by Doniphan Blair

Textiles have played various roles in many cultures, as both the sensual and sacred carriers of story and history on top of providing comfort and warmth.  A noble bearer of this standard, Babette Pinsky’s garments are formed, folded and pleated into elegant and casual untailored designs that appeal to the professional and individualist alike.

Babette began her design career at an early age, eyeing her mother’s designs and then doing some herself. After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, her global career was launched when she joined a Danish company designing raincoats which became her signature garment.  Her unique raincoats sold at Henri Bendel in New York.

Returning from Europe in 1963, she moved to San Francisco where she designed for other companies before opening her own business in Sausalito in 1968.  She made sportswear and dresses targeting women who shopped at high concept design retailers like the original Crate and Barrel and Design Research.

For the last 11 years, Babette SF, as the company is now called, has been headquartered in West Oakland where she and co-designer Josephine Tchang work alongside husband Steven Pinsky, operations manager and about 60 employees.

From Levis to Banana Republic and the Gap, the Bay Area was a fashion-center when Babette arrived. While the Gap has relocated the bulk of its design work to New York and other major companies moved their manufacturing overseas, the Bay Area remains a center of innovative clothing design and production with dozens of young designers setting up shop in recent years both in San Francisco and Oakland and list continuing to grow.

Babette uses many jacquard and printed fabrics from France, Spain and Italy, along with Japanese micro fibers used in the pleating process. The woven “jacquard” continues a tradition based on looms invented in 1801, which used thread guides and punch cards mimicking early computing technology.

“The tsumani [of February 2010] destroyed two of our supplier mills but supply is stable,” Steven explained when queried on the nature of these companies and whether such sources are vulnerable to global price fluctuations and disappearance.

Japan remains Babette’s primary source for the textiles the company uses but the industry is shrinking both there and in Europe, making it increasingly difficult to source the special fabrics for which she is justly famous. As far as American suppliers, the company only uses one for some of its raincoats.

When asked about their vulnerability to material cost and freight increases, Steven replied that they count on the strength of their brand retailed directly through their own stores, of which they have eight—Santa Monica, San Francisco, Portland, Scottsdale, Santa Fe, Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York.

When asked whether they are tempted to off-shore their production, leaving just design in the Bay Area, the Pinskys replied that the subtle correction, adjustment and styling of initial samples that is required before embarking on a production run are much easier to perform and quality-control at their home headquarters.

Since Babette SF uses a few local sewing shops, and receives air freight shipments to their warehouse every other day or so, their West Oakland location serves them well.  Moreover, it is conveniently located near transit for the over 60 employees who also benefit from quality working conditions and wages with benefits.

The Pinskys visit Paris twice a year for the international textile scene’s main trade show and they produce garments for five seasons a year: spring, summer, fall, winter, and the so-called fall “shoulder” season. Their brand can be seen advertised 20 Saturdays a year in the New York Times Fashion specials.

The Pinskys find themselves in a rare category, enjoying the satisfaction of seeing their products made within the scrutiny of their gaze, while being able to sell some of their stock at their own profit margins, a satisfaction determined by Babette’s 40 years in design and her husband Steve’s dedicated management.

Read more from the original publishers, West Oakland Works.