“I remember those mornings I would end up crying. There would be the big fight. She [my mom] would try to make me wear these pink polyester pants. I stuffed them in the bottom drawer so she couldn’t find them.” Laurel Berman is explaining to me the first displays of her penchant for all things adorn-able, which she wholeheartedly believes fashion lovers are hardwired for. “I really believe it’s an innate thing…born with the passion for fashion” she says. As she continues, at my request, to recount her personal love affair with clothing, Berman recalls laying out her clothes from the time she was in Kindergarten. In spite of that indefinable love from an early age, her rise to success (you need only to visit the black halo website to see a list of celebs wearing her designs on the red carpet) wasn’t easy, and like most success stories, it took years of work to emerge overnight.
I called Berman one week day afternoon for this interview in the midst of a heat wave, both in Los Angeles (where she’s based) and in New York (where I am). As she and I exchanged pleasantries, she displayed a West Coast congeniality and openness from the start.
Of the heat wave she said, “[The air] was filthy feeling and looking”, so much so that she would like to take a leave. She spoke of the fires in August that sped through California at an exponential rate, and painted a picture of a dire atmosphere far different from her kind, optimistic attitude. Ironically it goes hand in hand with the contrast inherent in the name of her clothing line, Black Halo. “A halo, but it’s tarnished a little…A little on the dark side, but at the same time our collection is anything but dark.” She then adds, “What I love is that everyone has their own interpretation of it.”
It was shortly after she graduated from college (political science) and began studying for her LSAT that she realized a law degree wasn’t in her future. She says, ” [I] wasn’t interested in the blood and guts [of medicine], wasn’t interested in the math; it was really easy for me to realize what I didn’t want to do.” But finding what she did want to do required more time, “It’s not easy to really look inside and determine what it is that you are the most passionate about. I grew up in Washington State…where fashion really wasn’t an option. No one had a career in fashion. I didn’t know it was a realistic avenue.” But she did go to design school and supported herself working at Macy’s while earning her graduate degree.
Berman’s first collection debuted in 2001 as a small, independent label with one showroom in LA, the only one that would take her line. She was turned down more than once, “Thank you, but not for us.” She repeated to me a few times when telling her story; it’s clear the words remain salient in her memory.
To produce the line she bought irons and sewing machines at auctions (where they would be the least expensive), then hired a pattern and sample maker. As her pieces started to sell she would send them to any and all interested patrons. There was no order too small. As a result, she wasn’t selling enough to cover cost and her start-up business lost money not just in the first year, or the second, but for the first three years running. She tells me with the relief of someone who has made it through the tunnel to the other side, “I just wanted to break even. To me, that would have been a success, to just break even.” She justifies the endurance of those first few years of high stress and struggle: “We’re willing to get up every morning and do it again because this is what we love.”
When I ask her how she begins to design the line each season she tells me that it’s all about a mood, a feeling, and a color story. “Everything really comes from the fabric, I love shopping fabric, [I] develop each group based on the fabric and the colors and then the silhouettes come together based on the fabric or the print.” She then adds, “I’m very tactile.”
Black Halo is a line that beckons to an intelligent woman who dresses purposefully. The silhouettes of Berman’s garments are simple, defined, and sophisticated. The focus is primarily on fit. Her design philosophy is about showing off the “female form” and its assets. Berman wears her clothes (one of the perks of being your own designer is having a warehouse full of items to pick from) and if it doesn’t feel right on her, if she feels “fat” or “dumpy”, then it isn’t working and she starts over.
Defining the small waist while allowing room around the hips so there isn’t an unflattering pull of the fabric is part of the architecture of her clothes. And just like she believes in the innate love of fashion she also believes that a woman’s abdomen wasn’t meant to be perfectly flat or hollow, which may be why one of her signature dresses is worn by both Tyra Banks and Kim Kardashian, but also appealed to the uber petite Kelly Ripa. She wisely offers three different hemlines for her much loved “Jackie O” dress: mini, two inches above the knee, and two inches below. There is an option for both the more daring and the more demure.
I asked her to explain why she thought she had gained success on the red carpet and she told me that “It’s not a red carpet line. But every piece is special. And because it makes her [the customer] feel special she wears it to special occasions.”
It’s true that her line wasn’t designed for formal events, and truer still that her willingness to work with the way the female form is rather than the way the fashion world would want it to be has women of all stripes donning her clothes. She’s right that each piece is special; it fits so well and looks so good that it becomes a modern classic in the wardrobe of the woman who owns one.
Berman’s determination to take the risk of following her dream has allowed her the success that she deserves after years of uncertainty and struggle. Her belief in her ability and aesthetic has paid off as more and more women discover the timelessness of her designs. But I think she may be too humble to say all of that herself because the reward, for her, is the opportunity to do what she loves. In true laid back West Coast girl fashion she says to me as we’ve wrapped up our talk, “Who cares about making money in the end if you don’t enjoy the ride, right?” Indeed.