Barbara Herrick from Babs Radon on how fashion has changed

Portrait of designer Barbara Herrick, 1960’s. Image supplied.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Barbara Herrick is an integral part of our NZ fashion history. She had a chic womenswear label called Babs Radon, which enjoyed much success through the 1960’s, when women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and needed to look good while doing it. Barbara is a lovely woman, who is still making clothes for herself and others, and still has a heart full of the fiery determination that all designers have for finding (or making) the right thing to wear.

Barbara shares with us some of her memories of fashion in NZ from her heyday, and thoughts that she has on today’s world of fashion.

Your label Babs Radon spent a lot of time in a workroom on Auckland’s Chancery St in the 1960’s, can you share what you remember the area to be like at the time?
Our workroom went into this little building in Chancery St (No.22), and it was lovely, we had a little restaurant below us. We had two floors; a machining floor and a cutting floor. There was a lunchroom upstairs too. But now, there’s a huge building there, and there’s the whole Chancery shopping area. It’s all very different, beyond recognition to what we had. We were surrounded by work places, rather than shops; there was a manufacturer and milliner, just mainly little businesses. It’s nice now, with all the little shops, but so different from when we were there. High Street hasn’t changed a lot, however.

We also had our own retail in 246 Queen Street, which was one of the first big lovely buildings, and had escalators going up and down. It used to have a beautiful jeweller on the corner and a very good manufacturer on the other corner. It had this lovely entrance, it was all marble, it was beautifully done. We had a lovely Babs Radon shop in there. Bruce Papas used to have a place in there too. It really was a beautiful place, it was just too early of a concept for New Zealanders, unfortunately.

You achieved many great things during your time designing under Babs Radon. In your mind, what was the one (or two) biggest moments for you as a designer?
My biggest moment was when the Queen presented me with The Supreme Wool Award for designing (1963). Meeting her was so special, I hadn’t realised she had the bluest eyes and she knew I was a working mother and asked how I fit it all in! She was just the nicest person. I’d never been Queen-orientated, I liked the Royal Family, but I didn’t expect to be impressed. She had on a skirt that her designer had built on Violene interfacing, and the poor thing, when she stood up the skirt stood up too! So she was busy trying to get herself flattened down. She was just so nice and down to earth.

The other great moment was when Lady Porritt, the Governor General’s wife, asked me to make their daughter Joanna’s wedding gown and bridesmaid’s dresses too. Lady Porritt had found me at 246; she’d come in and buy things and I also made special garments for her and did her fittings at 246. Joanna, her daughter, was a lovely down to earth girl. Lady Porritt didn’t want Joanna to have a white-white dress, but white over pink, so there was a blush look to it. And it worked, it was beautiful. Joanna was on her way home from London to Wellington, which meant her first fitting was done in toile in a tiny room at the airport, during her stopover. After that she came from Wellington to my workroom in Auckland. The whole wedding was a very happy experience; no drama, no Bridezillas!

Barbara Herrick (centre left) meeting the Queen in 1963.

The fashion industry has changed a lot since you closed the doors of Babs Radon, with the increase of globalisation and the advent of the internet. Can you share what (in your opinion) are the best and worst parts you’ve seen in NZ fashion?
The best part of the industry was in those days when you had the co-ordination of all parts; for instance, when certain colours for winter or summer that were being featured, the leather industry worked in with the fabric side. So, if you wanted matching shoes and gloves, they were there in the same season. Also, most of the clothing was made in NZ, so if the dress or suit you bought didn’t fit, no problem, the store you bought it from altered it for you; either back at the manufacturers, or by a seamstress in the back of the shop.

The worst part of today’s industry is, firstly, the volume. It may seem great at first, but it can be a nightmare to go through so much to try find something to suit you. Also, there is no guidance now, especially if you are young and trying to find your style. That’s the hard one, finding your style. We used to have a lot of guidance in our day, by way of colour institutes and big department stores. But anything seems to go now, which is terribly confusing, and results in people making costly mistakes. I think the first thing you should buy is a full-length mirror, so you can see the overall effect of what you’re putting together. Looking at your top is fine, but if you look at the whole thing you might find it’s out of whack.

You created elegant clothes for the working women of the 1960’s. If today’s working woman wanted to incorporate a little Babs Radon chic into her wardrobe, what item do you think she should start with and why?
Start with good basics; like a good suit or a good coat, and then just add to these pieces. We used to have a lot guidance from the big department stores in those days; they would put something like avocado and purple together, or orange and navy blue. And it gave people with little imagination a guide, thinking I have a navy skirt, if I buy that orange blouse it’ll zhush it up for this season. We had guidance all the way; it was followed by the people who made shoes and gloves too, which made things easy. They’ve got no guidance like that today. To be chic and effortless in the way you dress, you’ve got to get yourself back to reality and ask can I wear it next year? The amount of options out there is bewildering, and without the proper guidance, it’s tough finding your own style by yourself.

What has been and continues to be your three favourite things about clothing and dressing up?
Dressing up makes you feel special. Young people today don’t dress up like we did, if anything they dress down. And that is so sad because when you’re young it’s easy to look good, so don’t waste these precious years. Young people can look good in a sack, if it’s tied nicely in the middle.

Who in today’s NZ fashion industry do you admire the work of?
I admire Jane Daniels because through all these [industry and market] changes she has never faulted. Sticking to her quality fabrics, making her clothing just in NZ, and keeping up with what’s happening in the clothing world. She has a lovely little workroom in Newton Road, and she’s got some really nice shops. She buys the best fabric, and her clothes are beautifully made. She’s such a nice person, and she’s a designer to her fingertips.

246 Queen Street in the 1960’s.

Designer Barbara Herrick today.

Babs Radon outfit by Barbara Herrick.

Images supplied.

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