Lena Himmelstein was a Jewish orphan from Lithuania who invented maternity wear and plus-sized clothing. She was a businesswoman, wife and mother who pioneered customer service and employee profit-sharing.
Born in 1879, Lena was orphaned at a young age and came to the United States alone at age 16. She supported herself as a seamstress, making one dollar a week. She was so skilled that she was soon making fifteen dollars a week.
Lena married David Bryant, a Russian jeweler, who tragically died right after their son Raphael was born. She continued working as a seamstress, specializing in lingerie and sleepwear. When she opened her first bank account, the clerk mistakenly recorded her name as “Lane” rather than “Lena” – making her professional name Lane Bryant.
After remarrying in 1909, Lena’s new husband Albert Malsin became her business partner, and they had two children. Albert focused on the business side of the company while Lena was in charge of design. Lena identified an unfilled need in the clothing market: pregnant women couldn’t find anything “presentable but comfortable” to wear. In the 19th century, pregnant women remained home once their condition was apparent, but by the early 20th century, women wanted the freedom to venture outside even while expecting.
Lena designed a maternity garment with an elasticized waist and an accordion-pleated skirt that was an immediate hit. Newspapers refused to advertise the shocking garment. Finally the New York Herald accepted an advertisement for the new maternity dress, and the very next day their entire stock of the dress sold out. In 1916 the business was incorporated as Lane Bryant, Inc. and by the next year their sales exceeded one million dollars.
Another underserved market was large women. There were no ready-made garments available in larger sizes, so these women had to make their own, or pay for expensive made-to-order clothing. Lena and Albert measured 4500 curvy customers to help them design clothes for a larger body type. By 1923, Lane Bryant’s large-size clothing line was even more popular than their maternity wear, and they were selling $3 million worth a year.
Lena was known for treating others with generosity and respect. She created a profit-sharing plan for Lane Bryant’s 3500 employees that included stock offerings, and health, life and disability insurance. Lena also took care of her customers. Any Lane Bryant customer who lost her wardrobe in a disaster was offered a free wardrobe through the American Red Cross. After a major fire in Texas in 1947, 58 customers received new Lane Bryant wardrobes. Lane Bryant stores became centers for clothing donations for the poor.
Lena died in 1951. The company she founded, Lane Bryant, continues to be the nation’s premier plus-size women’s clothing store chain, with 812 stores in 46 states.
For enabling women of all sizes to dress fashionably and look great, and for her compassionate business practices, we honor Lena “Lane” Himmelstein Bryant Malsin as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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