known labels for textiles tested for harmful substances.
"From the very beginning, Storq was predicated on an understanding that, holistically, this is a difficult time to be making purchases," Kapin says. "You have a lot of financial things on your mind, and fashion goes way down to the bottom of the list. So we're always trying to think about how to maximize your purchase, how to make it so that this isn't something that just ends up on the top of the landfill."
While the brand is still finalizing the data internally, Kapin and Klein claim their customers wear their Storq pieces an average of five times a week, for a roughly six-month window during and after their pregnancies. And if you're wearing something five times a week for six months, Klein suggests, that piece of clothing is seeing a lot more wear than most items in your closet.
The issue is, we've become so reliant on overconsumption that our retail infrastructure simply doesn't promote a price-per-wear mentality, let alone have the bandwidth to support practical reuse options. A 2016 McKinsey & Company study found that, as of 2014 — the same year Kapin and Klein launched Storq — the average consumer bought 60% more clothing than they had in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. And on average, Americans are throwing away 81 pounds of textiles per person, per year. By adjusting the way we think about what it means to wear a garment, can we also adjust what it means when we're done with that garment? That's what Storq is trying to find out.
"It makes me think about how people don't hesitate to make big impulse buys for a trip or when they have an event coming up," Kapin says. "People categorize things differently in their mind. And when it comes to maternity, the resistance is high, and it puts the onus on us to create a lot of value, where most companies and categories don't have that pressure to have something that fits when your body is changing from day to day."
That distinct pressure maternity retailers face? It's good, actually, for brands to feel compelled to sell value — and for consumers to learn how to prioritize. Gabriel, the Glasgow Caledonian New York College lecturer, argues that maternity wear is one of the most conscious categories there is. Rather than serving as the ill-fitting black sheep of the apparel world, it could actually lead the way when we consider where clothing needs to go next.
"Because of that well-understood limited use, shoppers are more considerate in their decision to purchase," Gabriel says. "If I'm only going to wear this 'X' number of times, is it worth $100? That's a conversation sustainability advocates are hoping people will have every time they make a clothing purchase, not just when purchasing maternity clothing."
It's why she feels the maternity sector is more primed for a take- or buy-back model than other ready-to-wear categories, if only owing to consumer behavior. Maternity companies, she says, already have resale models to look to, and while the supply chains may not be perfect, it would mean big-box retailers like Destination Maternity wouldn't be starting from square one.
Maternity has one other secret weapon, and that's its customer base. Pregnant shoppers already know how to engage in the take- and buy-back dynamic because of the prevalence of the practice for maternity clothing.
Still, true circularity — in which every single component of every single garment made and used is incorporated back into the system — is still many, many, many steps away. Gabriel goes so far as to suggest several generations away, in fact. The intention is clear, it's just the route forward that's a little sticky, and very possibly clad in a paper-thin graphic tee that reads Pregnant AF.
"It's the same advice I'd give to anyone trying to be conscious about their clothing and seeking to mitigate negative consequences of their purchases," Gabriel says. "Don't buy more than you really need. Buy what's most versatile and functional for you and your life. Consider at the purchasing stage how you'll manage the clothing once it's no longer useful to you. Buy used, if possible."