Batsheva Hay just wanted to refresh her wardrobe.
A few years ago, the New York lawyer visited a dressmaker to commission a new dress – a birthday present to herself – based on her favorite vintage clothing. She fell in love with the process, and ended up establishing her own design label, presenting at New York Fashion Week and now outfits celebrities from Natalie Portman to Busy Philipps, Aidy Bryant and Brie Larson.
In early 2016, Hay was raising two young children, blase about her future as a lawyer and looking for something else to excite her.
“I was just dreading the idea of – when my kids got a little bit older – going back to a law firm,” she said in a recent interview withThe Jerusalem Post. “I was lost about what I was doing… feeling very insecure and unsure of what to do.”
At the same time, she said, she was enjoying getting out of her lawyer clothing and back to the styles she loved – vintage, feminine and quirky dresses.
“One thing I really hated when I was a lawyer was the clothing I was sort of required to wear, and what people wore,” she said. “They were sort of depressing.” Out of the office, she slipped back into her old vintage clothing, in particular a beloved Laura Ashley dress “that I was wearing almost every day.”
So she decided to treat herself and get a new dress – or a few – made in that style, with a high neck, puffy sleeves, ruffles and a busy print. One dress turned into a few, which turned into an Instagram account, a website, and eventually much more.
“I fell in love with finding fabrics for new versions, and then I wanted to make another dress, and my daughter wanted a matching one,” Hay said, “and then just really slowly, over a year, it grew into a business.”
When Hay, who grew up in a secular Jewish home, married her husband, fashion photographer Alexei Hay, the pair were beginning a journey of religious practice. Today they keep an observant home, and while Hay says she was long drawn to more modest silhouettes, the look fit right in with her newfound lifestyle.
“I was often dressing in these vintage dresses that were appropriate for a Shabbat dinner at the rabbi’s house,” Hay said. “It made me feel a little bit cool – I would show up to these very traditional settings and wear something kind of quirky and interesting.”
FROM HER modest beginnings, Hay’s designs, under the label Batsheva, have become a hot ticket item among celebrities, including Celine Dion, Lena Dunham, Courtney Love and more.
“The first celebrity I had, I think, was Natalie Portman. Kate Young, the stylist, put her in one of my tops,” Hay said. Since that moment last summer, celebrity stylists began to pick up on her designs and regularly request garments. But Hay said she has also reached Hollywood superstars just through the power of Instagram – like Captain Marvel star Brie Larson, who recently donned a Batsheva design. Last month, Saturday Night Live and Shrill star Aidy Bryant wore a Batsheva dress on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, and Busy Philipps has worn her designs to host her talk show, Busy Tonight.
The dresses on the Batsheva site currently only reach a size 12, but she said she’s planning to expand up to a size 20 in the coming days.
While the majority of Hay’s designs follow the Jewish customs of modesty for women, she said her looks are far from the norm in the Orthodox community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she lives.
“As much as it does fit the mold of Orthodox dressing, it’s not the way that Orthodox people dress today,” she said. “It’s old and it’s weird and kind of a vintage version of that… I felt like I was battling between two worlds.”
If anything, she said her style was more influenced by her hippie mother, who met her father on a kibbutz in Israel.
“Even before the religious stuff, I just never really liked showing a lot of skin because it just felt very objectifying,” Hay said. “I think a lot of women lately are thinking: ‘I don’t want to wear something so tight that it’s just for men to think that I’m hot, I’d rather wear something that I think is fun and weird and quirky.’”
As her brand took off, Hay had to reconcile her observant lifestyle with the fast-paced fashion world. That was a particular struggle in September, during New York Fashion Week.
“There was basically one slot I could take that wasn’t on Rosh Hashanah or Shabbat,” she said. “And then the two days before my fashion show were Rosh Hashanah, so I didn’t use my phone for anything.”
But several years into becoming observant, Hay said she finds the Jewish practices grounding, not restricting.
“I think when I started keeping all these holidays and Shabbat, I was much more insecure about it,” she said. “I was worried I’m missing something and it’s going to hurt my business… but to be honest, right now if it doesn’t work for them, screw them.
“The things that were really hard for me in the beginning, like keeping Shabbat – now I actually look forward to it,” she added. “I have a day to be with my family.”