June 2008, Interview with Yoana Baraschi

 70's abstract rose kimono from Yoana Baraschi's fall line

Nora Whelan Interviews Yoana Baraschi

Before contacting former Betsey Johnson creative director and current head of her self-named line Yoana Baraschi, I read some other interviews with her. A few of them started out like this: "Yoana Baraschi is the type of woman you envy. Statuesque, intelligent and dynamic..." An accompanying photograph showed a Daryl Hannah dead-ringer, and I might have panicked a little. Hypothetically speaking. How was I going to speak to this successful, gorgeous creature?! I'm 5'3" with unruly thighs and hair that I always forget to cut until I catch a glimpse in a subway car window and realize it seems to be eating my head. And then, I got an return email straight from the source: Yoanna Baraschi, tan, blonde and who has shown in Paris, responded to my feeble message requesting an interview. So I called her studio, spoke directly with her and made a plan to meet up on the coming Wednesday. This is how it went.

Nora Whelan: So a little bit about your background... You've been in the business about 20 years?

Yoana Baraschi:

NW: And you've had your own line for...

YB: Over 5 years now.

NW: And before this, you were the creative director at Betsey Johnson. How long were you there for?

YB: A couple of years.

NW: What were your responsibilities there vs. here?

YB: My responsibilities there were basically design direction, leading a design team, and just coming up with some of the, you know, product for the line. Here it's... well, first of all, I pretty much design the whole thing, I don't have an extensive design team—there's 4 of us altogether in design- and then I run the business as well.

NW: Over there, were you really directly involved in every piece like you are here?

YB: Kind of, yeah.

NW: Did you come up with more of the general feeling for the season?

YB: I was involved in, I'd say in 98 percent- (laughs)

NW: Okay, that's a good percentage, sure!

YB: —of everything, yeah! I'm a hands-on person, so...

NW: Do you see a lot of people who don't even know they're wearing your pieces when they're wearing Betsey Johnson on the street?

YB: Yeah, you know... it was Betsey's line, I was just working there.

NW: I know you're very influenced by vintage. Do you remember how you got into it? Was it one specific person or event, or did you just start noticing that you liked these old things?

YB: It was just my love for textiles, and mostly for embroideries, and for handmade things. It was probably 20 years back, the first vintage show in Manhattan, and, at that time, it was a textile show, and that was a glorious event for me (laughs). Kind of a candy store of amazing handmade things! I'm very, very fascinated by things that are made by hand because I think there's a certain energy that goes into it. You know, basically, a good or bad sort: who works on them, their aspirations, the mood of the place... it's very different from mechanical work.

Are you a big collector outside of what you put into your line?

YB: Yes, yes—but they all end up, if I collect them, at some point they end up in the line.

NW: Do you find that maybe there's an era- if you're looking for a piece of clothing rather than an embroidered handkerchief—is there a style or designer you find yourself going for?

YB: No, I mean, there are so many different things... they all change with what is the inspiration of the season, and that's not something that's thought out, it's something that kind of comes naturally. I would say it's in the air and one taps into it, so one season I'll be attracted to one thing, another season it can be a Mexican embroidery, it can be a 40's piece, it's just completely all over the place. I consider it my duty to expose myself visually to a lot of elements—as long as I do that, I just have to trust that everything will be fine and come together.

NW: I've noticed that your line goes in different directions... I originally found it and loved it for the kind of flouncy, romantic minidresses you were doing, but, looking at some of your other collections, which are more graphic black and white, harder shapes... it's obvious that you pull from a lot of different places. Do you ever venture outside of New York City to collect?

YB: Yeah! I have a country house upstate, so I end up looking at little antique stores in the area, and I love vintage shopping in Paris, too.

NW: I'm sure I would love that as well! Do you go to the little flea markets there?

YB: Yeah!

NW: What and where are your favorite places and things to do in New York City, if you ever get the time?

YB: (Laughs) If I can ever get out of here! There's a couple of restaurants I like to go to with my girlfriends, and I like to go to the flower markets in the Flower District. I love plants and I love gardening, and I like to do my sort of sanity trips (laughs) to Barney's or a couple of good stores!

NW: How long have you been in New York City?

YB: I've been in New York, I think, 20 years.

NW: Do you ever go to art openings? Are you influenced by that kind of stuff?

YB: I do—I also live in a neighborhood where it's hard to not go! Last week I went to an opening for a very dear friend of mine who's an Indian artist, who does these Bollywood posters and Indian gods, and he used to be in the fashion world, so we have the same kind of sense—things like that, that are good energy and no skulls, please (laughs)!

NW: What about things like a person's attitude, or a change in nature—that kind of stuff inspire you? Do you have a muse?

YB: and kind of your letting your inner grace come through, and then a lot of inner beauty comes through, and what I like to do is, you notice my clothes go in many directions; one general motif that's in all of them A muse, to me, is anybody who, at that moment, I can perceive as a confident female—I think that's most important—I am so trying to make women beautiful and not defined by age. Women are defined by age today in society and it's really an insult, with how hard we all work, and looking after everybody else—so really the core of what I do is to capture the beauty and allow a woman to be confident and make sure that she looks the best that she can look: be incredibly sexy without being trashy—being sexy and classy at the same time is really nice, you know?

And then I asked about the other pieces I'd read on her:

NW: A couple of the interviews I read with you started by saying, "Yoana is this statuesque beauty, oh, Yoana is the kind of woman you should envy!" Does that bother you? Do you want them to just recognize your talent?

YB: I'm a Gemini, so I can be a lot of things—and also, in Chinese signs I'm a monkey, so I can be anything—so I can have moments when I can be this statuesque whatever-they-want-me-to-be (laughs), and, especially when I have the trunk shows, I like to try my own clothes on and show people, and even when I have models in the booths, customers like to see the clothes on me, because I kind of play it out at the same time—

NW: You know how to carry them.

Yeah, you know, it doesn't stop with just designing things—this is my entire life in here. So I play it out, and act it out, and I'm the woman that the clothes need to be for, and I never take it very seriously.

NW: What would you say- I was thinking about this quote- when Christian Dior put out his New Look Collection in 1947, Coco Chanel referred to his pieces as "boned horrors"- she didn't think a woman had to be sucked in and cinched up to be gorgeous- she thought she could just let it go. It sounds like you might be on Chanel's side with that, but I'd like to hear what you think about more of a structured silhouette.

YB: I do think that structure has it's place, except that a very structured look is not the look of today. To me, chic, today, is a freer form of expression. Nobody—even if you're talking about "the return of the suit"—very few people wear a structured suit from morning to night—so structure has it's place when it comes to giving the right posture in a jacket, or where the waist is placed, I'm all for structure—but not as a head-to-toe statement.

NW: Are there any designers you've met who have influenced you so much you've been a little star struck?

YB: You know, again, season by season and connection by connection... of course, at the moment, I think the world of Lanvin, and I'm really happy that the designer, Alber Elbaz, got a chance to actually do this collection because he went through so many incarnations in different houses where he wasn't given the chance, and look what happened when he got his freedom! He's elegant, he's very, very of the moment, and he inspires me—you know, he kind of masters where he's at so he doesn't need to overstate one season—it's just a good place, where his work comes from, and he's very influential, not reinventing the wheel every season because, you know, you don't need to try that hard! I like very much what someone like him does, or Dries van Noten, it's an evolution, it's always them, you can feel underneath they stay true to it.

That's something that I like about vintage—that we're not being forced to do something new every season—you can kind of feel your way around it. I mean, believe me, if I could afford designers all the time, that would be one thing—I would be switching it up! But I think vintage kind of allows a woman to make her own decision.

YB: Sure!

Is there anyone who you think you might like to collaborate with in the future?

YB: Hmmm... you know, I haven't really thought of it, but yes, yes, yes (laughs)! I don't have any particular person in mind, but when that moment comes, and when- you know, somebody who makes a living out of their talent, I think, always yearns for kinship, and for finding people, artists, who feel the same way, and to work together—at least that's how I feel. It's one of my dreams to find people that will work either for my collection or that will collaborate as artists, and that have that creative gift and can bring something as good as what I can come up with!

And, lastly, actually... are there any big events coming up soon? Shows, maybe a new retailer who wasn't carrying your line before, expanding your line, sample sales, anything like that?

This season we've been picked up by Neiman Marcus, and by Bloomingdales Special Occasions—on the dressy floor! And I like that very much because I'm considering an evening cocktail line that's even more glamorous than what we do here (laughs)! And also—I think it's long overdue—I'll be applying for the CFDA, so there are plans!

NW: So is there anything else you wanted to say?

YB: No—just that you are so sweet and such a pleasure to talk to—

NW: Aw! Oh, thank you, are you kidding me?! A designer emailed me back rather than saying, "You have to go through my PR person—"

YB: "Let your people talk to my people."


You saw the [American Express] ad? Isn't that funny?

It's ridiculous!

YB: We have to do that sometimes! Even, I have a very close friend who's in the industry, and if we're gonna have dinners, it gets ridiculous! I mean, she's been my friend since we were 16, it's just—

Your schedules are so hectic?

YB: It's just, it's not our schedules—it's just the mode of communication in this industry, that her people will talk to my people (laughs) for us to have dinner like we're gonna have tonight, and it's just so funny!

NW: Alright, well, thank you very much—

YB: You're very welcome!

It's really been all sorts of fun, and it's lovely to be here! It's very cool, very cool.

You know, Yoanna Baraschi is gorgeous, talented and accomplished. She is well-spoken with great cheekbones and an obvious strong sense of self that does, in fact, make her a "dynamic" personality, all hands flying, hair bouncing and the ability to keep one smiling constantly throughout a conversation. I'm just not sure why no one mentioned explicitly what a humble, lovely soul she is. As my dad always says, those who are best at what they do feel secure in helping those below them. And that's exactly what Yoana did for me and my first article at Whitehot.

Nora Whelan

Nora Whelan is a writer and wardrobe stylist in New York.

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