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In the very first Marti Ink post, “Congratulations! It’s a Blog!” I talked about being a creative spirit. I am not alone. To celebrate my fellow artistic folk I am kicking off a new section on the blog call the “Creative Spirit Spotlight,” which will feature talented people in various creative fields. The first spotlight goes to Chicago fashion designer Barbara Bates of Bates Designs, a current contestant on the NBC reality show “Fashion Star.”

Bates, an entrepreneur who’s been in business for just over 25 years, has designed for such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Steve Harvey and Whitney Houston. Back when I was a fashion student Barbara was kind enough to hire me as an intern, and recently she was kind enough to grant me an interview. Check out what she had to say about the show and much more.

What made you want to become a fashion designer?

The actual fashion design component didn’t take place until I was an adult, but the part about being in fashion was just innate. …As a little girl I saw myself working around beautiful clothing. I wanted to work in a boutique or own a boutique. Only after I got older the door opened up for me to be a designer. I had friends that made the clothes for me. I’d buy the fabric and draw the pictures and they’d make it. When people saw me in it they’d say, “I like that. could you make me one?” The public turned me into a designer.  It was a business decision. The people wanted it. So, I’d make another one and then sell it. That’s why I was selling clothes out of bathrooms at work. There was a demand and I thought I could supply.

Where did you work at the time?

At First Chicago Bank. I was a secretary in international banking.

From her office space at her store/design studio Bates discusses her humble beginnings in the fashion industry and her experience on NBC's "Fashion Star."

When it comes to design what would you say is your strongest skill?

Fabrication and what the fabric can become. I don’t go to stores looking for an item I’ve already put together. I do it in reverse. I go buy beautiful fabric and turn it into what I think it should be.

What would you say is the most challenging thing about design for you?

The most challenging is that I don’t sew myself. …Sometimes I think I would like to know more of not really the sewing part, but the pattern making part. It doesn’t really stop me from doing anything. It’s just what I think is a weakness.

When I did the show in California I actually had a guy there who gave me a quick routine set-up on how to drape and I loved it. When I came back here I started draping.

How would you describe the overall signature look of Barbara Bates?

It’s so difficult for me to answer that because I do so much. I love volume and things that are full, but then I’ll make something that’s simple and fitted. One of the things I would like for people to notice me for is my use of unusual fabrics. My first love is leather and I love missing leather with fabric.

Bates talks design detail with a member from her construction team.

What is it about leather that you love?

It’s a luxury fabric and it comes in pieces, so you have to put it together like a puzzle. That makes it more interesting

Do you design according to the traditional fashion seasons?

No. I never do because the retail stores are buying a season ahead of time. Right now the stores are full of dead on summer stuff. If you have a special occasion coming up you’re not going to buy a linen or a florally summer dress. You want something that hits what the mood is right now, so for me that’s been a plus. I can give you what the trend is this second. …Being custom has its advantages. And it’s not just custom. Being able to put things on the rack that’s right on time has worked for me.

September will mark your 26th year in the business. Why be a part of a show like “Fashion Star” at this stage in your career?

A friend of mine sent an email to me that said there’s this NBC show, it didn’t even have a name then. They said they’re looking for designers and you should give them a call. I kind of poo-pooed it. I’ve sent two [things] off to “Project Runway” and one off to the Incubator Project at Macy’s, and so I wasn’t really interested. But at the bottom she put a note that said, “See you on the big screen.”  As I read it I saw myself on the big screen. So I clicked what said “here’s a link,” and started answering the questions. …The next morning I had a response from them.

The intriguing part was that it was a major network. I thought it said lot about me, and them – so to speak – that they were interested. All I knew was that I was going to be on television, they were going to expose my business and allow me to talk about the topics that are close to my heart, which are breast cancer, mandatory minimum sentencing and teen pregnancy, and that possibly something else could happen just from me being on television. I never thought about if I would win. …I knew that even if I came home with nothing that I was the winner out of everything. That’s what I said from the first day all the way to the end, and that’s still what I believe today.

Bates and fellow contestant Nikki Poulos await the mentor's feedback, along with host Elle Macpherson, on a recent "Fashion Star" episode. - NBC photo

How did it feel to be the oldest contestant on the show at age 55?

It was shocking, because I always thought I was young. And then to be surrounded by all of them I was like “Man, your ass is old.” (Laughter) That was difficult for me. I was like “mama” around there. My oldest son is 40 and my youngest is 28. [The other contestants] were like 23 and 24. …There wasn’t a whole lot of interaction. My interaction with them was more about, “I think that fabric should be this or it shouldn’t be that.”

At the end of the day I saw that my style was so different from theirs. I’m very high end. At the end of the day it was still “their” world. I was in a world that I didn’t know.  I assumed I knew it because I’ve been doing design for so long, but I don’t know young design. I only know young design when it comes to high end. Young people in their 20s and 30s who have cash shop the way I design for young people. But young people who buy $100 dresses, I don’t have a clue what they do. …I don’t poo-poo it. I’ve just never done that. Even in high school I would spend my whole check on a pair of shoes. I’ve always done extra.  So, [the show] was difficult for me.

What was it like to actually make your first sale to the buyers?

It was a relief. I thought, “Now I can go home.” (Laughter) So many people didn’t understand the dynamics of what was going on there.  For me to stay there longer meant dummying down. If you’re not a Barbara Bates buyer, then the customer that I sell to will be lied to. No one is going to come here and find a $90 dress. That’s not what I do. The quicker I could abscond from there the truer I could stay to who I am, because I was lost there.  I was trying to make stuff I didn’t understand. I don’t even know what a $75 dress could be. I don’t understand that.

The show is really not about if you are a good fashion designer. That is a part of it, but it’s about branding. The perfect example is Jessica Simpson. She has a $1 billion fashion brand and at the end of the day that speaks volumes.

What is the average cost for a Barbara Bates dress?

The average cost is about $450 to $500. That’s on like a low end for casual wear.

Was there time for research for the projects?

No. Your assignment was given to you like 15 minutes before you walked into a fabric store. You had one hour to go in and find the fabric for a particular assignment.

On the show this halter dress designed by Bates was purchased by Macy's for $50,000. -NBC Photo

What did the show teach you about yourself?

It really showed me more about mainstream and how that whole thing works, and how lucrative mainstream can be if you want to go in that direction. I have a sense of how you do it now. I would license it out someplace else.

It taught me that man, you have been blessed. Everything that you came here looking for, you’ve done already. I wanted a new experience, but it was actually a lot of what I’ve been living already.

I want to have some wealth that is sustainable. But I’ve hired people and help people to live. I’ve lived a decent life so I’ve definitely been successful with what I’ve been doing.

The show was a little bit humbling, but I just have this other side to me. …I thought this could never make me cry. I’m crying because I want to go home and I’m losing money. My clients are coming to the shop and I’m not there.

What’s the show done for your business?

It’s been wonderful visibility. There have been some wonderful opportunities coming my way. It’s opened up doors for other organizations to reach out to me, such as speaking engagements dealing with breast cancer. My new clients slowly seem to be building up with people in Chicago who already knew me, but seeing me on television has solidified me for them. So, it’s been all good for me. Nothing negative.

When it comes to inspiration what is your go to source?

I take some quiet time and go to the Lord. My friends and my faith are where I go. I never feel pressure to design new creations. Those things come fairly easy to me. I feel pressure to grow my business to another level. …I really would love to have a free-standing retail that someone else operates.

A work in progress in the "back room" construction area of Bates Designs.

The spring season is a busy time for you, mainly because of the Barbara Bates Foundation. Can you speak more about the prom project that you have?

This year I decided not to do paying dresses for young people that come here. Some kids can afford their prom dress. Others can’t. I have about 25 girls and about eight guys that are going to get free suits and dresses. They write a letter telling me why they should receive custom attire. They don’t have to be the best or the brightest, but if they took the time to write it, and I just feel something in the letter, then I’ll say yes. Prom is very stressful, but 25 is not a lot compared to what I used to do. Right now it’s a little difficult because of all the “Fashion Star” stuff, but I’m working it out.

The foundation started in 1999, but I was making the prom dress 10 years prior to that. I just did it on my own. I’ve given away about 500 dresses and about 200 tuxes over the years.

Bates Designs is located in Chicago's South Loop area.

What advice would you offer to someone interested in becoming a fashion designer?

I would probably tell them that anything is possible and that they need to do their homework and be prepared to give a lot of time to it. I always tell the high school kids that they need to know math. I would tell the adults that they have to be realistic. Just because you’re a designer doesn’t mean that you have to make something that’s whimsical and way out to be noticed. At the end of all this you want to make money. You don’t want to be entertainment for somebody and make something that’s so way out that they know your name for that day and that day only. Then you’re stuck with something that you can never sell. So, you want to create things that are practical and well made.

It’s all very doable. You just have to do it.

Can you tell us how far you got on the show?

No. I’d have to kill you. (Laughter)

Oh well. I had to ask. Thanks for taking the time to talk to Marti Ink Barbara.

You are more than welcome.

For more information on Barbara Bates, Bates Designs or the Barbara Bates Foundation visit her website www.batesdesigns.com.

Shop Photos: Third Eye Communications Co.

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