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Fashion Sun Mar 04 2012

Interview with Barbara Bates: Chicago's "Fashion Star"

BBATES.jpg
Barbara Bates; Photo by John Russo/NBC.

Barbara Bates is "taking her talents" to Los Angeles; a fashion industry staple for 25 years, this Chicago-based designer will compete against 13 other designers in the new reality series "Fashion Star," hosted by Elle Macpherson, premiering March 13 on NBC. Here, Bates talks about fashion, her newfound love for reality shows, and how she wouldn't mind joining the ranks of another Chicago-born former reality show star.

You're a self-taught designer--when did you know you had a talent for designing? Was it a particular piece you created or did someone tell you that you were good?

I can't really say there was I time when I said, "Hey, I got it goin' on." Even though I've been doing this for 25 years, everyday is a new day and something new comes along. I'm never that confident; I mean, I love when people buy from and shop with me--that's like the best compliment ever--but I always know how life can take a turn. I'm always humble, so I can't say there was never a moment.

Where do you get your design inspiration? Do any of your designs reflect your personal fashion taste or style?

I do a lot of whimsical, quirky, and wild stuff--even though I'm not a wild individual--at least I don't think I am. But mostly, my inspiration comes from the fabrics I buy. I do not design first; I actually go buy fabrics first. And I talk to them.

You talk to fabrics?

[Laughs] Yes--I talk to them! No, I'm not on drugs or anything, but the fabrics speak back to me and I kind of know what they can do and what they can become. It's really the novelty fabrics I use; I like to go for stuff that most people aren't playing around with unless you're talking about high end, hand-made, couture garments that are unreachable. I really think that's my strong suit.

Your clientele has included the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, among others. Is there a particular or different approach you take with those kinds of clients as opposed to those who aren't necessarily household names?

Honestly, I'd like to think I treat everybody that comes through the door the same way. I really don't like to, just because some has a title, treat them any differently.

What are your thoughts on fashion/fashion design as an integral part of the arts? It seems that often, fashion is either not always recognized or is omitted from arts and culture discussions.

Fashion definitely has a place in the world of art; I don't know who omits it or even why it's omitted. A lot of artists pull some of their greatest ideas from some of their muses who were fashionistas. The two are definitely synonymous.

You have sustained longevity in a very competitive field--what is the one thing about the fashion industry you wish more people understood?

I wish people just got the fact that you don't have to make anything so wild and way out to get attention; at the end of the day, you want to sell your garments because you want to make money. I'm a business person first and I like to make things that have a life span to them.

Tell us about the Barbara Bates Foundation, your charity that donates prom dresses and formal wear to disadvantaged Chicago youth. How did that all get started?

The foundation was born as a result of me having been a teen mom and then being asked to come back and speak to young girls who were teen moms. I felt that it was something I needed to do to give back, so I offered to students who stayed in school, that after they had their babies and if they went back to school, I would make their prom dresses. Also, I have other people who help me make these young people's dreams come true. It's something I do every year and I hope I continue to be blessed so I can keep doing it.

Let's talk about NBC's "Fashion Star"--how did you become involved with this show?

A friend sent me an email that said NBC was looking for fashion designers and captioned it with "See you on the big screen." When I saw those words, there was a voice behind them; it was like that caption moved. I decided to fill out the application and within 24 hours, I was notified by casting people that they were interested. After going back and forth to L.A. for a few months, I learned I was one of the 14 finalists. I was elated when I found out but I really felt I wasn't even worthy of it because there were so many other young people out there who had way more talent than I did and I thought it was something they could do to build their careers from. But because I've truly enjoyed a wonderful career for 25 years, at the end of the day I thought, "I've 'sung and danced' and entertained people in Chicago long enough--it's time for the whole world to know what I do."

What were your thoughts going in?

I just told myself that I was going to take this chance. I went out there with the "Jennifer Hudson mentality," which is, whether I win or not, I'm still a winner in this competition.

Were you already a fan of reality shows before this?

Actually, I was not, but I just started watching them--and they're like train wrecks. I love all the drama and the hoopla, but I don't like what they can do in terms of breaking up a family--I don't like that part about them. But I do like that people can become interested in your life and for me, I thought it would be really cool if I could do something like that and let people see the facets of my life. I like to show the other side of reality--on a more positive note.

And with competition-based shows like "Fashion Star," that other side of reality TV is shown via people's talent and skills.

Exactly. It's all about bringing out the talent of all of the young designers. There's no buffoonery; I mean, everybody does not love each other all day, but for the most part, they picked a team of people who are so cool together and it takes everyone to the next level of where they should be. Ben Silverman (executive producer) and his team are stellar and they brought a stellar team to the competition.

You are already long-established in the fashion industry--when the opportunity to participate in "Fashion Star" was presented to you, was there any trepidation on your part?

There was no reason to be doubtful because I really didn't know what to expect. I never got the full scope of what it was until I was actually there. I had a lot of people ask me why would somebody already established want to do a show like this and I'd respond, "Well do you know something I don't know? Is there something negative about the show?" All I kept thinking was, "Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Hudson!"

What's next for Barbara Bates Designs?

"Fashion Star" will certainly open up some doors and to be quite honest, I don't have a clue what those doors are because my life takes change from one minute to the next. I know that I want to continue to be here--I don't know about another 25 years doing the same thing--but I do know I want to leave a legacy behind for my children. I want to let African-American women know more about breast cancer because they die from it more than any other group; I also want to fight against mandatory minimum [sentencing] because there are way too many African-Americans and Latinos--male and female--who are locked up and who get time that has nothing to do with the crime they committed. If that voice has to come through the fashion legacy that I've built, then those are the things I want to stand for. Yes, I'm a fashion designer--it's who I am--but that's not always what I do.


 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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