With a pair of hot-pink high-tops and platinum Cruella Deville highlights punctuating the fringe of her black hair, Barrie Kaufman stands out in a crowd. The bounce in her step is so pronounced that you can't help but wonder if it's her or her sneakers that are exuding so much positive energy. But after one conversation with the petite San Diego designer, it's clear she has plans. And not just any plans—Kaufman seems to dream in Technicolor hues.
Kaufman is the woman behind Fables by Barrie, which she describes as “fashion-forward-meets-past.” True to its name, Fables by Barrie tells a story—one of commitment to local production and craftsmanship, as well as the importance of making an impression. Kaufman's designs range from feminine day dresses and blouses to charming swimsuits. Her outfits are colorful and bold and speak to a love of the classics. Kaufman is careful, however, not to wave the vintage banner with too much zeal.
“Of course it's not vintage unless it's actually vintage,” she says with a grin, “This is vintage with style. The retro stuff is great, but not everyone wants to look like a '50s pin-up model. So I played with it and worked to make designs that were classy looking—not just the jean skirt and skinny top you see everyone running around in nowadays.”
Kaufman says she's always been a fan of vintage clothing and started off incorporating vintage items into her work.
“I used to do a lot of revamp vintage, recycled clothes and such,” she said, “but then stores wanted a more consistent product.”
Kaufman's own story begins in Iowa—“from a town of about 200—Kelley—it's small,” she says. “You Google Earth it and it's, like, corn and one phone booth. That's about it.”
She moved to L.A. shortly after college, not for fashion but to make movies, having just finished film school back home. To make ends meet, she took waitressing and bartending jobs and did a little sewing on the side. She moved to San Diego to do set costuming for telenovelas—Spanish-language soap operas, “where I was, like, tucking in bra straps and straightening collars,” she says.
Along the way, Kaufman's sewing was getting the attention of friends and co-workers. “I started sewing my own clothes when I was working in L.A. and, eventually, I started to get comments from people. It went from ‘Did you make it?' to ‘Where did you get this?'” she recalls.
Two years ago, she decided to shift her focus from movies to fashion and started Fables by Barrie (www.fablesbybarrie.com). Within six months, her designs were being featured in magazines and fashion shows. This past December, Fables by Barrie released its first mass-produced line. Up to that point, Kaufman had made each piece by hand.
The result is a 15-piece collection of whimsical, daring skirts, jumpers, tops and swimsuits ranging from $80 to $130 a piece, putting Fables by Barrie on the more affordable side of boutique designers. Kaufman insists that hers is a quality product—she's tired of the cheap fabrication so often found with new vintage-look clothing, she says. “That Urban Outfitters,” she laughs, shaking her fist, “really boils my potatoes.”
“I'm making clothes for girls who want stuff that fits well, who don't want their ass hanging out and who want stuff that's gonna last. I'm making clothes that don't just fall apart. A little class, a little quality.”
Kaufman is meticulous about the whole process—from design conception to finished product. Her clothes are made from sweatshop-free materials and produced locally—her first line is being manufactured in Chula Vista.
“I know I could just go over to Mexico and get it done for five times less,” she says, “but it's just not right to do that when there's people here that need business. It's good to keep things local.”
Kaufman's working on next season's collection, which she hopes will be larger than the spring/summer line.
“I'm looking forward to the future—soon enough, I'm gonna make it rain dollar bills, and there's gonna be people twirling umbrellas, and I'm tossing swimsuits into shopping bags, girls just catching everything in their shopping bags,” she laughs. “I'm optimistic.”