When Rakesh Tondon’s pregnant wife started swapping maternity clothes with her girlfriends, Tondon thought he saw a perfect opportunity for a business. “She didn’t want to spend money on maternity clothes,” he says. “She would wear them once or twice and never want to wear them again.” Surely other pregnant women had this same problem. It would make more sense, he thought, to rent maternity clothes.
His daughter, Zara, was born in 2011, and his company, Le Tote, was born shortly later, in 2012.
But maternity, Tondon learned, is a limited market. There are only about 3.9 million babies born each year, and many of them create financial strain that limits discretionary income. Meanwhile, women are unlikely to continue subscriptions to a maternity clothes company for more than a few months.
It was clear that renting general women’s clothing had much more potential, but that meant the original problem that Tondon had set out to solve would have to wait. “It’s really hard to build a brand that is a maternity brand that crosses over to more mainstream,” he says. “It’s relatively easy to go the other way. It’s hard for A Pea in the Pod to become more mainstream and go mass market than, let’s say, Gap to do Gap Maternity.”
When Le Tote launched in 2012, it offered “mystery boxes” of clothing that women could keep and return at their leisure, like Netflix discs, for a monthly subscription fee. Eventually, Tondon added the ability to purchase items, which now makes up a significant amount of the startup’s revenue, and also to choose the clothes in each box.
Three years later, the company has more than 20,000 subscribers, and most of them fit into the demographic that is most likely to be pregnant and willing to spend money on maternity clothing. Tondon describes his user base as the “31-year-old urban professional female.” About 44% identify as mothers at sign-up, and many put their subscriptions on hold for their pregnancies.
This week, four years after Tondon first thought of the idea, Le Tote has finally launched its maternity clothes offering.
For $59 per month ($10 more than a general subscription), pregnant women can subscribe to receive three garments and two complementary accessories at a time. Le Tote’s maternity brands, which generally fit into the more expensive range of options, include 9Fashion, Japanese Weekend, and Summer & Sage, but the shipment will also include items from Le Tote’s general collection that would still fit a pregnant belly. The company hired a pregnancy expert to help them decide what types of clothing will fit a woman at different stages in her pregnancy, and it automatically adjusts the clothes it sends accordingly.
Maternity clothes haven’t become any bigger of a business since 2011, but what Le Tote realized is that pregnancy is a time when women in its market are likely to think about renting clothes. If it can onboard them to the general service after they’ve given birth, that’s a great source of new business. “We are thinking about this as a value add,” Tondon says.