When people kept stopping Batsheva Hay on the streets of New York City to ask about her outfit, she knew she had a winner. New Yorkers, apparently, can overcome their notorious dislike of small talk with strangers in the pursuit of a good dress. Such pursuit was what put Hay, a former lawyer, on the fashion map. Back in 2016, unable to find a dress she liked, Hay started making her own dresses out of an old Laura Ashley piece. Fast forward a few years, and her romantic prairie dresses have become lightning rods in the fashion world and beyond. Described as refreshing by some and repressive by others, everyone has a (strong) opinion. The conversation about the role of fashion and female empowerment was reignited along with what a dress should and shouldn’t stand for.
What inspired you to create dresses?
I wanted to create dresses for my own wardrobe based on my own sense of style and the way that I wanted to dress. I’m a huge vintage lover, a dress lover, really, and a print and fabric lover. I had so many ideas about what I wanted to wear and I couldn’t find it in stores. So I worked from my favorite vintage pieces, my favorite fashion memories, which included Laura Ashley and all sorts of taffeta dresses I wore as a flower girl from my childhood. I started to work on designing just a few pieces for me and my daughter, and then I loved wearing them so much and was getting so much feedback—people stopping me on the street, people writing to me on Instagram, wanting to order them, and eventually, buyers writing to me to place orders for their stores—so that’s how it became a business.
"If you’re doing something creative, it shouldn’t be for everyone and not everyone should like it—I think that’s a healthy thing. If everyone’s satisfied, you’re not really doing very much."
Tell us about the vintage line you carry. How do you source your vintage fabrics? What are the challenges and rewards of working with vintage?
When I started, it was just out of naivete that I didn’t understand how to talk to fabric wholesalers—but I knew that I could search online on eBay and find really amazing, old Laura Ashley curtains that I could use for my dresses.
So, I just searched online at night when my kids were asleep and found all these fabrics that would come to my home, and then I would go take them to my seamstress—and I continue to do that today, just because I find the fabrics that are available that are old (in small quantities, obviously) are so incredible and so hard to find today in terms of their quality, in terms of just the amazing design.
A lot of it I find online. At this point, I know lots of vendors of vintage fabrics, I work with them, and use the quantities I have—that’s the fun of me pairing the fabric with what I want it to be. Sometimes, I’m going to use a certain fabric that I have one yard of and just use it for these fabulous sleeves for the dress.
How do you see fashion shifting in a post-pandemic world?
Well, everyone was wearing sweatpants all of a sudden. They went from getting all dressed up to just wearing sweatpants—and I hate sweatpants—I just cannot wear that at all, so I had to find a way for me to feel good and for me to feel like myself. I was like, there has to be a dress that I can wear at home, and I started looking into the history of house dresses—and part of the house dress history happened during the Spanish Flu in 1918, because people were coming in from the outside and they felt that they needed to change their clothes to get the germs off. They would leave their outside clothes on a hanger near the door, and then they would put on their house dress.
You have mentioned extracting strong aspects of historical looks while rejecting antiquated notions of womanhood—can you elaborate on that idea and what, in your opinion, it means to be a woman and a creator in today’s world?
Being a woman, being a mother, I often feel clothing I see in the stores is not made for me and it’s often in this very male-driven world. There aren’t that many female designers out there, but I think I want to tap into something I intrinsically, intuitively want to wear, and there’s something about dresses that just resonates, and making them practical, like making them comfortable, making so many cotton options with pockets that are versatile with fabrics that are comfortable, the idea of wearing something that feels elevated and beautiful but also feels good. I think that that’s something that a woman really understands when she’s dressing another woman. When I wear my dresses, I get stopped a lot on the street, and it’s always a woman, and they’re like “I love that dress,” and there’s something about women, they’re like, “I love dressing that way,” you know? But we’re in a man’s world and men can’t always see that, that we love dressing this way, that we love these floral patterns or these puffy sleeves and all of that.
Your dresses have been hailed as subversive by some and accused of signifying “something darker” by others. Did you anticipate your work would elicit such strong reactions?
I used to be a lawyer—I wasn’t the most confident lawyer, I always say, I always felt insecure that I wasn’t good enough—but with my fashion choices and my style choices, I feel very self-assured. When I started, people had strong reactions, and a lot of people didn’t like it, and a lot of people thought it was regressive, but it didn’t faze me at all. I always see in the positive, and also, I just didn’t really care. I was like, you know what? It’s not for everyone. If you’re doing something creative, it shouldn’t be for everyone and not everyone should like it—I think that’s a healthy thing. If everyone’s satisfied, you’re not really doing very much.
It felt like the fashion for so long was to show more and more and get smaller and smaller skirts and dresses. And then the backlash to this was something that women were actually looking for—do you think that’s why your line and aesthetic were so fully embraced?
I think so. I think people were put off by everything that was so body-hugging—which I’m all for, but I just don’t want to wear something that I can’t feel comfortable eating in, sitting in. There’s a duality to my dresses—there’s something very conservative but there’s also something very tough. I think when you wear them—I would always feel very cool. I felt very protected in a confident way. It made me feel very vulnerable, also, about feeling so pressured to have your body a certain way and have your body on display constantly. Our clothing is a costume that we put on, like it is a skin that we wear over our bodies to present ourselves, so why not have a little fun with it? I think that was it, too. Clothing is supposed to be fun—it’s not serious. Let’s be adventurous about it. Like, why can’t you try this on? How does it make you feel? Why not try on another costume?
Are you a collector? If so, what do you collect?
I’m a huge collector of vintage clothing, obviously. I love vintage jewelry—I have a big collection of clip-on earrings because my ears aren’t pierced. So that was part of my Sotheby’s buy—all the clip-on earrings—because it used to be that women would wear clip-on earrings so much, and I can only find vintage ones, so that’s one of my big collections. I love bags, I love shoes, I love old books.
What attracts you to an object?
I love color and I love print. Sometimes it’s just a color story—there are some colors that I’m so attracted to. I love lavender—I know it’s not a popular color, but if I see something that’s lavender, I just want it. It reminds me of my childhood. So, color, print and shape—I love a fun shaped bag or a fun shaped shoulder. I’m always looking for something kind of different that I haven’t seen before.
Please tell us about “the one that got away,” i.e., one thing you didn’t buy at the time and regretted?
Even just last week, I saw this vendor who had this whole street setup, like vintage clothes and belts. I actually got from him a vintage Lanvin. He didn’t know anything that he had—he had treasures—but I only got the Lanvin. And he wanted $20 for it, so I got that one. Anyway, he had a ton of Puccis. Like a beautiful old Pucci dress—he must have found some woman’s estate stuff—but I didn’t get the Pucci because I’m not a Pucci woman, but I really should have. It was all so amazing. That’s the thing about anything that’s old—it’s your only chance, and so you can’t miss your chance. I have stories like that all the time now.
What is your most prized possession?
I would say some of the jewelry pieces that I have that have been handed down from family. I have a beautiful art deco set, like a necklace and bracelet and earrings, from my mother-in-law that’s really special. It’s got rubies and diamonds and gold, and it’s so beautiful. It’s my favorite.
When shopping for handbags, what are the factors that come into play for you?
I always collect Chanel bags. I can never say no to a Chanel bag. I also love fabric bags—that’s one thing I like about Chanel, like this denim one. I love anything in denim, I love anything in velvet. So, I always love a bag that works with the clothes. I love softness. Any fun details—I just love something fun, like with a cool clasp or an interesting color or a pattern. I love a fun backpack—like a Chanel backpack or something I think is really fun.
What do you think is a great gift for a hostess?
An amazing bottle of something is always nice for a hostess. But something beautiful for the home is also nice, to send some china or a beautiful vase. But I usually like to bring the nicest bottle of something I can find.
Is there anything you’re looking for as a gift this season?
I always love a piece of jewelry. I love a gem, like an opal—once I saw those clips, I was like, I need some more opal. I have one opal ring, but I would love something like that. Now that I got that mind-set, I have to start my opal collection.
What are your wardrobe plans for the holidays?
I’m constantly making new things for my label, but velvet is my favorite, so I’m definitely going to be wearing a lot of velvet and making a lot of velvet, and I’m finding all sorts of new velvet but, yes, I’ll probably be draping myself in velvet.