The Genius Behind It-Brand ‘Batsheva’ Talks Vintage And Modesty
Two women walk down a dirt path, hand-in-hand, their backs to the camera. They are clad in long, shin-skimming dresses in muted floral prints to match the dusty rural landscape. No, this isn’t a scene from Little House On The Prairie, or a photo of two Satmar women walking through their Catskills bungalow colony. It’s an Instagram post from the up-and-coming fashion brand, Batsheva.
With nearly 11,000 followers, Batsheva isn’t a well-known brand by Instagram standards. But if buzzy write-ups in Vogue and WWD are any indication, in addition to becoming a CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund Finalist, the company’s rise may just be meteoric.
Batsheva, which began two years ago, is the brainchild of Batsheva Hay, a former lawyer who was always drawn to vintage dresses. Hay didn’t set out to make an It-brand; it was a way for to express herself creatively after quitting her legal career. “I felt very burnt out,” explained Batsheva. “I quit without a plan and gradually just started making clothing for myself, [clothing] that I couldn’t find in stores.”
What distinguishes a Batsheva dress isn’t just it’s old-timey sensibility but it’s ability to take old world charm and synthesize the chintzy, ditsy floral prints into something modern and covetable. A high-fashion Laura Ashley, if you will.
The dresses are also extremely modest. And although Hay is a religious Jew, the modesty of her dresses have a very different source: her childhood. Her mother was bit of a hippie and dressed the young Hay in oversized flowing dresses. “There’s a lot of nostalgia about that to me,” explains Hay.
Here’s our interview with her (edited and condensed for clarity), about how her brand blew up, her thoughts on the intersection of modesty and fashion, and why she considers herself a “Jewish chameleon”:
Michelle Honig: How do your pieces get made?
Batsheva Hay: I don’t do my own sewing. I mostly do the designing and use what I know about fit and design to work with patternmaker to fit it properly and make changes that I need. But everything’s done in New York very close to where I live. I live on the Upper West Side.
MH: What made you decide to make a brand?
BH: It happened pretty gradually. I think that I just made a few and then I started wearing them all the time. And so when I’d wear them out, people would give me feedback. Some of it was like, I love it and some of it was like, ‘Oh that’s not my style.’ But whatever it was, it was getting a reaction. And because I liked it so much, I was wearing it all the time. So then one of my friends wanted me to make one for them. And then once it was a few, I started looking into well, if I make ten, then it’s like cheaper per dress, so maybe I should make ten….And then [I thought], maybe I should start my own website…And then I got a store from Japan, my first store. They found me on Instagram and wanted to place a few orders. And then it became more of a business, and I had to figure out things really quickly.
MH: Oh wow, how did they find you?
BH: They randomly found me on Instagram when I had like 900 followers or something.
MH: That’s amazing. You started your brand two years ago, when did it start blowing up?
BH: Two seasons ago, which is like half a year ago, I guess, maybe a little bit more? I got it up on Vogue.com and they put pictures of my collection. That’s when I actually thought that it’s a real brand.
MH: That’s kind of like the stamp of approval.
BH: Yeah, exactly.
MH: You’ve said in past interviews that you grew up secular and are now religious. How would you classify yourself religiously?
BH: Honestly, my husband is much more strict than I am, but we have a fully kosher home, we keep Shabbat. We do all the holidays. But I don’t wear a wig. My dresses are pretty modest, but like I go to the gym in leggings and stuff like that.
MH: Would you say you’re Modern Orthodox then?
BH: I guess so, that’s kind of the way to put it, right? I personally don’t like labels… But there are some basic [things I do] which are keeping Shabbos, keeping kosher, and stuff like that that make it like, check, check, you’re Orthodox.
MH: I’m curious what kind of community you belong to?
BH: My husband was the one who first became more into [Judaism], he came into it through Chabad, and our kids go to Chabad pre-school…I see such an inclusiveness there, and so many different shades of observance…We’re definitely open. We’re Jewish chameleons.
MH: I like that label — Jewish chameleons. Were you always a very modest dresser growing up?
TH: It’s funny because because [the clothes I design] are modest, but they are from my childhood. Vintage dresses are — except for some crazy stuff you find in the 70s — pretty covering in general. So there’s a lot of nostalgia about that to me. It’s funny, I play with the elements of modesty — like that’s definitely part of it, but it’s also [that] I just like vintage.
MH: But growing up, did you dress very modestly?
BH: Oh totally. I was pretty modest. I definitely didn’t grow up in the world of little girls wearing bikinis. But it was also the 80s, it was just like — girls wore big bow dresses with lace collars. That’s just what I grew up with.
MH: Even in high school and college, was this your go-to style?
BH: High school and college, maybe not as much. I was never wearing revealing stuff, but I went to college in California. Sometimes it was hot and I just didn’t really care. But I was always going to vintage stores and buying vintage dresses. Pretty covered up. I never liked jeans. For me I felt like it was too tight, too constricting. I like a dress because it’s easy, one piece, loose.
MH: I’ve read that Orthodox women don’t wear your clothes. Why do you think that is?
BH: I feel like I was misquoted there. Because it came off like I was saying they didn’t get it. I do feel like in general, the going aesthetic of Orthodox women today is very simple. Not [wearing so [much] pattern, maybe more minimalist. And maybe that’s because of the general styles, like when you look at brands like Celine. Orthodox women are dressing in the regular style, just more covered.
MH: So describe who your typical customer is. Who do you make your dresses for?
BH: I honestly didn’t know who was going to like my dresses. I keep on getting surprised every time. It really is a diverse mix of people. I just sold and shipped some dresses to Saudi Arabia. So I guess there is an appeal to women who dress more modestly, in general. But there are women way younger than me that will wear the dresses and look so cool in them. And then a lot of older women like to wear them because, honestly, the older you get, the less you want to show. So there’s a modest dressing in being older but also wanting to wear something fun. I guess I purposely did not market it to Orthodox women because I don’t know who really wants it.
MH: You just kind of did it.
BH: I kind of started it thinking, ‘I am making this for myself when I’m designing, so me putting it out there [creates] a question: Who else wants this?’ And sometimes certain styles become popular that are not the ones I like the most, even. So it has a life of its own, and that’s the fun of it.
MH: Why do you think that your aesthetic is so big and covetable now?
BH: I honestly — it’s so funny to say because I didn’t do things that strategic. I didn’t hire any PR, or anything like that. I just started to play around with Instagram in my own way. And some people really liked it. I do think Instagram helped me a lot, but at the same time I don’t have that many followers at all by Instagram standards. I just think that the people who found me really like it, and it’s a small group that really gets it. So that’s really cool. I don’t know why right now, to be honest. You know, there is Instagram, and then there’s word of mouth and sometimes I’ll hear from people like, ‘Oh, someone was wearing this dress when I went out to dinner and I asked them what it was and then I became obsessed with it. I do think the thing about my dresses is that you notice them because of the prints. So I find that I get a lot of comments. Someone who works at Vogue told me that when they put my dresses up on Vogue.com, they get a lot of comments asking about it. So I think that that’s the benefit of having something that people notice. It makes it spread more quickly, it gets more attention. I guess my dresses are doing the talking for themselves.
MH: Do you think there is an inherent contradiction between being modesty and standing out?
BH: I think that it works nicely. I understand the spirit of modesty is that you shouldn’t be trying to get attention. But it’s not like I’m making dresses that are 24-karat gold bling. They’re kind of simple. Modesty doesn’t mean not beautiful. So I think that it is totally in the spirit of it to make something that makes a woman feel beautiful.
Michelle Honig is the style writer at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected]. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.