Baba Bleecher isn’t a household name, but it should be.
This 83-year-old dynamo, now an Iowan living in Nevada near her son and his family, was among the ingenious designers behind one of the most exquisite dress collections of all time — the gowns in the "Modess…Because" print ad campaign, which ran from the late 1940s through the 1970s. The ads appeared in magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town and Country. Top models of the day were featured wearing beautiful couture gowns, many of which Bleecher designed. Some of the dresses required two people three to four weeks to make, and one of Bleecher’s particularly ethereal dresses featured thousands of individually hand-sewn ostrich feathers.
Bleecher (born Carole-Margot Baldwin) began designing for her dolls at age 9. By the time she was a teenager, she had a full scholarship to the famous Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Within six months, she realized she knew as much as many of her instructors, so by age 17, she left to start her own business. Soon she was designing dresses for the Modess campaign.
Even though she did not complete her formal education, she learned from the best. Her Parisian-born mother bought a new Chanel suit every year, and Bleecher keenly observed every detail of those fittings. She also saw the Ziegfeld Follies movie, which inspired her interest in clothing design. "I wanted to make women look beautiful," she said.
During her designing years, Bleecher went to Europe twice a year to buy fabrics. She used the best fabrics available, including some from Balenciaga’s estate, hand-painted silks, and trims of ostrich, lace and beadwork. She also hired the top couture cutters, beaders and stitchers for her workroom.
In addition to designing for the Modess campaign, Bleecher designed costumes for Broadway shows, including "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." She even held her own shows and shared the runway limelight with other outstanding New York fashion designers. She also created couture fashions for theatre stars and members of New York society, and hobknobbed with many famous actors and society luminaries, along with her husband, screenwriter Lenny Bleecher.
Over her more than 60-year career, Baba had design shops in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, and was known for designing apparel that flattered women, even those with less than perfect figures. Even her models were life-size. Said Bleecher, "I much preferred working with size 6 and 8 figures rather than pencil-thin sizes."
While best known for her formalwear, Bleecher was a standout in the sports world as well, when she designed an ice skating costume for Olympian Carol Heiss. "She wanted something she could move around in freely, so I designed a leotard with a skirt, a first in the skating world," recalled Bleecher.
She said she doesn’t think much of today’s casual "fashion," but she does like a few contemporary designers, such as Armani and Balenciaga. One of her pet peeves is people who wear their pants too long, with the hems dragging on the floor.
On May 16, the Central Iowa Chapter of the American Sewing Guild honored Bleecher with a reception, complete with a cake decorated with vintage dresses, and topped with a giant replica of Baba’s designer label.
At the reception, she reflected, "Yes, I guess I’ve had a pretty interesting life." Indeed.