Designer Batsheva Hay isn’t your typical Upper West Side mom. Well actually, in a lot of ways, she is—she can often be found pushing a stroller through Zabar’s in Birkenstocks or strolling through Central Park, carrying a New Yorker canvas tote. In fact, she thrives on the energy and stereotypes of the “crazy, Upper West Side lady” personified by Elaine Benes and outfitted by vintage Laura Ashley and Betsey Johnson. But, with her ultra-cool line of dresses, Batsheva is doing something more with all of this, incorporating into her shtick intelligent and nuanced takes on Feminism and art history.
She mixes the quotidian with the sublime, posing in her elaborate ruffled dresses in exotic locales such as her neighborhood Mattress Firm and Staples stores. In the vein of Cindy Sherman and Judy Chicago before her, she plays the part of the deranged housewife, with a knowing, ironic twist. Her husband, well-known fashion photographer Alexei Hay, posts old-timey looking, black-and-white portraits of her on his Instagram, always with the hashtag, #MyHolyWife. Though this irony is integral to Batsheva’s branding and identity, the element of the holy is wholly genuine. Her Jewish faith provides both endless creative inspiration for her design work and direction for how she chooses to construct her family’s lifestyle—with ritual and meaning in the foreground.
On a rainy October morning, we visited her at the studio she shares with her husband and mother-in-law. We were all instantly charmed by her sweetness and enraptured by the quirky world she’s created. Simply put, I think she’s the coolest. And I can only aspire to be like her—an authentic creative, a generous mother, and a radical Feminist, with a strict commitment to be nothing except unabashedly herself—when I grow up.
Describe your style in three words.
That’s hard because I define it in terms of dualities. Like naïve, but old-fashioned. And adventurous. You have to have a bit of guts to wear it!
What’s most important when it comes to your style: comfort, beauty, or innovation?
I think beauty, but definitely comfortable beauty. I’d never wear something at the expense of feeling uncomfortable. But sometimes when you wear something that is really beautiful, that is really blowing your mind, it makes you feel comfortable even if it isn’t necessarily a “comfortable” piece.
What’s the most valued thing in your closet?
Sneakers. Well, I guess sneakers are the most used. But, the most valued has to be my mom’s old clothing.
You wore your mother’s wedding dress to your wedding. And you make matching dresses of your designs for your daughter. There is such an element of heirloom inherent to the work that you do. In my experience of both womanhood and Judaism, the passing down of things—clothing, recipes, traditions, etc.—feels specifically important. Is the act of passing down, and the ways in which that fits into your own practice, something you’re thinking about during the design process?
Definitely. I think I’ve always had this idea that if it’s still around, it must be for a reason, it must be good. We throw away so much junk—it doesn’t last because it’s just not that great. There is a test that happens when you save something, keep using it, and pass it down. It adds value and meaning. I base what I design off the things that I’ve saved, that my mother saved, that my grandmother saved. And it really is the same with recipes too, though I’ve never thought to explicitly connect the two before. I use this recipe that was my husband’s grandmother’s. And it just happens to still be the best recipe, it lasted the test of time.
Your brand has such a singular and recognizable silhouette. Is that something you’re interested in expanding upon or are you more interested in honing, perfecting, and playing with pattern and mood within that shape?
Thank you! There’s definitely a silhouette that feels like my uniform. I do like the idea of having a uniform—and I keep trying it in different fabrics each season, iterations of that first dress I ever made. But also, every time I try something different I reach new people, which is cool. Because the fabrics that I use are so unique (they’re really meant for quilting), I can do so many different things. I could totally just make a pair of shorts in that fabric! But, I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to because it would have to be a pair of shorts that makes sense for me. I think there is a lot of room to play with different pieces and silhouettes while using the fabrics that I love. In the same way, I can also use the silhouettes that I already have with different fabrics!
What is your process like for sourcing fabric?
It’s changing now. But when I started, it was literally eBay. I went to a pattern maker and got some patterns made. At night, I would go online, when my kids were asleep, and start searching through eBay for cool fabrics with small yardages. I’m still looking for one-of-a-kind fabrics on eBay and in flea markets. But then, I moved to quilting fabrics because that felt like the logical extension to me. All the vintage dresses that I had used those Calico quilting fabrics. And now, I’m trying to make a few of my own—I’d like to be able to play with the prints some more, so I’m designing my own.
Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” are an inspiration of yours. She casts herself in that work and you also cast yourself in your latest look-book. You both play with themes of female archetypes—the career girl, the housewife, etc. I wonder if your designs and the branding that you’ve created feel like a continuation of Sherman’s project, from a different angle? How do you view Sherman’s influence and what comment on contemporary womanhood do you want to make?
Growing up, my mom was just the coolest. She was an artist and she took me to MoMA for that “Film Stills” show. It must’ve been the 1990’s when MoMA first acquired it. I remember thinking it was so cool because it felt so authentic and I’d never seen something in a museum that I could personally relate to, that I could really get, and that I felt like I could do. And it felt so punk and Feminist and cool. I’ve always really admired that.
I started using myself in the photos mostly out of necessity because I didn’t have access to models and my husband is a photographer, so he would just photograph me. But, Sherman really was always in mind, especially the idea of the housewife that she played with. And I use other references too. Like this piece that I’m doing right now is inspired by Judy Chicago, another Feminist artist who plays with these ideas of the housewife at home in her work “The Dinner Party.” I think that is part of the irony in my clothes as well. I try to infuse the clothes with that Feminist spirit, from the works of those artists.
You’re surrounded by art and artists—with your husband and your mother-in-law. Does sharing this studio with them feel like a collaborative artistic endeavor? Do you work off of each other’s inspirations? And does involving your children in the arts feel important?
I haven’t really thought, specifically, about exposing our kids to art because it’s just around so much that I think they really get it. My mother-in-law (painter, Claudia Aronow) was using this studio first, it was totally her space. Then we invaded, but it was bit by bit. It started with my husband and his photography stuff. And actually now his mother does photography too. But at the time I was still a lawyer. Now, we all use the space, collaboratively and in parallel. It’s only some of the time that we are actually shooting together. Most of the time, I’m at a desk over here and he’s at a desk over there. We have to coordinate because sometimes it gets chaotic, it’ll be like, ‘I have a meeting here,’ ‘No, I have a meeting here!’ But, it’s nice to always have each other popping in and out. And my mother-in-law is always changing the paintings in here—it’s so nice! And I think a lot of creative people experience a loneliness when they’re doing their work. So, its great to have loved ones and unexpected guests working in parallel.
It sounds like metamorphosis and transformation have been important touchstones throughout your life. Do you feel that, as a designer and a creative, you thrive on change—do you anticipate further transformations? Or, do you feel like you’re settling into this current iteration of selfhood, career, and style?
I don’t think I ever thought of myself as a creative, exactly. But, I do think that I am a person who needs and desires change. And I felt like that wasn’t really fitting with who I was becoming (when I was working as a lawyer), especially when I decided I wanted to have kids and wanted to see them in the evenings. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of “the daily grind.” That was one major thing I did not like about working at a big, corporate law firm. It’s like, ‘Ok, let’s have the same lunch again,’ that whole thing. As for now, I’m sure things will change, even with this. Even if it’s just like me making a line of dolls, or making sheets for home, or whatever it may be. I don’t know what it will be yet and I think I’m good with that. There is an element of going with wherever things take me…
This was an accidental business! When I quit law, I purposefully tried so many different things. I wanted to write, I wanted to make things. It was such a nice surprise to fall into something I really enjoy. Because I don’t think I would have had the audacity to say, ‘I want to be a designer.’ Because who am I, ya know? But, once I started making things, it felt like actual fun and I tapped into making this crazy dress! Going into it, if I had the mindset that I was going to be “starting a brand,” this wouldn’t have been the strategy I would’ve used. But, I just made something for myself that was exactly what I wanted and that was much more of a fruitful experience than actually trying to plan a career. Allowing yourself to do little creative experiments in life is so important! Just try things!
Does keeping Shabbat contribute to rejuvenating your creative energy? How does your relationship with your creative work benefit from taking that time each week?
I started doing it 6 years ago, when I met my husband. It was so challenging at first, but I’m much more used to it now. As its coming I’m always scrambling to finish everything. But every time, I really come out of it motivated and ready to do different things. I definitely get a lot out of that.
This year was especially crazy because the Jewish holidays were in the middle of New York Fashion Week! My presentation was literally the day after Rosh Hashanah—which was 48 hours where I didn’t use my phone or email. And I totally stuck to it! It was 8pm when we finished, my presentation was the next day, and I had a bazillion things to do. Everyone was kind of mad at me, but they were also just like, ‘Whatever, what can we do about it!’ My stylist flew in from London and she was like, ‘Ok, so we can spend the whole day before styling it out.’ And I was like, ‘Actually, no. But, I can meet you at the Bowery Hotel at 9pm and we can figure it out!’ That’s just what it was. It was definitely particularly bad timing, but it was also amazing. I know I would have spent those 49 hours stressing over such minutia. And I didn’t hear about the hair stylist asking thirteen questions. I mean, other people had to deal with it. And there were definitely a bunch of people like, ‘What did she say about this?? I don’t know!’ In that sense, it was very indulgent. But, it was good and I got out of it so completely ready to do everything and be present.
And the truth is, I would not spend as much time with my kids if I didn’t have Shabbat. If I had my phone with me at all times and if I could go do whatever I wanted, when I wanted—it’s hard to choose to literally sit around with your kids, cooking and doing nothing except spending time together. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it the two days before the most important day of your season, but once a week is so perfect. It’s just one day, 24 hours—you sleep late, have lunch, hang out, and you’re done.
It’s so amazing how you stayed true to yourself and created this thing that is completely your own style, but also that everyone loved and wanted!
Well, they didn’t at first! It’s interesting because I’ll get really big, positive reactions when I walk around, I get stopped on the street. Whenever my friends wear my clothes, they tell me, that they get asked about it. But for a while, I wasn’t getting acceptance in the fashion world. It seemed like complete rejection by fashion at first. I tried and tried because I just believed in it so much. The crazy thing is, I’m not that confident of a person. But with this, I was unbelievably confident because I made something that I couldn’t find and that I loved. I was just going to keep wearing it. People were like, ‘What, what, what??’ Until…all of a sudden, they were like, ‘Now we want to write about it, now we care about it.’ I think I just kept with it. I had a few lucky breaks that helped (Natalie Portman wore a dress!) and it just became a snowball effect, it really started being embraced.
Photos Bogdana Ferguson