NBC's Fashion Star contestant Barbara Bates is no stranger to dealing with reality. In the midst of running a successful custom apparel design business and dressing celebs including the late Whitney Houston -- she was diagnosed with breast cancer and won the battle. Now the Chicago native is out to win a multi-million dollar prize and a chance to hang on racks at Macy's, Saks, and H&M on reality TV's next hottest design competition premiering tonight 10 p.m. ET.
ESSENCE.com: How did you start designing?
BARBARA BATES: I had friends who knew how to sew and they would sew stuff for me. So I really got into designing by accident, by buying fabrics and my friends and I would make stuff, and other people would say that they liked the way that I dressed. After a few years of doing that, working in corporate America people would come to my desk and ask me about my clothes. I just became a businesswoman. I knew how to take measurements and I knew how to draw. I would copy what I had made for myself and make the measurements the size of the person that wanted it. My famous line is that I would meet the girls in the bathroom on the 15th and the 30th, those two days in corporate America. And that’s really how my business got started, was just selling out of the bathroom at First National Bank which is now Chase.
ESSENCE.com: What made your pieces standout?
BATES: Initially I worked a lot with leather. I would pleat the leather or I would put glue on the back of it and crunch it up. So leathers, python, crocodile was what people knew me for initially. But after one Summer of starving and nobody buying leather, then I thought, "I got to learn something else," so I started incorporating leather with fabric. People always know me for leather or whimsical fabrics or just incorporating some sort of leather trim onto a fabric piece just so it has that extra piece of "Wow, where did you get that from?"
ESSENCE.com: What are your signature silhouettes?
BATES: I do a lot with peplum, which I’ve done for years. And peplums are truly back. So fashion does comeback again. And I love it because I do love full skirts and full dresses. I have signature pocket that I do that has volume; it’s like a puffy pocket. I do lots of fitted suits, and I fit them to whatever body style because I believe that everyone wears fashion no matter what size you are or how old you are. I do a lot of tailoring. The fit is very important -- when people see my tailored suits, they know that it’s Barbara Bates because it’s not just a black suit or a brown suit, there’s something whimsical on it. There’s leather loops all the way around the suit or there’s my signature pocket. My thing is, real women wear Barbara Bates. It doesn’t have to be short and tight to be sexy and beautiful.
ESSENCE.com: Who is this real Barbara Bates woman?
BATES: The person I design for is the woman who wears designer clothing. She is label conscious but it doesn’t have to be a well-known name, it has to be a piece that other women notice, because women dress for other women. I like to put women in clothing that after they’ve spent a thousand dollars on a dress wherever they’re going somebody is going to say, “Wow, that’s a really great dress. Where did you get it from?” I want to make sure that it’s a wearable piece that they can pull out of the closet a year from now or two years from now and it still makes a statement, and it’s not so trendy that you can’t wear it again. It’s definitely the woman that is my age, 40s or 50s but she can stand against any 25 year old.
ESSENCE.com: Which celebrities would you love to dress?
BATES: I would love to do something with Mary J. Blige because she has a style that goes both ways -- she’ll dress like conservative chic or a funky rock star. I like people that don’t have a look that you know is coming all the time. Like people who have this one look even if it’s a great look, it’s like when is she ever going to change up? So Mary would give you different looks. I like that about her. I think that Halle Berry is just phenomenal. She doesn’t get too hard, but I think that I would like to put something on her.
ESSENCE.com: How did you find out about the show?
BATES: I found out about this show around this time last year, around February or March. People in the city of Chicago they know me and they know my story and everyone always says that you’re bigger than this and how come people don’t know. I’ve been satisfied because it’s been a wonderful living for me and the people that I employ. But I’ve always known there was another place that my business could go but I didn’t know how to get there. So my friend sent the link over. I had already sent one of my interns to Project Runway and I sent another one of them to an incubator program here, so when those kind of opportunities came my way I passed them off to the interns who worked for me. But on this one, she put a personal note that said, “See you on the big screen,” and I saw myself. I saw that it was a reality and when I clicked the link you didn’t have to know how to sew, and I’m self-taught I never learned how to sew. They had a questionnaire and there were like one hundred questions or so, and the questions were so simple to answer since I’ve been doing this for a lifetime, it was nothing that I had to dig for. I got a response the very next day, and I just hollered!
ESSENCE.com: What have you learned from it?
BATES: I learned that young people dress differently. The show for the most part is more or less mainstream America. Mainstream America with young people, they have their own style. When I look at what they wear, it’s not what we wear in the Midwest. It’s a totally different in terms of how they dress. And not only do younger people dress differently, but mainstream and high-end America are different. I learned that Barbara, you’re older now. In Chicago I don’t feel that, I still believe that in the loop for fashion. I also learned about manufacturing. At my shop we make everything here, but because I do so much custom I’ve never had to do manufacturing on a large scale. It was a perfect place to see how true manufacturing is done, and am I candidate for that?
ESSENCE.com: How has winning your fight with breast cancer helped you persevere?
BATES: I find strength when there is adversity. And I find out how to take a bad situation and to grow some light from it so that I can become better or so people around me can become better. And breast cancer, it made me just open up my eyes to really just live life to the fullest and know that nothing is promised to you. So I don’t get as uptight about things as I use to. I have calmer side to me. I find myself being 50 times more creative than I was prior to. I feel like I just let myself go and I stretch out and go farther than I’ve ever gone.
ESSENCE.com: Is there anything you’re looking forward to with the show airing or anything you’re not looking forward to?
BATES: I’m just looking forward to seeing it. I know that my business will expand from it. I know that I’ll grow and expand from it. I don’t think that there is anything bad that can come from it. What I’ve been through, there’s nothing bad that can actually come out of life. It’s all good.