HER AIM IS TRUE:
Half a century after opening her own firm, Babette Wiener Pinsky, Apparel Design ’62, stays faithful to her vision

 

Pinsky appears at right in this early-’70s photo, wearing a simple black and shocking-pink wool jersey dress. “I put the zipper on the shoulder so I didn’t have to put the seam at the center back. This was the height of my ‘function-dictates-form’ days,” the designer says. The model wears a similar dress with  white cuffs.

Pinsky appears at right in this early-’70s photo, wearing a simple black and shocking-pink wool jersey dress. “I put the zipper on the shoulder so I didn’t have to put the seam at the center back. This was the height of my ‘function-dictates-form’ days,” the designer says. The model wears a similar dress with white cuffs.

The story of the fashion label Babette is remarkable: Babette Wiener Pinsky started the company in 1968 to create funky-yet-wearable clothes. Forty-six years later, she’s still designing, and you don’t have to squint to see the sophisticated, modernist style in her fashions. The $11 million concern has 100 employees and eight stores nationally, plus e-commerce. Though the fabrics are often sourced in Asia—usually Japan, which manufactures the high-twist (meaning silky and well-draping) microfibers Pinsky prefers—the garments have always been designed and made in the Bay Area. This year, she was nominated for the Martha Stewart American Made Award. She told the award committee, “For me, there has never been any reason to move my business overseas. American-made means health insurance, preventive care, and fair treatment of workers.”

Beginnings

Her mother designed gloves and her father sold printed tags to the trade, but Pinsky’s parents wanted her to get a liberal arts degree. She chose FIT instead, graduating in 1962 with high honors and snagging the Apparel Design Department Award. She specializedin suits and coats, and her eyes widened at the sight of delicious furs zipping by on delivery carts in the nearby Fur District. But when she graduated, she found out the cold, hard truth: “There were no women in that end of the business. There were unions, and there were tailors, and the tailors designed the coats.”

Babette in the early ’80s, wearing a tan silk dress and an organza “butterfly” top. “We did many versions of that top,” she says.

Babette in the early ’80s, wearing a tan silk dress and an organza “butterfly” top. “We did many versions of that top,” she says.

Instead, she and her first husband went to Denmark on an exchange program so he could study furniture design. (In the early ’60s, she says, Danish Modern furniture was a thing.) She got a job in a factory designing raincoats. “The guy loved having a young American designer on staff,” Pinsky says. “Whenever people came in to buy, he would drag me out and say, ‘This is the designer.’I was young and cute and back then that was part of the deal. Fortunately, it’s not anymore.” Nearly every aspect of this experience—raincoats, Scandinavian aesthetics, perhaps even a dawning feminist consciousness—proved formative for her.

San Francisco Style

She returned to the U.S. in 1964 and found the country on the verge of radical change. Over the next few years, she witnessed the sexual revolution, the peace movement, anda burgeoning aesthetic with roots in the hippie culture. Living in San Francisco put her in the front row for these developments—Haight-Ashbury, for example—yet that style didn’t suit her: “I was interested in plain, contemporary, Scandinavian stuff. Simple, solid colors, that kind of thing,” she says. “So I started my career that way, and it still sortof looks the same.”

This spring 2014 look features a jacket in purple “scuba” fabric that the designer discovered at Première Vision in Paris.  “It’s a knit on both sides with a lamination in between,” Pinsky says. “What changes fashion the most is the fabrics.”

This spring 2014 look features a jacket in purple “scuba” fabric that the designer discovered at Première Vision in Paris.“It’s a knit on both sides with a lamination in between,” Pinsky says. “What changes fashion the most is the fabrics.”

Perhaps living at some remove from the fashion capital of New York gave her the freedom to pursue modernism her own way. Or perhaps she was drawn to San Francisco because she was slightly iconoclastic. Either way, she says, “I was always a function-dictates-form person. If a zipper was in a garment, it couldn’t just be decorative. It had to function. I also liked to see the zipper, because if it’s there, that’s an honest thing; you don’t need to cover it up. That’s kind of my philosophy.” Over the years, she’s become a bit less strict. If, for example, a dress has a pocket on one side, she might add a flounce on the other, even if it’s merely decorative. In addition, she observes contemporary fashionable proportions—not making voluminous garments, say, when a slim fit is in style.

For a recent collection, Pinsky chose a Mona Lisa motif. The garment was pleated first, then the paper for the print was purchased, but the image was too short for the skirt, so the designer created a collage.

For a recent collection, Pinsky chose a Mona Lisa motif. The garment was pleated first, then the paper for the print was purchased, but the image was too short for the skirt, so the designer created a collage.

Fashion itself, she notes, has also loosened up. Gone are the days when designers like Dior created styles that were universally adopted, and that’s fine with her. “People dress the way they want to now,” Pinsky says happily. “Everyone’s doing their own thing.” There are still trends, though, and sometimes those work in Babette’s favor. Fringe, for example, is popular; she happens to like the way it moves, so it’s in the line. Then there are the pleats.

The Business of Babette

Pleats were a watershed motif for Babette. Today, they feature regularly in about 40 percent of her line, yet this innovation came about by accident.
In the early ’80s, when Pinsky had only three employees, she accidentally reordered 500 yards of laminated black polyurethane when she already had 400 on hand. “In a small company, that can put you out of business,” she says. When the fabric arrived, she found herself looking at it and thinking, “What can I do with that?”quote-pinsky

She read an article in Women’s Wear Daily about pleated raincoats that Mary McFadden was planning to design. Pinsky imagined the Fortuny-inspired styles McFadden would probably make, and saw an opportunity to make her own versions with the excess polyurethane. McFadden never made the coats, but Pinsky’s pleats were an instant hit (see photo, opposite). “Just amazing,” she says. “I figured, ‘Well! I’ve got to do something more with this idea. Then one day, into our studio walks this salesman, and he has this stuff called microfiber.” Pinsky had bad associations with Ultrasuede and other polyester; but this material was different: “It was very drapey, and it looked really nice. So I ordered this stuff and I turned it into women’s [pleated] separates and I said to my rep, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m only interested in the coats,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m not interested in you.’ And I got us another rep, and that started the pleats.” In 1995, Babette bought her own pleating factory, right in the Bay Area.

A recent Babette style with signature pleating. “The brand is about texture.” Pieces range from $95 to $985.

A recent Babette style with signature pleating. “The brand is about texture.” Pieces range from $95 to $985.

Until her husband joined the firm in 1991, Pinsky didn’t have a business partner. Over the years, she says, running the company required both flexibility and rigor—either coming up with some new idea, like the raincoats, cutting expenses like travel or entertainment, or, if necessary, laying off staff. “Like everyone else, we’ve had a really tough time these last two years, but you know…” she laughs. “I’ve been through a lot of recessions. We always come out the other side OK.”

In the early ’80s (note shoulder pads), Babette designed innovative, pleated raincoats. “They were the thing that started us up again,” Pinsky says. What’s the secret to making a great raincoat? “Just make it look great, because people don’t care if it functions,” she says, pointing out the model’s sunglasses.

In the early ’80s (note shoulder pads), Babette designed innovative, pleated raincoats. “They were the thing that started us up again,” Pinsky says. What’s the secret to making a great raincoat? “Just make it look great, because people don’t care if it functions,” she says, pointing out the model’s sunglasses.

Today, the company is profitable, and Pinsky’s still branching out in new directions. In November, the Bullseye Gallery in Portland mounted a two-month show, a collaboration between Babette anda young sculptor who cast some of the designer’s garments in glass. In March, she’s launching a small line of men’s shirts, including some innovative Japanese shibori (a kind of tie-dye) plaids. It’s named for her husband: Babette for Steven.

The Paradigm

Such one-off projects aside, who is the Babette customer?
“Nowadays, we get more and more facts about her through e-commerce and so forth, don’t we?” Pinsky says. “She’s 50 to 65, she’s educated, she travels for work and pleasure, she goes to art museums, she’s up on the movies, she reads the Sunday New York Times, she is healthy and has a good figure, and she doesn’t think she is the age she is. We all think that we’re never gonna die. She has a fixed income; her kids are grown; she’s not a trendy person, but she is a fashionable person and she has the type of personality that can carry offthe type of clothes that I design.”
Pinsky sounds like she’s having a very good time in her life.
“I don’t design for shy people,” she says.

  Watch the intricate process Babette has developed to create her signature pleated garments.