"I just saw Peggy coming out of Lane Bryant's."
"Really? I didn't know she was having a baby."
Chances were only one in twenty that Peggy was having a baby, but Manhattan's Lane Bryant store is so famed for its maternity clothes that a visit there almost automatically lands a woman in Winchell's column. Actually, Lane Bryant, Inc., which has 22 other retail shops and a big mail-order plant to boot, does 95% of its $41 million annual business in non-maternity wear. Its chief stock-in-trade is the legitimate offspring of its maternity wear: clothes for fat women.
Beginning this week, the proportion of maternity clothes to total sales will probably be lessened even further. Reason, Lane Bryant moved its big Manhattan store from 39th Street to a smartly remodeled building on smart Fifth Avenue (at 40th Street), and opened new departments to sell jewelry, cosmetics, nursery furniture, baby carriages, clothes for misses and girls.
In its new ten-story quarters Lane Bryant has given over the entire fourth floor to the customers it calls "expectants." They reach it in elevators equipped with "germicidal lamps." Another unique feature: a lounge for expectant fathers, complete with soft chairs, books, magazines, a radio and a wall full of "Blessed-Event" cartoons.
All this seemed "just like a miracle" to the simple, modest person who founded the business 47 years ago. Most customers do not know that 1) the founder is a woman and 2) her name is actually Lane Bryant.
Lane Bryant started out as Lena Himmelstein. She came to the U.S. from Lithuania in 1895, at 16. After four years of struggling along as a seamstress, she married a Russian jewelry salesman named David Bryant. Within a year, the couple had a son, but a few months later Bryant died. The young widow pawned her diamond earrings, bought a sewing machine, started making lingerie at home. By 1907 she was prospering sufficiently to borrow $300 to start a separate shop, and open a bank account. At the bank, she accidentally signed her name "Lane" instead of "Lena," let it stand because she was too embarrassed over the mistake to say anything.
Clothes for Callers. Her real start came when a pregnant customer asked Lane Bryant to make her something "comfortable and yet presentable." Mrs. Bryant made a tea gown in which the bodice was attached by an elastic band to an accordion-plaited skirt. This permitted comfort and style with expansion; with it Lane Bryant's business expanded too.
In 1909, Mrs. Bryant married a dynamic Lithuanian engineer, Albert Malsin. Soon she settled down to trying out her own creations while Malsin ran the business. He started retailing maternity wear by mail, added "stylish stouts," based "on the laws of optics, psychology and color." Making clothes for stout women, said Malsin, was not just making outsized versions of the "perfect 36." It was like camouflaging ships, the object being "to deceive the eye . . . as to the ship's size, its course and its speed."