Even before Batsheva Hay had her own brand, people would see a dress of hers in the street and say “that’s a Batsheva dress,” she recalls. Hay’s young, distinctive brand is a bit of Amish, a touch of Hasidic, and a lot of “Little House on the Prairie,” “Anne of Green Gables,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” All of it is infused with the spirit of the Laura Ashley brand that reflects simplicity and nostalgia for other times, when it was possible to set up a cult quietly, for example.
Since launching her brand three seasons ago, Hay, 37, a former attorney, has been receiving constant hype and attracting important customers like actress-model Chloe Sevigny and actress-producer Jessica Chastain. She displayed her current collection at the most recent New York Fashion Week, with a presentation held in a restaurant (she invited people for cocktails – and hung the dresses on hangers). The presentation garnered enthusiastic critiques in Vogue and WWD (Women’s Wear Daily), which singled her out as an interesting designer worth watching.
She says that her success came by chance. She began by selling dresses to friends at cost price, and they would wear them to events and attract much attention thanks to their outfits. Although her designs are modest they are hard to ignore, because they are very colorful, with ruffles and shirring, high collars and puffy sleeves.
Hay was born in Queens, New York. Her mother is an American artist and her father is an Israeli who graduated from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. They met at the discotheque on Kibbutz Yagur in the 1970s and left for New York together. She grew up in a secular household. About five years ago she became religious because of her husband, fashion photographer Alexei Hay, who is also responsible for shooting her collections. She and her eldest daughter, Ruth, star in some of them.
Her preoccupation with fashion began when her mother’s vintage clothing, which she used to wear, became too old and threadbare to mend. Instead, she bought fabric and asked a seamstress to recreate one of the dresses. That only whet her appetite, and Hay began altering and updating the designs – removing pockets, adding collars and so on. She enjoyed herself so much that she decided to stop copying, and started selling the designs she created. Even today, she says, she designs dresses as though she were planning to wear them. Or, as she puts it, my dream wardrobe.
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A large part of her inspiration, she says, comes from her family in Israel, who live in Pardes Hannah. Everyone on her father’s side was always very interested in DIY. Her grandmother in Israel used to sew clothing and send it to the family in Queens, while her Aunt Ilana would sew dolls and dress them in miniature clothes. The clothes that she makes today are of the same type and made from the same fabrics as the creations of her grandmother and her aunt. Or as she sees it: “In a sense I dress human-sized dolls.” At her daughter’s request, she creates all the dresses in smaller versions for girls too.
Her main clients are young women from downtown Manhattan or Brooklyn, who wear the dresses with boots or sports shoes. She actually hasn’t been very successful yet at making inroads in the Jewish community in New York. “It’s not the style worn by women in the synagogue. They dress much more conservatively — they like Victoria Beckham,” she says. “Although my designs meet all the dress codes, they’re too eccentric for them.”
Although her dresses are certainly not for everyone, Hay would like to dress as many women as possible in her clothes. She stresses that the clothes are comfortable as well. “Every woman wants a dress with pockets,” she says. She claims that what looks a bit adventurous turns out to be comfortable and flattering. Her master plan is to get women to try a style that’s a little different from what they’re used to finding in the stores.
Hay’s dresses are sold on her website, at Opening Ceremony stores and in several boutiques in Japan. Starting in early May, they will also be available on the website www.matchesfashion.com as well.
She fantasizes about expanding to the field of accessories and shoes, and even designing houseware and quilts. People around her are surprised by her success, she says. Nobody thought it would get so far. “Everyone thought that I have a nice little hobby and that it would end up with a few sweet dresses.”