Following Barb Atkin

For my Globe Style Advisor column printed in May 2015, my editor asked me to interview Holt Renfrew’s departing fashion director, Barb Atkin. As we both happened to be in Paris that February, I got to follow Barb in person as she went to appointments at the showrooms. It was the first time I had ever interviewed someone for the paper and I was nervous. I didn’t really know what I was doing – I didn’t even record the interview. Instead, I listened more consciously than I have ever listened to anyone. Here was someone who had built an amazing career in the fashion industry for three decades. I needed to hear what she had to say.

The interview was amazing. I was relaxed and joyful around Barb, like she was a kindred spirit. The quality of the sketches shows that. She seemed to recognize something in me, giving me a rare sense of validation that I was on the right path. I often think of what she said to me when I feel uncertain, and it helps me to be confident and decisive.

barb outfit

Barb Atkin is a moving woman, a woman on the move. She has to be, to stay in the same position for so long. Fashion retail is a changeable arena. Every few years there is a new CEO, a new team, a new direction. Yet for 28 years, Barb Atkin has been the Fashion Director of Holt Renfrew. I wanted to know how she did it.

“A sense of humour!” Her co-pilot, chief merchant Steven Cook joins Barb’s big laugh as we work our way through Paris fashion week traffic. They have a playfully combative friendship. Steven’s job is to make sure that what they buy, sells. Barb’s job is to uphold a creative vision over the bottom line. Their roles are all about disagreeing and enjoying themselves doing it. In their fourth week of fashion month, they’re getting a little punchy. They ask me not to quote them after the first showroom we stop by, it’s clear they’re not going to buy anything there.

Barb’s lively laughter is matched by her kinetic energy. She prefers flat shoes and trousers for mobility. In the busy Loewe showroom, wearing two-tone creepers and red leather pants, she walks among tall sales associates in teetering heels. She is completely absorbed, exploring the collection. She enthuses about designer J.W. Anderson’s intelligence, handling a leather bag that can pack flat. I’m trying to sketch her so I have to move as fast her, and she’s too busy to pose. I like that. She says she wore a graphic scarf especially for me.

I ask her what she wants her legacy to be? She says she wants to be recognized as a navigator of change. An enduring fascination with the new is the key to longevity in fashion. Barb values curiosity above all.

It’s appropriate that as she retires, Barb is turning her sights to Los Angeles. That’s where her daughter lives, pregnant with Barb’s first grandchild. Also, she’s into spending time in different city with a burgeoning art scene and a distinct aesthetic that is influencing designers across the globe. Barb loves to watch people, and right now it seems like so many interesting people are going to L.A.

barb portrait

Her interest in fashion started when she was a kid – she was an aesthetically opinionated toddler – and her interest in people was developed in her first career, as a teacher.

As a young teacher she happened to meet an emerging fashion designer in Toronto – Wayne Clark. She was inspired by his talent and wanted to help him. She began working after school, finding buyers for his collection. She was successful getting accounts at major department stores in the States, and after that, she persuaded Holt Renfrew to take on the line. Once the account with Holts was established, she continued to visit executive Bonnie Brooks to offer her opinions on the visual display of the line.

She had an idea for a window display created around one of Clark’s signature sequined evening gowns, and pitched it to Brooks, who was resistant – “you realize Barb, we have our displays planned months in advance.” Barb presented the idea anyway and Brooks conceded that it had potential. The display was installed. What happened next was a serendipitous fashion moment. Jane Fonda walked by the window, saw the stately, glittering gown, walked in and bought it… and lots other stuff too. She wore the dress to the 1982 Oscar ceremony, where she accepted an award on behalf of her late father.

Barb had demonstrated a clairvoyant sense of style and her ideas were highly valued at Holt Renfrew. In 1987, they offered her the job of fashion director. “Isn’t that every girl’s dream job, to get paid to have fashion opinions?” Her husband asked. “You better take it!”

She still thinks of herself as a teacher, nurturing the potential of individuals. She wants to help designers to find their unique voice, encourage her buyers to take risks, and inspire her customer to think differently about how they dress. Barb is not an advocate of the uniform at all. She likes to see people express themselves, and she admires people who have integrity.

In Paris, she’s watching the wildly transforming street style scene as closely as she examines the footwear in the front row. She’s not snobby about anything she sees – she wants to figure out how she can use social movements as a source of inspiration. “Runway is reality now!” she says. As street style has become more exuberant and individualist, the runways have become less arch, less conceptual and more… real. It’s an insightful observation.

Barb remembers the challenge of choosing the colours of the season when she began working at Holt Renfrew and realizing that “there is no right or wrong, there is only the decision.” Being a fashion director – having a sense of style at a professional level – is about having confidence in your own convictions. Actually, that’s her life philosophy too.



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