I promised horn tooting, and here it is: a book I ghostwrote has just been privately published, and it's gorgeous and I'm thrilled. Babette: Designing a Vision celebrates the 40th anniversary of an extraordinary fashion brand; it will be sold in Babette retail stores in San Francisco, Scottsdale, Portland, Chicago, and New York beginning next month.
I was delighted when Steven Pinsky, designer Babette Pinsky's husband and business partner, contacted me last September about writing a book. Not only do I love ghostwriting books, but I've also been a huge fan--and customer--of the Babette brand since the day, more than a decade ago, when I chanced on the company's little outlet store-slash-factory on San Francisco's South Park Street. (The factory has since moved to Oakland, the retail store is now on Sutter Street, and the outlet store is no more.) The clothes were a revelation: clever raincoats--one, called the Taxi Coat, came with an orange whistle for summoning cabs--and pleated microfiber separates that flowed over the body like cool water. They were effortless yet utterly distinctive . They could be packed. They could be washed. They looked good on women of all sizes. And at outlet prices, they were a steal. I bought a couple of pieces that first visit and returned many times. In the process, I struck up an acquaintance with Babette and Steven that led to a small writing project--and now the book.
While researching the book I spent many hours in the Oakland design studio and factory, learning how fabric is sourced, how a collection is designed, and--especially--how those pleats are made. In hand pleating, two workers scrunch pieces of fabric and then tie them tightly. Pattern pleating involves huge paper patterns and wooden weights that haven't changed much since ancient Egypt; there are hieroglyphics depicting a process identical to the one I witnessed. (The only modern innovation is a huge autoclave that steam-sets the pleats.) Perhaps most remarkable in this outsourced era, all Babette clothing (with the exception of sweaters) is made in the company's own Oakland factory by workers earning a living wage and seeming to have a pretty good time at their jobs. That, and the sheer amount of labor involved in each garment--a single pleated garment may be touched by as many as twelve workers during its creation--makes the retail prices (about $200 to $500 per piece) seem, if anything, too low.
Surviving for 40 years as an independent fashion designer is a rare feat. It's even more challenging when you're ignored by local and national media, as Babette has been. (The designs don't follow trends, and Babette customers are a "forgotten" market: women in their 30s, 40s, and beyond.) Yet Babette Pinsky never considered merging or selling her business, and she never wavered in her creative vision. Here's how I quoted her in the book:
I always believed that function follows form: the guiding principle of the Bauhaus design movement. And I was always inspired by beautiful fabric. Then as now, I would begin each season's collection by looking at fabric and deciding what stories I wanted to tell with it. Color and texture allowed me to shape a narrative.
I'm happy to report that the media tide may be turning. On Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle published a long article about Babette by fashion editor Sylvia Rubin. (Be sure to click through to the video, a fascinating document of the pleating process.) Oakland magazine is interested in a feature story for its August issue.
It was a pleasure to work with the Pinskys and to be inspired in my writing by four decades of extraordinary fashion photography by Larry Keenan, Michelle McCarron, Paul Cruz, David Perez, and others. Much credit goes to genius graphic designer Ryan X (he has a stealth website; contact me if you want to hire him) and to Carolyn Ricketts, our able proofreader.
And do check out the Babette website, where you can see photos of the clothing, Babette Pinsky's line drawings, and a store locator.
Top: Designer Babette Pinsky. Above: Model wearing Babette separates at a retrospective fashion show held earlier this month in Minneapolis. Both photos by Allen Brisson-Smith for the San Francisco Chronicle.