When Reika Shetty started maternity wear store Mayarya in June last year, she never expected to have any "regular" women as customers. It turns out that 30 to 40 per cent of the growing clientele at her two outlets in Sheung Wan and Stanley Plaza are women who are neither pregnant nor nursing.
"I didn't expect any regular customers because the traditional mentality is if you're not pregnant, you wouldn't walk into a maternity wear store," says Shetty, 35, mother of two-and-half-year-old Arya and nine-month-old Maya.
The surprising customer base stems from how fashionable - and functional - maternity wear has become. Gone are the tents, aprons, muumuus and other shapeless frocks that pregnant women used to hide their bumps.
These days, maternity wear is form-fitting and well cut and designed to show off the baby bump and accentuate pregnancy curves. They tend to have nursing access - slits in the material over the chest to aid breastfeeding - smartly concealed by fabric layers.
Maternity wear is also being designed to last mothers through pregnancy, nursing and many years after. With medical bills, shopping for the newborn and the need to save for the future, splashing out good money on a wardrobe that will last only about 10 months is the last thing a mother-to-be needs.
"Our philosophy is bump-friendly, but not bump-only," says Shetty, wearing a body-hugging, floral-print dress that you'd never guess was maternity wear.
Mayarya was borne out of Shetty's frustration when shopping for clothes during her first pregnancy, which happened soon after she moved to Hong Kong in 2010 with her Indian husband. She went to fast fashion chains such as H&M and Zara, but the pieces she bought didn't fit well and weren't quite her style.
Having worked in the fashion industry for many years - she was a buyer for high-end multi-brand stores in Los Angeles, New York and her native Tokyo - Shetty wondered why the industry had ignored the importance of fashionable maternity wear.
She did her research, scouring brands from London, Paris, LA, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and Singapore, and hand-picked her favourite pieces based on what she'd like to wear, even when not pregnant. Some brands are sold exclusively in Asia by Mayarya, such as Rosie Pope, Peaks of London and Keungzai, a brand launched in 2011 by Britain-based Hong Kong designer Michelle Lee.
While pregnant in 2009 and a buyer at online fast fashion retailer ASOS.com  Lee found that everything in the maternity wear market seemed to be "very frilly, flowery and mumsy". So she designed and launched Keungzai, named after her son Chi-keung. Her designs are anchored in monochrome and soft, lightweight and drapey micro-modal jersey fabric.
Fortunately, pregnant women these days have more and trendier choices. A short stroll from Mayarya's Sheung Wan store are two more outlets that have popped up in the past year.
Vicki Soh opened Mothers En Vogue - a franchise store of the 10-year-old Singapore brand - in May as she saw a gap in the local market for mid-priced maternity wear.
"It was a nightmare looking for maternity clothes in Hong Kong," says Soh, who has a five-year-old son and used to work in marketing and communications for a bank. "You could find cheaper clothing, but the quality was not that good, or nicer outfits that were too expensive."
The Mothers En Vogue range includes maternity, nursing and co-ordinated mother-child outfits, mostly made of eco-friendly cotton, bamboo or modal. Prices start from about HK$200 for a top and about HK$600 for a dress, with a cap of about HK$1,000. It's more affordable than the range at Mayarya, where dresses cost between HK$800 and HK$1,500, but the designs are more basic.
Soh says pregnant women often try to save on maternity clothes by buying larger sizes or wearing their partner's shirts. "But a piece that's big is big everywhere, and it may not look flattering," she says. "You want to look good because pregnancy is supposed to be the most radiant stage of your life."
At Nine Months, which was started in 2009 but since last summer has been under new management and at a new location on Queen's Road Central, I meet a lady who is 16 weeks into her first pregnancy and who desperately needs black work pants. She tries on a pair with an elastic waistband that cost HK$960. It's a tricky situation. The small size fits perfectly now, but will they see her through her pregnancy?
"Work pants and skirts are the trickiest items to buy because the fabric is usually not too stretchy," says Christine Chan, Nine Months' retail sales co-ordinator. "You can't buy something too baggy, because for work you have to look perfect."
The customer eventually goes with the small. "If I can't trim down after having the baby, I can still wear it," she says.
She likely will. As Chan points out, many customers return to buy maternity clothing as regular wear. "Maternity wear is all about comfort, after all," Chan says.
The same phenomenon happens at Linea Negra, a 10-year-old store that's also on Queen's Road Central. On the day I visit, owner Patty Nelson, who has two children aged 11 and seven and started the shop during her first pregnancy, looks sophisticated in a fitted black long-sleeved dress. Yes, it's maternity wear; no, she's not pregnant.
"The goal of many maternity wear makers and designers these days is to create clothing that looks like it isn't maternity wear," says Nelson, whose shop stocks more than 30 brands from pyjamas to party dresses.
An entire wardrobe overhaul is not needed, however. Regular clothing, such as leggings, tunics, kaftans, wrap empire waist, maxi and baby doll dresses, can often comfortably accommodate a baby bump.
According to Australian website dailylife.com.au  which covered Kate Middleton's pregnancy for seven months, the Duchess of Cambridge wore only one piece of maternity wear: a black-and-white polka-dot dress from Topshop.
"If you're on a budget, just get a super nice pair of maternity jeans and you can pair them with any top," says Chan, whose store's bestsellers are J Brand jeans.
Unsure of your style or too busy or nauseated to shop? Mayarya provides complimentary styling consultations in the comfort of your own home, as well as a free car service to and from its stores. Customers are under no obligation to buy, says Shetty. "We really just want to pamper pregnant women."
Always buy maternity wear in your pre-pregnancy size, Nelson says. Most importantly, stay true to your own style.
"It's important that your maternity clothing looks like what you wear normally, because I don't think a pregnant woman has to give up her own sense of style," says Nelson. "If you're wearing something that represents you, you'll be confident and happy."
Where mum's the world
Unit 501, 5/F, Pacific House, 20 Queen's Road Central, Central
- 26 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan
- Shop 104, 1/F, Stanley Plaza, Stanley
- Shop 107, 1/F, Melbourne Plaza, 33 Queen's Road Central, Central
- Shop 5B, 33 Sharp Street East, Causeway Bay
- Shop 360, 3/F, Grand Century Place, Mong Kok
Mothers En Vogue
17/F, Crawford House, 70 Queen's Road Central, Central
1/F, Kamming House, 49-51 Queen's Road Central, Central