Design

Fashion Designer Batsheva Hay Lives and Breathes Her Floral Line

Mosha Lundström Halbert

Photography by Alexei Hay

Batsheva Hay

The first things designer Batsheva Hay sees each morning are her enigmatic dresses. Samples ensconce her bedroom, crowding her Upper West Side home with mischievous abandon. But these hot-button frocks have earned their squatter status. After all, since Hay began her namesake label three years ago during maternity leave, they’ve wound up on everyone from Celine Dion to Aidy Bryant, as well as at MatchesFashion.com, Ten Over Six and Galeries Lafayette. And while her business is still in infancy, the mother of two has made peace with this chaotic cohabitation. “It’s a cozy mess of a shoe box apartment stuffed with dresses and kids toys,” she says over tea at her ad hoc dining room table/ desk. “One thing inspires the other. At this point, the dresses are swallowing us up.”

On the surface, the high-necked, pouffy and frilled creations in question may appear absurdly prim, as if ripped out of an ’80s Tatler spread on a young Diana, Princess of Wales—whose early looks are a touchpoint. But her strongest influences are less regal, more real life. “I was raised around an irreverent experience with textiles and patterns,” says Hay, a fan of chintz floral and lamé, on her upbringing in a rambling home in Queens, New York. “My mother always loved antique clothing.” Her grandmother also left her mark. “She was this elegant intellectual Jewish lady who was always in a lace collar and a weird floral pattern. She seemed so tasteful.”

The notion of taste is something that Hay, a former lawyer, likes to cross-examine in her work. Personal growing pains during the ’90s, when her idol Laura Ashley was eschewed for logo streetwear, proved ultimately formative. “I appreciated wearing feminine floral stuff, but then I’d go to school and it was really not cool,” she says. “I was struggling with trying to fit in, so I was always ambivalently trying to wear whatever everyone else was wearing, like Tommy Hilfiger. But then I would find such relief at home in the quirky way everything was there.”

In more recent years, her husband (fashion photographer Alexei Hay) converted to orthodox Judaism, which proved impactful. “We would go to his rabbi’s house for dinner. I had to dress very specifically and be much more covered,” Hay says. “This was a whole different world. There’s a lot of strange beauty that people don’t see. I was always trying to look for things to wear that were appropriate,” she explains. “So I would search vintage stores and found longer hemlines and the Calico fabrics my mother loved. Soon enough, I had my own versions made.” Her husband encouraged this transgressive send-up of conservative codes, as did friends and bemused passersby. “Little House on the Prairie, Hasidic and Amish women—I mashed it all together and that became the look.” Artist Cindy Sherman’s portrait parodies are another inspiration, says Hay. “They’re hyperbolic and dramatic exaggerations.”

Today, Hay has also found a happy home for these instinctual references. Last year, she held a presentation at Square Diner, an old school fries and milkshake spot, with beehived models wearing dresses so audaciously dated they felt fresh. For her Fall ’19 collection, she staged a pop-up workshop, with an original casting including Christina Ricci and Veronica Webb. The soundtrack came courtesy of the hum of Singer sewing machines and spoken word Hole lyrics, orchestrated by Courtney Love. Like most things Batsheva does, it seemed too offbeat to work, but therein lies her appeal. “I always like to take things a bit further. I don’t want to perfectly fit into the box.”