Babbie Lovett was born and raised in the small town of McCrory, Arkansas. Her father was in the cotton farming business and would bring Babbie along with him and his cotton samples on trips to Memphis when she was a little girl. “It was the big city! The stores were outstanding. Main Street was like Fifth Avenue. I loved every part of it,” says Babbie. As a young woman, she left McCrory to attend college at Southwestern (now Rhodes), and she has called Memphis home ever since.
The world of fashion has been a stage on which Babbie has played many roles since she began modeling in the 1960s. For the past 60+ years, she’s built a rich and fascinating career in theater, fashion and modeling. Babbie is a lover of vintage fashion and a passionate couture collector — her pieces date from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. She owned a women’s clothing store for many years and helped shape Hillary Clinton’s style back when she and Bill first moved into the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion in 1979. Loving the intersection of music, theater and fashion, which she says “can be so magical,” Babbie has produced and hosted countless fashion shows over the years. The most recent was the 2017 Trashion Show, benefiting Memphis City Beautiful, where more than 40 Memphis-based artists went dumpster diving and curb shopping to create original fashion pieces.
We sat down with Babbie, a stunningly beautiful, kind, gracious and quick-witted woman, to talk about her love of Memphis, the evolution and future of fashion, how she likes to spend her days off and more. It’s a pleasure to welcome today’s FACE of Memphis, Babbie Lovett.
What’s your first fashion memory?
As a little girl, I loved playing “let’s pretend.” We had a weeping willow tree in the yard, and I’d make skirts and feather boas from the limbs. I’m so grateful that I grew up when I did because we had the freedom and time to get out and play and develop our imagination. I kind of feel sorry for the young people today. They have so much information and not enough filters.
Who and what were your childhood fashion influences?
Fashion in the movies had a big impact on me. Oh, Betty Grable. There’s never been a bathing suit like Betty Grable’s. She showed just enough and not too much.
Why has Memphis been a historically significant city for fashion?
The ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were such important times for Memphis. The stores were beautiful. There was so much real fashion then. The designers in New York used to come to Memphis first, because it was such a big market. There was no Dallas or Atlanta market back then. There were trunk shows here that I was privileged to be a part of. It’s changing now, and fashion follows the culture, but Memphis has always been a place where women love to dress. And they still do.
How have you seen fashion evolve over the years in general?
It’s fascinating. Fashion reflects a lot about the culture. There was a time in the ’50s where everything was matched. When I was in school at Southwestern, I wore high heels to school. We’d wear gloves, hats and dresses to go shopping downtown. That part of culture has passed. The thing that has really changed, though, I think, is that women are no longer dictated to.
What’s your opinion of fashion today?
Fashion today has basically become uniforms. To me fashion is a mask. You can almost tell what a person is hiding or showing by what they’re wearing. That’s one of the things that’s fascinating about people. The men now are becoming more peacocks. One of the things I’ve seen in this industry is how alike we are in our need to be comfortable and to be seen, but everyone wants to be accepted. That’s been my hope for the future — that we can find a way to be excited about the differences we have. That’s why I love the basic uniform that’s part of this generation — jeans, T-shirt, a jacket — but how much creativity there is in putting things together. I love the way kids tie their T-shirts and cut them up.
Describe your personal style.
It’s interesting how our life is composed of chapters. When I had a model’s body, I loved fashion and taking it to the extreme. I didn’t mind people looking at me. But as your body and lifestyle changes, you realize that the most important thing is appropriateness, the mask you wear and the role you want to play. We’re all on the same stage, but we need different parts. My fashion has progressed to draping. My friend once asked me why, and I said, “Because I have so much to drape.”
Tell us about the Trashion Shows that you produce and host in Memphis.
It’s fashion created from trash, and it started five years ago with Memphis City Beautiful. I think it’s the future. We’re looking at so much inventory and not much freshness. Everything is so uniform. Young women now are looking at vintage with much excitement because they’ve never seen it. The clothes are beautiful, the workmanship is excellent, and you’ve got good quality. We’ve asked Connie Fails with the Clinton Foundation to be a part of it, and she’s taken it to Little Rock with elementary and high school students. The show allows people to use their imagination to create fashion without having to spend a lot of money. It’s remarkable! It’s amazing what you can create with nothing.
What are your thoughts on technology and its impact on the fashion industry?
I truly appreciate technology, and I know it’s the future, but I’m still of the telephone era. I don’t have the patience to do the technology. I email and text up to a point, but I still like to look someone in the eye. If I were 30 years younger, I’d be developing a course on how to teach young people to be social. I think social media is a whole different ballgame from the social interaction of human beings.
Which designers inspire you the most?
I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with so many designers. Each one has taught me something. I love the way Halston draped. I love the way Bill Blass used fabrics and introduced the androgynous look. His style of tailoring was beautiful. I love the way Calvin Klein saw the simplicity of design. I have great respect for Donna Karan in that she saw five pieces that a woman could have to make a wardrobe. I also have respect for the woman who, inspired by her travels all over the world, started Chico’s.
What excites you about the future of fashion?
The young designers who have not yet been able to make a name for themselves. I’m excited to watch the stores here in Memphis that are transitioning, like Joseph’s — the granddaughter is now the buyer — and shops like 20twelve and Kittie Kyle that are bringing in new, fresh ideas. I’m loving what Memphis Fashion Week is doing. They’re hitting on the right approach to developing a presence with Fashion Institute of Technology and with the arts. They’re teaching sewing and more about design. Even though technology can do it, we still need creative people to control the technology.
Things right now are in such renaissance and tremendous change. The evolution of our culture today reminds me a little bit of the ’60s, when everyone was questioning what went before. I think that today, these are really all burgeoning opportunities rather than difficult times.
What is your best piece of advice?
You do not change anybody else. You can’t make a whole lot of difference in the way other people think. All you can do is be honest with yourself and share as much as somebody will listen. And try not to judge or control. The only real choice and power we have is how we let things affect us. The only thing that can keep us sane is to keep trying to give, to be a part of something. As long as someone asks me to do something, I will say yes. I know if I stop, my battery will run down. If I went back to my younger self, I could have never done it, because I’d know the outcomes of my life experiences. And you never know the outcome. You learn from each experience. And you learn that if you can get through one, you’ll get through the next.
Describe your ideal day off.
Not getting dressed. The hardest thing for me now is to get up, get groomed and dressed and put on my makeup. That’s how I know I’m getting old. I’m on my way to being a couch potato, and I refuse! I love to get outside and walk. I love looking at the sky. This city is so beautiful. I love the transition of the seasons. I love nature. When I’ve had enough of people, I like to go to the Memphis Zoo. It’s refreshing. Animals do have some kind of code. But, truly, I do love life.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Black pants, black eyeliner and my credit card.
Many thanks to Babbie for giving us a peek into her world, and to Micki Martin for the gorgeous photos!
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