Lobbyist-Turned-Designer Livens Up Office Looks Rochelle Behrens' designs cater to professional women in Washington, D.C. She creates suit separates that can be mixed for variety, and her dress shirts are specifically made to prevent those dreaded gaps in the chest area.
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Lobbyist-Turned-Designer Livens Up Office Looks

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Lobbyist-Turned-Designer Livens Up Office Looks

Lobbyist-Turned-Designer Livens Up Office Looks

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

There's a new generation of women in politics, powerful, important, serious women who've also got style. I know. I know. Washington fashion is something of an oxymoron. Here, the biggest style choice most people make in the morning is black or navy, solid or pinstripe. Well, wake up, Washington. Rochelle Behrens is here and has zero tolerance for the...

Ms. ROCHELLE BEHRENS (Fashion Designer): Gray, shlumpy suit, disheveled, comb over, bad fit.

SEABROOK: That's what Behrens found when she got her first job out of a college as a lobbyist, a culture where looking a little slobby meant you were dedicated.

Ms. BEHRENS: You can't look too polished. If you care too much about your appearance, then you don't care about saving the world.

SEABROOK: So Rochelle Behrens set out to bust that culture by starting her own line of women's clothing for the would-be Washington fashionista. Behrens has invited me to her downtown apartment where she's busy sorting through two racks of clothes. They're squeezed between the kitchen counter and the living room chair just a few blocks from the high-powered Washington lobbying firm where she works.

So what makes a lobbyist turn fashion designer?

Ms. BEHRENS: I noticed this rampant problem among women in D.C., which is that their shirts never fit properly.

SEABROOK: Their shirts?

Ms. BEHRENS: Their shirts. And move over, my button-down shirts never fir properly. I've come up with a word to name a phenomenon that happens on a button-down shirt. In between certain buttons, a particular area on a woman's body, we call it the gape.

SEABROOK: I know about this gape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEHRENS: A lot of women know about the gape.

SEABROOK: You know what we're talking about, the yawning hole that opens at the chest, providing a tiny little window into a woman's bra.

Ms. BEHRENS: I became so frustrated that I literally decided I could do nothing else but to try to develop my own shirt.

SEABROOK: Behrens pulls out a hanger, a standard white button down shirt, a bit more of an hourglass shape to fit a woman's body. But the big innovation? What you don't see, an extra set of hidden buttons.

Ms. BEHRENS: So it holds the shirt closely together where you want it.

SEABROOK: There are buttons in the odd spaces. Basically, in between the buttons, there are buttons...

Ms. BEHRENS: Precisely. In the offending areas...

SEABROOK: But you don't see them, right, in the important places. Well, of course, what woman hasn't fixed up her own shirt this way with safety pins or tape? What Rochelle Barons wants to know is why should she have to?

Seems like what originally this stuff was is men's clothes. And that what has become business dress is really men's clothes that they've converted to women's clothes, and that's why they never quite really fit woman.

Ms. BEHRENS: Right. A man, with the exception of maybe if he has a paunch in his shirt, gapes at the navel, 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. I don't know. Maybe, some women are OK with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEHRENS: But not in the office. I think it's really something that only a woman can identify with and design.

SEABROOK: From shirts, Behrens' mind took off, simple A-line skirts, a jacket with a glamorous portrait color that frames the face but still works in the office, long flattering trousers, all in a rich but comfortable Italian cotton poly.

Ms. BEHRENS: I thought about the consummate Washington woman running from her appointments in the morning with her Starbucks in hand, and her briefcase, and a 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. Life in D.C. like that is not idealized. That is legitimately how it works. I've done that.

SEABROOK: So as one of Behrens' customers, co-worker Harriet Melvin (ph), she's got a whole Behrens suit.

Ms. HARRIET MELVIN: I've worked this way to New York and had to give a presentation in a board room to a board of directors, part of the afternoon and then went straight to an event on Broadway that evening and it held up beautifully and had more compliments on it, and it looks just like I pulled it out of the suitcase that morning.

SEABROOK: For now, Behrens sells her clothes on her website and at trunk shows. She's working to get her line into local Washington boutiques and later, bigger stores. Her goal is to grow a new generation of Washington women, a generation whose clothes are not just female versions of the frumpy men's suit, but that owns a strong feminine style with confidence and power. And she thinks now is just the right time to launch her clothing line. For example...

Ms. BEHRENS: Sarah Palin wore a skirt when she accepted the nomination and wore heals. And I think people are ready to look at women in politics as women. And you can play on the same field as men looking like a woman.

SEABROOK: Designer, lobbyist, and Washington Fashionista, Rochelle Behrens. You can find pictures of the clothes she's designed plus a link to her website at npr.org.

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