It’s only fitting that Batsheva Hay’s desk doubles as the play surface for her daughter’s dollhouse. After all, her designs draw heavily on memories of clothing worn in her youth. Her high-neck, ruffle-sleeve, floral-motif ensembles are often likened to Gunne Sax or Laura Ashley, but unlike those deeply earnest styles of the ’70s and early ’80s, “I mean these looks in the most ironic way possible,” says Hay.
A brief bit of history: In 2016, Hay was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, taking a breather after quitting her career as a litigation lawyer at a prominent New York firm. She was raising two kids and keeping a kosher house in abidance with her husband Alexei’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism. From this blend of motherhood, religion, and intellectual ingenuity arose Batsheva—a line of straight-from-the-costume-shop dresses and separates that feel whimsically nostalgic yet oddly current.
“I left my law career without any plan,” says Hay. “I never thought I wanted to present myself in an aesthetic way. I was focused on expressing myself with my words.” A self-described introvert with penchant for a good book, Hay always found an escape in playing dress up. “Ever since I was a little kid, I loved theater and the costumes that you got to wear,” she says. “I never felt totally at ease in the uniform I had to wear as a lawyer. I guess I’ve never fit easily into one particular box.”
It was an impromptu request of her tailor to recut Hay’s favorite vintage dress into a modern silhouette that changed everything. “One friend asked about it, then another, and suddenly I had people wanting me to make the same dress for them,” she says. “I was absolutely learning on the go—I had no idea about design, I just knew how I wanted it to fit my body.”
Three years later, Hay has mastered the art of fit and fabrication, referencing Victorian-era details and patterns circa Laura Ingalls Wilder in a completely original collection. “I love textiles,” says Hay. “When I was starting, I’d go on e-Bay and buy whatever fabrics I saw that caught my eye.” Her second bedroom/office/playroom spills over with swatches and spools of material in every corner and on every shelf. Hay is a fan of quilting fabric (“there’s something so ‘homemade’-feeling about it,” she says) and sources much of the cotton material from Turkey, where the quality is high and the price is reasonable. “I am definitely not a minimalist,” she laughs. “I go for pattern and color every time.”
In fact, the entire apartment is stuffed to the gills with sample materials for the collection. Open one walk-in closet and an entire wardrobe of dresses rushes out from the darkness: gold lame, red tiger print, black latex (“Björk is wearing that tonight!” she says). The juxtaposition of demure shapes and flashy fabrics is mildly unsettling and highly entertaining, and it has become the calling card of the brand.
Hay’s collections are robust—there are nearly 50 pieces for this season—and characterized by a defiantly unsexy notion of femininity. It’s a bit of a risk, but in a crowded category of clingy slip dresses and plunging necklines, Batsheva stands out with its quirky take on women’s style. Asked how she avoids the temptation to follow market trends, Hay acknowledges, “Basically, I design for myself. I am OK if no one else wants to wear it because at least I am being true to who I am.”
Of course, finding an audience has hardly been an issue. To the contrary, keeping up with demand has meant some long nights and fast turnarounds for Hay and her small three-person team. She uses a sample-maker in midtown to help expedite orders and sticks to a handful of core silhouettes that help ground each collection. Her photographer husband shoots her campaign and lookbook images, and her mother, also an artist, offers the occasional opinion on the designs.
Hay’s fabric-first approach sets her apart from the competition and ahead with her growing customer base, who have come to expect something more than the standard with each new collection. The enthusiasm of her audience has given Hay the conviction to explore new categories (knitwear!) for future seasons. Still, she’s in no hurry. “One of the best things I did was to not rush in and try to make a big splash with marketing,” says Hay. “Word of mouth has been the best thing that happened to Batsheva.”