I spoke with Barbara just before her fall 2012 collection was shown at a benefit for Planned Parenthood.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in the humble Midwest in St. Louis, Missouri. When I was
18, I went away to college.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
You were going to be an engineer, right?
I was an engineer. Yes!
What happened after you finished college?
I went to work in Boston for a semiconductor automation company.
How long were you there?
Five years. I got sick of that company, and I was looking for another job. My fiancée at the time said, “You should look at Portland. It’s really great.” He had been working out here. So I started applying for jobs site unseen. I got a job interview with Fujitsu, and I came out. Just coincidentally, there was a job fair at the Convention Center. I walked in and—Boom! Walked into a job at Hewlett-Packard.
What did you do when you were with Hewlett-Packard?
I would model how all the robots and everything would work, timing- wise, to make sure there weren’t any bottlenecks in their production. Over those five years, I saw them systematically close the factory. I watched all these people that had worked for HP for 20 years turning in their badges, getting laid off.
What did you end up doing after that?
Then I went to law school. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Did you practice?
I didn’t take the bar. I did work all through school in the Intel Patent Practice Group. I had a job lined up in Seattle with a company called Intellectual Ventures. It was really a cool place, but I was going to have to move to Seattle. My husband wouldn’t retire and we just had an eight-month-old baby. I said, “What do you want me to do? This is my dream job.” Or so I thought.
He said, “No, I won’t retire.” I said, “Screw you! I’m going to make clothes.” I had a complete freak out.
But it didn’t happen that instantaneously, right?
Well, I got a new sewing machine. I hadn’t sewn in years. It’s some- thing I just kind of went back to. My mother once told me way back, “Barbara you’re a frustrated creative person. That’s your problem.” You know, this is somebody who’s known you since you were little. I mean, she really knew the things I was doing when I was little. I was painting, drawing, sewing and making things. We have a really strong history of that in my family, too. My dad made our whole house. Not only did he build the house and design the fireplace—which is all reclaimed cobblestones from the Mississippi levee—he made the stained glass windows and the chandeliers and everything. He was an artisan. I grew up in this stew. He was, kind of, what everyone now would think was so cool. He was someone who took old crap and made extremely beautiful things out of it.
When I met you previously, you talked about Al- ice. Who was she?
When I was a kid, when I was in this creative stew, I said, “Hey Mom, I want to learn to sew.” She said, “Oh that sounds like a great idea.” She couldn’t sew anything so it was a good practical skill for her daughter. One of the guys she worked with always wore suits, ties, and everything that his wife had made. So she asked him about his wife. It turns out she taught construction for twenty years. Since she had been a teacher for a long time, she had her whole basement set up like a sewing studio with sewing machines and examples pinned up on boards. Every Monday night, for two hours, I would go and sit with Alice and we would work on a project. I was seven or eight.
And you did that for how long?
About five years. I remember being really proud to wear the stuff I made, even though in hindsight it was all… you know.
So after five years of doing that, you just gave it up?
No, I was doing it on my own. I didn’t take lessons anymore, but in high school I would make prom dresses for myself. They were very 1980s—a lot of ruffles.
When did you start getting heavily into making your own things again?
Outside of home projects, like recovering sofa cushions and things like that—which I did in my early 20s “cause I was po”—making clothes didn’t really start until law school. I got the bug. I got a brand new sewing machine, and it just never stopped.
When did you open Phlox, your first store?
The summer of 2006. I had the shop on Mississippi, and I launched Isaac Hers as a line in 2008. Before 26 that I had been designing under my own name, but I wanted to get out from under that and start fresh. When I signed the lease here, on SW 13th, I was con- vinced by some friends to call it Isaac Hers. And I said, “Well, if I call it Isaac Hers then that really means I need to have a lot of Isaac Hers in this store.” I was sort of reluctant. You just gotta go balls out, man. And I did.
What happened to Phlox? Did you decide to close that store because you were moving to SW 13th?
Mississippi has changed over time, and in my estimation, I think that neighborhood was hit harder by the economy. I really saw a shift in what people were able to spend, and our revenues were absolutely declining. Subsequently, there was a lot of attrition over there. I was just one of the first to move or close or whatever. I knew I had to get out, and I knew that this was an up-and-coming area.
What’s the story behind the name “Isaac Hers”?
“Isaac” was on the short list for my kids, and it didn’t make the cut. So it’s a good place for my line, the third baby. And it’s “Hers” because it’s mine and it’s for women.
Where does the Isaac Hers style come from?
I’ve been in this business for a number of years now, and it’s helpful to have a retail store because you hear what women like and what they don’t like. I’m trying to create a directional brand. It’s fashion for- ward, but it’s not bleeding edge. It’s got a practicality to it. Women want value and they want style. They want both. It’s a balance. I’m always trying to deliver something that’s flattering, fabrics that are easy to care for—but still giving them great interest. I don’t want to deliver something that’s boring and every- day and common. Every once in a while there’ll be a design that’s more “simple,” but the fabric will be luscious. People just love that stuff. So it’s this fine balance of figuring out how to blend trends with something that’s very versatile and not too trendy. I want it to be something that women, who are re- ally in the know about fashion, will want. I think of my client as being well educated and sophisticated. And, generally, that’s who she is.
When you think about fashion, how does Portland differ from mainstream fashion?
Portland’s very different. Portland has come a long way since I’ve been here. In the late 90s it was patagucci, big time! And what are those clogs called?
You don’t really need to say anything more…clogs, right!
Clogs and patagucci. It’s amazing what happened here in the early aughts. The influx of young people, young creatives, has really changed this place for the better. The music, the food and the fashion— everything is just kind of coming along. It’s nice to see Portland become more sophisticated and not so small-towny, because it’s beautiful here. From a fashion perspective, it’s getting better. I think people are still afraid to try new things and to be adventurous. It’s still a really practical customer here. People don’t have the disposable income, so they do feel much more cautious about their purchases. If they spend two or three hundred dollars on a dress, it has to take them a lot of places.
Tell me about your design process. How did your new fall 2012 collection come about?
With each collection, I try to have some sort of theme that holds it together. The past couple of collections have had a real sense of place. The fall 2011 collection was really inspired by Central Oregon because my family and I have a place in Bend. That is the place I go to recharge. I just think the high desert is beautiful, so I really channeled the colors of the high desert into that collection. When I was doing last spring’s collection, it had been so dark. It was a long, protracted winter. It was awful, and so I took the whole collection and was like, “Ok, I want to be in Mexico in my bathing suit.” I just thought of college and beach time. That’s where Con El Sol came from. This time, I’m not exactly sure why I went this way, but instead of choosing a place, I chose the mind. The collection is called Chambers, and it’s about the different places in your mind. It’s sort of about dreams, worries, happy memories and psychological unrest.
When you come up with an idea, do you start sketching right away? Or are you more like, let me go look at fabrics? Let me feel. Let me see.
It’s iterative. I look at a lot of designers that I like. I’ll kind of go see what they’re doing, and I get a lot of ideas.
Who are they?
Rodarte and 3.1 Phillip Lim. Those are kind of my go-tos. I really find myself there. They don’t ever miss me. I don’t ever look and go, “Eh.” I’ll kind of start there, and put together a little mood board.
If I were to look at your mood board right now, what would I see for fall?
You would see some images from Rodarte. You would see a haunted looking tree swing on a bare leafless tree. You would see what looks like the inside of an institution, like a psych ward. You would see an old faded family picture from the 1930s. Stuff like that. Memories. Secrets.
Tell me about challenges that you face as a designer.
Probably my biggest challenge is launching from being micro to being something bigger. Fashion is a crowded field. Some people have access to big-time investors that allow them to have a PR blitz and to really kind of take it to the street. I don’t have that kind of money so I’m working on slowly building the brand over time, and it’s all done on a shoestring. Having said that, there are never enough resources to hire all the people you need to do what needs to be done. So much of the work falls on me. But things are going well, and I have some really dedicated staff—people who are really good to me. The challenges are that there are never enough hours in the day, and of course, money.
You’re a strong advocate for sustainability and keeping money in the community. Tell me more about that.
I don’t think people think that much about what their money’s doing to their community. When you buy a big, multinational brand, you are paying for jobs in your community for those retail people, but the money doesn’t feed other families here. It’s going to make somebody—who already has enough money—rich. And that’s all fine. I’m not really anti- corporation; I’m just pro-community. If you are concerned about jobs in your community—and I know it’s been a huge concern for Portlanders that there aren’t enough jobs and there’s not a lot of industry here— vote with your dollars. It matters. When you buy an Isaac Hers garment, I would say between eighty to ninety-five percent of your dollars stay here.
What is the future for Isaac Hers?
World domination! I personally want to keep doing what I’m doing. I want to see the wholesale side of it grow. I would like to see another Isaac Hers store somewhere, maybe not Portland. And I would like the economy to get better, more than anything. ‘Cause that’s really the horsepower for all of us—for people to have a little more money to spend. And for me to have more resources so I don’t have to work so much. That’s the future. That’s most important.
written by Michael Cavazos, photographed by Lavenda Memory