A Visit with Babe
We recently had the opportunity to visit Colleen Keller, founder of womenswear line Babe, at her Williamsburg studio/apartment. Colleen spoke with us about starting her own business, producing in the US, and her favorite piece from her Fall ’13 collection.
“Babe” was the nickname of your stylish great aunt, who had a wonderful way about her. How would you describe her signature look?
She always paired a beautiful, simple wool crepe trouser with a matching jacket and contrasting turtleneck – all items she made herself. I mostly visited my family in the summertime, and come to think of it, she would wear this outfit regardless of temperature — it was definitely her uniform. She never dressed overly feminine, yet she always exuded such grace, confidence, and beauty.
You started sewing and quilting at a young age, and honed your skills in the Fiber Science & Apparel Design program at Cornell. At what point did you know you wanted to create your own line?
For the past several years, I’ve worked in the startup fashion community managing development and production. In doing so, I really learned what it takes to launch a brand – the ups and downs, the ins and outs. I developed crucial connections with factories, suppliers, and vendors and was fortunate enough to work with some really talented and inspiring designers. It ultimately came to a point where I asked myself why I wasn’t doing this for myself. And so I decided to start Babe.
That experience must have really helped when it came to starting your own business. What was the most important thing you learned, that newer designers tend to overlook?
Well I think everyone (including myself) sees launching a line as something quite glamorous. It can be, but at the end of the day it is also a start-up business just like in any other industry. That means long hours, large learning curves, and lots of overhead. I think newer designers tend to overlook the business side of things for fear of sacrificing creativity and artistic integrity. You have to remember though, you’ve got to make money to spend money.
You’re pretty much a one-woman show, from development all the way through marketing and PR. How do you keep yourself organized and stay on top of all the different facets of your business? Are there plans for a Team Babe anytime soon?
I make lots of to-do lists! I make weekly lists, daily lists, even hourly lists (ha!) and I always write down more than I could ever do. Some way, somehow, what’s needed always gets done. But I definitely have to thank my boyfriend, family, and friends for keeping me sane through it all! They’re probably more excited for the day it becomes Team Babe, which we all hope is soon!
Every Babe piece, including knitwear, is made in the US. We often talk with designers about the challenges this can present (for instance, it can be extremely expensive), but it seems to work well for you. What are some of the advantages of producing in America?
The biggest advantage of producing in America is transparency and the face-to-face relationships with factory owners. I am able to visit my factories on a daily basis (well, the ones in New York) to check progress and quality and I can often times catch problems before they arise. I’ve also found a level of camaraderie and kinship that gives me confidence as an emerging designer. If I’m stumped on construction or a particular application, I can sit down with the factory owner and discuss the best way to execute an idea. They make time for me. You look at these factory owners and most have been in business for more than 25 years. They’ve seen it all, they know the industry, and they really understand design and aesthetics. It’s definitely one of the luxuries of producing domestically.
Can you tell us a bit about how you approach product development?
Rather than starting with a particular theme or inspiration, I begin each season by reflecting back on previous collections. My goal is to improve upon and evolve from what I’ve already done. I mean, I’m sure that’s what every designer does too, but for me that’s where a theme usually originates.
I have a lot of friends in the tech industry and their development process is so different from fashion. It’s more about versioning and releasing iterations of one particular product, rather than delivering a slew of new products each quarter. Developers work to improve user experience and adapt to the current cultural landscape with each new version they put out. In that sense, a company never actually releases a “finished” product.
I like to think about my development process from a bit of a tech standpoint (nerdy, yes). For me, it’s not necessarily about designing a collection around one single inspiration (let’s say a trip, film, or book) and then dramatically changing course with each new season. Of course I do draw inspiration from imagery, art, and music, but I incorporate that into my existing design ideas rather than let it dictate an entire collection. Ultimately, I want each season to be a better version of Babe and I believe that happens by building and improving upon the repertoire I’ve already created.
Is there a Babe piece you’re especially excited about this season?
The Sidney Blouse in the tortoise print is definitely one of my favorites. Not a lot of people know that it is a custom digital print I created based on the tortoise pattern you see on lucite sunglasses. I like that the print reads as sort of a leopard print, but then when you look into it, it’s actually something quite different. It’s an easy print to wear and combined with the Sidney silhouette, makes for a shirt you can style a variety of ways and dress up or down.
Many thanks to Colleen for having us over! You can shop Babe at our Portland, Chicago, Fillmore, and web shops.This entry was posted on Monday, October 28th, 2013 at 5:54 pm and is filed under In Stock, New Arrivals. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.comments closed +SHARE
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