Rochelle Behrens stands outside her Washington, D.C., apartment in one of her own designs.
Rochelle Behrens stands outside her Washington, D.C., apartment in one of her own designs. Nancy Chow/NPR
The label attached to one of Behrens' suit separates.
The label attached to one of Behrens' suit separates. Nancy Chow/NPR
Behrens' dress shirts (foreground) are specifically designed to prevent gaps in the chest area with buttons in the interior side of the placket.
Behrens' dress shirts (foreground) are specifically designed to prevent gaps in the chest area with buttons in the interior side of the placket. Nancy Chow/NPR
Washington, D.C., is not a city known for its fashion. In fact, lobbyist Rochelle Behrens says there's a danger in looking too polished.
"If you care too much about your appearance, then you don't care about saving the world," she tells Andrea Seabrook.
But the 25-year-old, whose first job out of college brought her to Capitol Hill, noticed a particular problem running rampant among D.C. women: what she calls "the gape" — that dreaded gap that can form between the buttons in the chest area of a dress shirt.
Behrens says her button-downs never fit properly.
"I became so frustrated that I literally decided I could do nothing else but to try to develop my own shirt," she says.
Although women have been working in Washington for more than 50 years, the Capitol can still look like a man's world. And there are parts of the building where jackets are required — meaning a lot of button-down shirts.
Behrens' shirt looks like a normal button-down from the outside, but there's a row of hidden buttons inside.
"The hidden buttons only button through the first placket, so it holds the shirt closely together where you want it," she says. "In the offending areas."
The button-down filled a void, and the Rochelle Behrens Collection was born — a cooler alternative to the likes of Sen. Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and a cheaper option than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Armani.
"I thought about the consummate Washington woman, running from her appointments in the morning, with her Starbucks in hand and her briefcase and her BlackBerry, juggling a whole bunch of things, and then easily, swiftly throwing off her jacket, transitioning to her evening activities and looking flawless all day. I've done that. Life in D.C. like that is not idealized — that is legitimately how it works," Behrens says.
In her apartment, an array of suits, skirts and dresses hang on a bar not far from the refrigerator. While working full time, she designed first the jacket to go with her signature shirt, then the pants, the skirt and even dresses that matched the jackets. In short, it was everything she ever wanted to wear to work, in complementary blue, white and brown.
"I also tried to design pieces with all the elements that I wish I had in pieces in my wardrobe — with pockets, with belt loops ... all with the same buttons, all with the same theme, all in the same fabric," she says.
Because she's a lobbyist, she can't send her clothes to lawmakers — so she makes house calls to sell them out of a trunk, like a Tupperware party for the Capitol Hill hipster.
"A man can't really understand what it's like to have a man look in between the two buttons on his shirt and see his bra, but most women know that feeling," Behrens says. "Maybe some women are OK with it. But not in the office. I think it's really something only a woman can identify with and design."
Behrens also says she thinks people are ready to look at women in politics as women.
"You can play on the same field as men, looking like a woman," she says.