Babette, as Elizabeth is known to friends, is the founder of children’s apparel company WOWO (World of Wonder), which features colorful clothing for children of all ages. But you’ll also find gorgeous fabrics including floral, hounds-tooth (in French it’s called “cock’s foot” or pied de coq), and Liberty-style prints.
This summer I had the opportunity to visit Babette’s home and studio, which are nestled in a tiny corner of Saint Mandé, just between the Paris limits and the huge bois de Vincennes park. Arriving in her neighborhood by bicycle, I noticed right away how great (and green!) it smelled: the wisteria was in bloom (again) and even a few palm trees graced several yards.
Babette’s home is beautiful. It contains a beguiling mix of her children’s collages and the entire family’s collection of objets d’art, treasures picked up on different travels throughout the world. And Babette is truly worldly: born in the United States, she also lived in Lebanon and Portugal, all before the tender age of 5.
Ethnic, graphic, and vintage
Her American grandmother’s influence included books by Maurice Sendak, whose sublime illustrations continue to nourish Babette’s interior landscape, and a subscription to American Vogue (back issues fill the shelves in Babette’s office). She learned sewing, knitting, and even embroidery from her French grandmother.
Created in 1998, her brand has a particular DNA, as we say: a mix of ethnic, graphic, and vintage influences, whose inspiration Babette gleans from exhibits, visual artists, and her time in India, where she travels about three times a year.
On Babette’s office table were the actual elements that make up her mood boards, which are used in creative fields to generate ideas on colors, designs, and patterns. Bits of lace given to Babette by her grandmothers lay next to a vintage hair accessory made from leather and rhinestones that was salvaged from a friend’s collection destined for the trash.
Strings of ribbon and rick-rack brought home from India covered a pair of children’s sandals she found in Berlin and imagined to have been hand made in Turkey – it turns out they were from India! Also from Berlin was a scarf, whose pattern echoed that of a dress from an old Marni catalog Babette had lying around.
Outsider art = art brut
One of Babette’s color inspirations caught my eye: Henry Darger. In June I’d seen posters around Paris advertising an exhibit of this artist, but was unfamiliar with his colorful works. It turns out that Darger was American, and produced what we call outsider art, or art brut in French.
So I went to the exhibit at the Musée d’Art Moderne that same week, where I discovered Darger’s imaginary worlds of “Vivian Girls,” monsters, and never-ending wars. I agree that they are, in Babette’s words, situated “between naiveté and horror.” In the 15-volume saga of words and illustrations he entitled The Realms of the Unreal, Darger unleashes his complex subconscious world, emerging from a childhood filled with trauma.
Thankfully Babette has only taken from Darger’s worlds his inspiring way with colors, and the resulting children’s clothing lines are all sweetness and light. Surrounded by her books on Naga culture and beadwork from around the world, we discussed the nebulous process of creation.
Once all the color and design elements are combined in her head, they macerate, and then the designs just seem to flow out when they’re ready. It’s a sort of marinating process in the depths of the subconscious, and when Babette sits down to actually design and create the clothes, these long-stewing elements emerge naturally.
But that’s because Babette has been doing this for years and years. She said that when she started out, she sometimes worried about her inspiration drying up. But the funny thing about creating is that the more you do it, the easier it gets, and the more creative you become. It’s what we’d call a virtuous cycle – and you don’t have to be a traumatized, secretive recluse to create it!
I’ll be taking a little vacation, so you’ll find my next post on August 27th. Merci!
In the meantime, check out Babette’s beautiful collections at WOWO.
Or if you’re in Paris, the Henry Darger exhibit is now on at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, until October 11th, 2015.