by seth putnam | February 17, 2015 | People
Fashion designer Barbara Bates tells us how she became one of Chicago’s chicest leaders.
Barbara Bates, photographed here in her Chicago studio, has incorporated charitable giving into her business plan.
For a woman who never learned to use a needle and thread, Chicago designer Barbara Bates has built an impressive fashion empire.
“I never actually sewed,” she says with a laugh. “My skills were sketching and knowing what fabric could do once I got my hands on it.”
Those skills have been more than enough. In her 29-year career, Bates has dressed a who’s-who list of celebrities, including Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and most recently, Diana Rauner, Illinois’ new first lady. And now the designer is grabbing headlines as a philanthropist. A breast cancer survivor, Bates recently pledged that her eponymous charitable organization would raise $500,000 for Mount Sinai Hospital in her home neighborhood of North Lawndale.
Taking a late lunch in her South Loop studio on a frosty late-January afternoon, she reflects that none of her successes have been easily won. From the struggles of teen pregnancy to an all-out war against breast cancer, there has been no respite. But that seems to suit Bates’ position de guerre just fine. “I’m a take-it-by-the-horns kind of girl,” she says. “I don’t let things that are scary shut me down.”
Bates transforms her sketches into pieces that are prominently displayed in her South Loop studio.
Born on the South Side and raised in Garfield Park, Bates likes to say that her career began in a bathroom. She got an unexpected start in 1986 while working as a secretary at the First National Bank of Chicago. Her colleagues, drawn to her funky look, which included suedes, leathers, and other “exotic” materials that were rarely used back then, asked her to design clothing for them. On her lunch breaks, she would take the women’s measurements in the ladies’ room and deliver their new clothes to them within a few weeks.
Eventually she quit her bank job and, at the age of 31, set out on the path that would lead her to the top of Chicago’s fashion world. “I didn’t put together a business plan,” she says. “I love to fly by the seat of my pants, which is not necessarily a good thing. It’s just how I operate. I’ve always been my best salesperson.”
If jumping in with both feet was how she began, it remains her modus operandi today. In fact, when she received a call from an old classmate who asked if she was the Barbara Bates “who’d had a baby in high school,” Bates replied, “I am. What’s it to you?”
The woman then explained that she was now working with at-risk teens, and asked if Bates would come and speak to them. “It was the most devastating time I could remember, being a pregnant teen,” Bates says. “I cried the whole nine months.”
Despite her fears, however, Bates agreed to speak to the group, and when she found herself standing in front of a room full of pregnant girls, her nervousness disappeared. “I didn’t want to make them think I was a rich, successful person trying to tell them nonsense,” she says. “I was exactly like them, just an older version.”
She felt proud to have shared her story for the first time, and she stopped being embarrassed about having been a teenage mother. “I told them, ‘If you go back to school once you have your baby, I’ll make your prom dress,’” Bates says. And that promise led to the beginning of the Barbara Bates Foundation, which, since 1999, has supplied more than 500 dresses and 200 suits to needy high school students.
Sketches and swatches for the spring collection.
When Bates was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, the Foundation’s focus shifted slightly, leading to its sponsorship of a fashion show featuring 50 models, all of whom also had the disease. The event brought in $50,000, which Bates put toward her $500,000 pledge for Mount Sinai Hospital. She’s nearing the finish line now, only $90,000 away from her goal.
As age becomes a factor for Bates—she turns 60 in June—she’s all about focusing on the future. “My mind doesn’t know, but the wrinkles do!” she jokes. “I have to work smarter, because I know I don’t have as much ahead of me as I have behind.”
However, it is Bates’ design philosophy, which prizes hard work, creativity, and above all, instinct, that keeps her ahead of the rising generation of young designers nipping at her heels. “That saying, ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ is so true!” she says. But there is one thing that sets Bates apart from the younger generation: name recognition. “My grandmother told me that sometimes people buy you first, then they buy your product. I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but now I do.”
photography by heather talbert
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