Muses Surround Us is our portrait/interview blog series moderated by Emily "Birdie" Busch. After a particularly challenging holiday season, we were left without a January interview. So Betsy Cook, the owner/designer/maker of National Picnic, is going to answer the same interview questions we ask the muses, and also a few more questions our social media followers sent in.
(If you can't figure it out from the intro, Birdie is the "little sister.")
Let me clarify right away, I am writing this Muses Surround Us piece about my very own sister, Betsy Cook, owner of National Picnic. I floated the idea of interviewing her when January 2021 came around because 10 years ago she made a New Year’s resolution that she would start her own clothing company after working for years as a graphic designer. Now, a decade later, she is celebrating the journey to here, the present moment, and the future of National Picnic, which is no small feat, especially during a global pandemic.
A favorite memory I have of my sister growing up is a game she made up. I would give her articles of clothing I wanted her to repurpose and make into something new. She would cut up and reimagine them into new styles in her third floor attic bedroom, package them, and fling them out of her window and down into the yard. I would sit in the kitchen excitedly waiting, and run out with my other kindergarten friends to receive it. It truly felt like it was coming from some magical workshop in the sky. In many ways, it is the wheelhouse to which she returned, an independent clothing designer who makes small batch clothing treasures in her studio that arrive at your door as you joyously anticipate the items.
She prides herself in making clothes that you can put on and immediately feel put together quickly and casually. The beauty of National Picnic’s pieces lie in the details of the tailoring, the quality of the fabrics, and the nuance of the cut. She gifted me a capsule collection for my honeymoon that I brought with me in a single 20 inch carry-on for two weeks that made me feel like the most elegant adventurer ever. I have never worn an article of her clothing in which a stranger out and about doesn’t compliment me or ask about it, perhaps the truest testament to her work.
It has been a journey, her dedication to honing her signature items while also having fun each season with textile choices and new offerings. It has found her a loyal following of people that value quality over quantity, supporting sustainable fashion and local economies, and knowing the designer behind the clothes.
The past year could have never been predicted. But Betsy and a small team pivoted immediately into mask making mode, turning her storefront studio and her machines into a production line for masks when the need was so great, making them for hospital workers and preparing kits for her team to sew them at home.
For much of the year masks were a very big focus, including a large scale mask production job for the Philadelphia Museum of Art staff. The support for her clothing as well as the support that went into the mask making was inspiring.
This inspiration and collective enthusiasm has her excited about the future of National Picnic as a fashion house. As she anticipates with passion the next 10 years, she talks of diving deeper into small batch specialties, limited runs, and using even rarer high end fabrics.
What is a career/creative moment you are proud of?
10 years of staying in business is what I'm really happy about right now. So many indie clothing brands don't make it that far.
What are you listening to now?
Sonos Radio has an "Encyclopedia of Brittany" station on Sonos Radio, curated by Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, and it's wonderful. It's also been compiled into a playlist you can find on Spotify (same name), but what's really cool about the Sonos station is that Brittany plays DJ and provides commentary between songs, which is special because her musical taste jumps all over the place in a way that algorithms can't, and she guides you through her choices with explanations in between.
What are you looking at?
I'm noticing all things interior decor as I get settled back into my home studio, and figuring out how it's got to work as the next stage in my business (again), and you know I love thrift and nostalgic things. My latest random act of browsing was at Thunderbird Salvage in Philadelphia, what a giant heaping pile of fun visuals to look at and get ideas from!
What recipe are you feeling?
I didn't realize how easy it is to make potato pancakes until this week. I made a recipe from a Polish recipe book that belonged to my grandmother. They're soooo much tastier fresh off the frying pan than anything you can buy and reheat. I really love the reheated ones, so that's saying something...
How do you define your own personal style or approach to clothes?
OK, I have to be comfortable sounding weird for this question. Do you know what a specimen garden is? One where you keep plants as focal points, to be appreciated in and of themselves, rather than working together in a unified plan? I think I'm a specimen dresser, if that's a thing. I love my clothing brand, of course, it's inspired by my own style, but I certainly collect clothing, and textiles, with a degree of curation (I try not to hoard) and I'm a lifetime thrifter. Sometimes I simply see a textile I love and want to figure out how to keep it around to appreciate. Other times I find an amazing garment from another era that happens to fit, it's like winning a small lottery when that happens.
As for approach, I usually know there is one thing I really want to wear that day, or to an event, and then the rest of the outfit only needs to help out. Dressing each day is a joy, and a fun puzzle to be solved, even when it's just deciding what pair of familiar jeans are going to be worn that day around the house.
The pandemic is hitting me hard with my desire to wear all of my favorite things out and about. I've been looking more dressed up lately if you can find me out anywhere. There's usually at least one thing on my body I would love to get asked about, so I can share my geeky love for the story behind it. I'm lining up outfits in my head, they're piling up, I need more places to go! Help!
What would be your advice to a teenage girl clothing and style wise that you wish you had received?
If I could go back in time, I'd tell myself to save some things you loved to wear when you were sixteen and stick in in a time capsule box in your closet to open when you are 50. I would love to be able to open a box now, of what I wore back then. When I have memories—I always remember what I was wearing when something happened. I really, really am a clothing nerd.
BONUS! More questions we received from followers on instagram are being added to this post below. We reached out and asked people to ask the designer anything about her business, as it celebrates 10 years. (As of Jan 20, many are still being answered and will appear soon. We needed to get the post started...)
What made you decide to begin with shirts? (asked by @aishalikesit on instagram)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I actually began with tops and dresses, but because the signature tee really stuck, it has developed its rep as my memorable, collectible style. But did you know tops outsell most other categories industrywide? If you’re going to enter the clothing biz without a really specific niche product, designing strong collections of tops is smart. Many of us have a very strong loyalty to our pants and jeans brands and the way they fit. Although I do have some dresses and bottoms that have sold well, my bestsellers always need a classic style and/or color. The creativity I can put into tops seems infinite, though. And more fun! ⠀
I am sure that when you started your business, you had rose colored glasses on about what it would be like. What did you think it would be like? How has it been different? What has been the biggest surprise about the path your business has taken? (asked by @annikalanejewelry)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I was a total noob when I was starting. I had no knowledge of what happens between designing my clothing and getting it to hang in a store. Luckily, it's the age of the Internet! Before long I had learned that all you needed to do was take your collection to the trade shows and have retailers fall in love with it! They will place lots of orders! All these resources are waiting in the wings to spring to action to help you realize your dream! Contractors are lined up to make all of the clothing for you! Then you ship the clothing pieces off to the retailers and the money rolls in! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
How has it been different? I (very expensively!) found out that for me to save my fashion business from a trade show death spiral was to lean into the "maker movement” mindset, which favored the small business story with its more unique batches of goods over big industry models and overproduction. Embracing a "maker" mentality was instantly a better fit for my self-funded startup fashion brand. I haven't looked back.
Above: Just in case you were thinking that studio life seems so perfect, this is what life usually looks like just out of frame. (#JOOF!). Seconds later, this mess pulled my iron off the board and it broke.
What’s your favorite non-garment thing to make? (asked by @aishalikesit on instagram)
Easy answer! In fact, if you gave me a day off and told me not to do anything clothing related, I would still want to sew things. I love to make decor for my house. Especially out of textiles I already have in the house. Especially sentimental stuff. This pillow is made from a vintage blanket given to me by my next door neighbor, right before she moved into assisted living (she mowed her own lawn until the day she left—she was 93). Blanket's from Portugal, and was full of holes and fading (I have a blanket addiction—if it was mint I would not cut into it) but had good areas remaining, I made pillow covers out of it, to remind me of her.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀