Chicago-based fashion designer Barbara Bates was recently a contestant on the season one premier of NBC’s TV Show Fashion Star. She is a self taught designer that has dressed many fabulous people such as Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Harvey, the late great Whitney House and more. Mz Mahogany Chic had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Barbara about her experience on the show, her thoughts on fashion and her cute short hair!
Mz Mahogany: We were introduced to your creative vision via the NBC TV Show Fashion Star, but who is Barbara Bates?
Barbara: I’m a custom clothier. The things you saw on the NBC TV Show Fashion Star were so far away from what I do until I lost myself there. My designs are really high-end with novelty fabric and lots of details. I do clothes that are really noticeable. Women will ask ‘where did you get that from’ when they see my designs. The show was phenomenal but unfortunately they were looking for mainstream America. When clients come to my boutique, they are looking for outstanding pieces that are not necessarily one-of-a-kind, but are close. I like working with unusual fabrics and textures. I love mixing leather with fabric. I’m not afraid of any size woman, I believe that real woman wear Bates no matter how old or what size they are. I really aim to please people that are hard to fit in size and women that are maturing in age that was to look fabulous without going to a kid type of store.
Mz Mahogany: How long have you been a designer?
Barbara: 25 years.
Mz Mahogany: Oh wow, you are a seasoned designer.
Barbara: Yes, I’ve had a fabulous career and I’m still growing.
Mz Mahogany: Is your collection Ready to Wear or is it all customized?
Barbara: I do both. I have a salon in Chicago; my designs are on the rack and ready to wear. My custom items come from things that are on the rack. You can pick out a piece from the collection and have the fabric customized, sleeves or no sleeves, buttons etc. For the most part the designs that people are looking for are already available and customers build off of that to customize it. I do buy unusual fabrics and I’d sketch something to show what the fabric can become for customers that are looking for something different.
Mz Mahogany: Take me back to the day you received notification you were going to be a contestant on the NBC TV Show Fashion Star. Where were you and how did you react?
Barbara: It was twofold. The first was when I received a response to the questionnaire that I completed for designers to be on the show. Someone forwarded the email over to me and I don’t usually respond to those types of things. I usually leave those for my interns. I’ve sent my intern over to Project Runway and other interesting projects. At the time, I felt this wasn’t for me but she put a personally note in the email saying ‘I’ll see you on the big screen’. That kind of caught my attention and I thought it was possible and doable to be on the show. So I completed the questionnaire. The very next day I received a response from the casting staff to setup an appointment. I was at work early in the morning when that happened. It had to be around 7:30 am. The process took around four months for final contestants to be picked. The day they picked me to be on the show I was at my home.
Mz Mahogany: Tell me more about that day.
Barbara: Well, they told me they needed to come to the city to see how I operated my shop. It was like a day in the life of Barbara Bates. Ironically they did all of this on my birthday. I initially told them no because it was my birthday and the four month courtship of trying to be on the show went on long enough. I just wanted them to say yes or say no. It was June 27th, my birthday, and they told me to have a small gathering at my house to complete the filming. During that gathering I received the phone call that I was on the show. It was fun!
Mz Mahogany: Were you disappointed when you were eliminated from the show?
Barbara: Not at all, I was disappointed that I had to leave the people that I had come in contact with. We made bonds being together for so many weeks and I wasn’t going to see them in the same realm anymore. I was one of the people on the show that had a striving business. I need to be here for my business to work. I missed almost a month. I don’t have to tell you what that did! For my business sake, I was truly ready to come home.
Mz Mahogany: Well it must have been exciting for the duration of being on the show.
Barbara: Yes it was however, I couldn’t reach the excitement as the younger people there. This is mainly because I’ve been living what they are aspiring to do for a long time. I’ve had an incredible career.
Mz Mahogany: What were you trying to accomplish being on the show?
Barbara: I was looking forward to mass production.
Mz Mahogany: You did touch on your goal in episode 4 when Macy’s bought your sleeveless hooded halter dress right?
Barbara: Yes, I semi accomplished my goal. It’s like a licensing agreement. The pieces that we put together are not translated the same way once they make it to the retailer. It makes the introduction into the door however I like the integrity that I put into the garment to remain. I’m known for my fabrics, fabrication and fit. The garments that were sold were altered; the fabrics weren’t the same. It wasn’t a true interpretation of what I originally designed. But at the same time, my design sold out. I was truly happy.
Mz Mahogany: I bought one as well!
Barbara: Glad you were able to get your hands on it.
Mz Mahogany: What advice would you give a fashion newbie or student, looking to become a designer?
Barbara: I always like to tell students that they need to be practical in their designs. It doesn’t have to be so way out and so whimsical. You are not here to be entertainment; you want to make a living from it. Try to come up with a new creation. Be aware of your fabric selection. You don’t have to always go for the high-end fabrics like I do but just be aware of good fabric. Also you should be willing to adhere to some of the rules in fashion because in school they may teach it a certain way but in the real world the rule can change drastically. Most importantly be open to criticism.
Mz Mahogany: I know you’ve had some health issues which resulted in your now chic hair style. Can you tell me more about it?
Barbara: Actually all of that was due to breast cancer. I’ve had chemotherapy and lost all of my hair. I kept it bald the entire time I went through chemotherapy and radiation because I didn’t feel comfortable wearing wigs and scarfs. I just didn’t want that on my head. When I stopped treatment and the hair started to grow back, I enjoyed the easy style of it. I didn’t have to go sit in a hair salon for hours. I didn’t have to worry about wrapping my hair at night. Eventually I just got lazy and I loved the look it so I just kept it short.
Mz Mahogany: Are you naturally curly?
Barbara: Yes, I don’t put chemical relaxers in my hair because I am afraid it would fall out. However I still put color in it!
Mz Mahogany: What’s your process to keep it cute?
Barbara: I leave conditioner in my hair instead of washing it out. I’m always trying new products for my hair. I don’t love anything to the point that I keep getting it. Fekkai is one of the products that I’m using right now. They have a cream moisturizing conditioner. I put the conditioner in my hair so it breaks my hair down and then after I get out of the shower I finger it and put a shine cream in it.
Mz Mahogany: How often are you washing your hair with shampoo?
Barbara: About once a week. It also depends on how much build up is my hair.
Mz Mahogany: Some naturally curly girls say chemical dyes make their hair dry and brittle, have you experienced this?
Barbara: Yes! This is why I wet my hair every morning and put a little conditioner in it. It’s not even a leave-in conditioner! It’s just regular conditioner. I try to buy my color from Whole Foods; it just makes me think I’m getting a better product. I don’t really know if that’s the case or not because it’s still chemical based. I use it once every two months so the gray is not screaming.
Mz Mahogany: What’s next for Barbara Bates?
Barbara: I’m in the process of building an eCommerce website that has Barbara Bates clothing at a moderate price. People that know me know that I do really expensive clothes. If they come to the boutique they know they are going to spend money because of the fabrics and the customization. When I do make moderately priced items they sell out so fast. The website will be dedicated for these items.
Mz Mahogany: Thanks so much for sharing your fashion and hair experience!
In 1999, Bates founded the Bates Foundation to provide custom prom dresses to underprivileged or hard-to-fit young women from inner-city schools in Chicago. Bates’ desire to make dresses for these women comes primarily from her own trials as a teen mother. Bates remembers the alternative school she attended as a pregnant fifteen-year-old and promised to make prom dresses for the girls who returned to high school and graduated.
For more information on Barbara Bates, please visit her website at http://www.barbarabatesdesigns.com