Babette, a women’s fashion boutique off Michigan Avenue at 25 East Huron, is right down the street from TCW’s offices. We’ve discovered their stylish apparel, which is effortless, easy to care for and very travel-friendly. The collection consists of a range of mix-and-match clothing and accessories, from dresses and coats to pants, sweaters, belts and handbags.
The driving force behind the eponymous fashion label is Babette Pinsky. Only in her early 20s when she started, over four decades later she runs a successful brand from her 25,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oakland, California, with a loyal coast-to-coast following. Her husband and business partner, Steven Pinsky, manages the business side, while she creates the collections reflecting her trademark modernist aesthetic. We caught up with the designer as she muses on pleats, her signature raincoat and why she loves designing for the real woman.
What was the first piece you designed? It was a mini dress back in 1968. It was an A-shaped mini dress with bell sleeve and a stripe that went around the bust area. I designed it in bright colors like orange, red, green and blue. That was the very first dress I designed for my own collection – a small collection with probably 10 pieces. But now we do 100 pieces for each collection.
Discuss your fashion background. I never wanted to become anything else but a clothing designer. My mother designed gloves at a time when everybody wore gloves. She taught me how to choose fabrics and sew. I was one of the lucky people who knew exactly what they wanted to do. So I went to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where I was trained as a coat designer. After graduation in 1962, I worked at Malco Modes in San Francisco, where I designed coats. I also designed square dance dresses for the brand, which was fun.
When and where did Babette officially launch? I was around 25 when I started Babette in San Francisco in 1968, a time when it didn’t even cross most people’s minds to start their own business…especially women. The Women’s Movement was going strong, but it was very unusual to have someone in her early 20s start a business.
And you chose Chicago as one of your locations. We had one very good customer in Chicago who was buying our clothes on a wholesale level. We had a small Babette boutique within her store. However, the whole deal fell apart when she moved. Since we already had a customer base there, we figured we needed to open a store. It was hard to find space since we wanted to be downtown, but we finally opened in 2006.
Describe the ‘Babette woman.’ The average age range of our customers is between 45 to 65 years old. And the good thing about this demographic is that most of them are still in pretty good shape – they take care of themselves. They’re very easy to design for because they’re also intellectually adventurous: they go to museums, dine at nice restaurants and travel for business and pleasure. They aren’t afraid to express themselves, which is why we do a lot of textures like pleating – it reflects the very textural life of the Babette woman.
How did pleats become part of your signature style? Everything happens by accident. I had all this fabric under the table and didn’t know what to do with it. Then I read in Women’s Wear Daily that a designer, Mary McFadden, was doing Grecian pleats. So I took this raincoat fabric to a local pleater and that’s how it all started – it was an instant hit. I started using pleats in the rest of my designs.
And your signature white shirts? We revise it every year and add two or three styles. People love a white shirt – it’s a staple in every woman’s wardrobe. It’s very basic, but our white shirts have so much more design and pizazz.
What advice would you give female business owners? It never dawned on me that there would be challenges – I just did what I had to do. I’d say, take two or four years and work for somebody else in the industry. Try to work in different places, change jobs and learn from other people’s mistakes.
Finally, what inspires you? There’s a general progression in design: if you do something one way, it’s natural that the next time I think of a silhouette, I’d like to do it another way. I also like art, architecture and product design a lot. In the end, it’s about what your mind puts together by combining the things that you really appreciate.
Babette’s Travel Essentials
Arrive in style with Babette’s travel-friendly picks.
For more info and to shop online, visit www.shopbabette.com.