Lena Bryant Malsin
(1879 - 1951)
Lena Bryant Malsin was a Jewish American clothing designer and entrepreneur who founded the clothing chain Lane Bryant.
Malsin (born March 1879; died September 26, 1951) was born Lena Himmselstein in Lithuania and was raised by her grandparents after being orphaned. In 1895, Himmelstein
immigrated alone to the United States, settling in New York.
Without family, she supported herself by working as a seamstress for
a dollar a week. A gifted dressmaker, Lena quickly became skilled at
her craft and within a year was earning an extraordinary wage of fifteen
dollars per week.
In 1899, at the age of 20, Lena married David Bryant, a Jewish immigrant
jeweler from Russia. Soon after their first son Raphael
was born, David died suddenly and the widowed Lena, thrown
back on her own devices, supported Raphael and herself by returning
to dressmaking in their cramped Upper West Side apartment.
By 1904, Bryants dressmaking business had become so successful that she opened a
shop on Fifth Avenue with living quarters in the rear. Lena's brother-in-law lent her $300 to open a bank account as working capital, and when the bank officer accidentally misspelled her
name on an account application as Lane, that became the new store name. Thus began the pioneering womens clothing enterprise known
as Lane Bryant.
Lena was an innovator, well ahead of her times as a designer
and an entrepreneur. According to historian Louise Klaber, at the turn
of the century proper ladies who happened to be pregnant were rarely
if ever seen in public. When one of Bryants pregnant customers
asked her to design something "presentable but comfortable"
to wear on the street, Bryant created a dress with an elasticized waistband
and an accordion-pleated skirt. She thus produced the first known commercial
maternity dress. The garment liberated the increasing number of middle-class
women who wanted to break with Victorian tradition. It also helped poorer
pregnant women who had no choice but to go to work. The maternity dress
soon became the best-selling item in Bryants shop.
In 1909, Bryant married Albert Malsin, who became her
business partner. Bryant continued as chief
designer and Albert Malsin concentrated on the firms
business operations. By 1911, Lane Bryants shop
was grossing $50,000 per year. Its great potential was
limited, however, because none of New Yorks newspapers
would accept advertising for maternity clothes. Tradition
still dictated that such topics were not discussed in
the press. It took the Malsins until 1911 to convince
the New York Herald to accept an ad. When the
paper did, Lane Bryants entire stock was sold
out the next day. The companys success was now
To cope with newspaper discrimination against maternity clothes advertisements,
the Malsins decided to create the first mail order catalog for maternity
wear. By 1917, mail-order sales revenues for Lane Bryant, Inc. exceeded
a million dollars. By 1950, the companys mail order sales made
it the sixth-largest mail order retailer in the United States.
Having succeeded in maternity wear and catalog sales, Lane Bryant Malsins
next great innovation was ready-made clothing for the stout-figured
woman. Before World War I, no mass manufacturer of womens clothing
addressed this market. After measuring some 4,500 women in her store
and analyzing statistics gathered on some 200,000 others, Lane Bryant
Malsin determined that there were three general types of stout women
and she designed clothes to fit each type. By 1923, company sales had
reached five million dollars and sales of full-figured clothing outstripped
sales of maternity wear. In 1915, Lane Bryant opened its first branch
retail store, in Chicago, and by 1969 the chain had grown to more than
100 stores with combined sales of $200 million.
Lane Bryant Malsin was a pioneer in customer relations
and corporate philanthropy. At her suggestion, Lane
Bryant, Inc. worked with the Red Cross to replace any
Lane Bryant customers wardrobe that was destroyed
in a disaster. In 1947, for example, after a major explosion
and fire in Texas City, Texas, the company re-outfitted
58 mail order customers whose homes were destroyed.
After World War II, Lane Bryant stores became clothing
donation centers to benefit displaced persons in Europe.
Lane Bryant, Inc. also pioneered in employee benefits at a time when
few companies, particularly in the retail sector, offered meaningful
employee support beyond wages. By 1950, the more than 3,500 Lane Bryant
employees participated in profit sharing, pension, disability, group
life insurance plans and fully reimbursed physicians visits and
hospitalizations. When the company went public, 25 per cent of the stock
was reserved for employee subscription.
On a personal level, Lena Bryant Malsin took an active role in Jewish
communal charity. She supported the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the
New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and a number of other causes.
When she died in 1951, her sons succeeded her in the business. In 1969,
Lane Bryant, Inc. was purchased by another innovator in womens
retail clothing: the Limited, whose founder, Leslie Wexner, has also
been deeply involved in American Jewish philanthropy. Lane Bryant Malsin
would probably be pleased to know that her company and name are linked
with another whose values fit so well with her own.
Jewish Historical Society