Branksome Hall grad wins over Manhattan

by Kathleen Sloan

It's a long way from Toronto's Branksome Hall School for girls to New York's stylish Bergdorf Goodman, but Jennifer Bawden has gone the distance.

Late last year, the 26-year-old Canadian designer achieved a major coup by having her sophisticated cocktail wear in the windows of Bergdorf's.

Bubbling with energy, Bawden is no shrinking violet. On a recent visit to Toronto, she spoke confidently of her achievements. 

"I made my decision to come to New York City years ago after I had spent a year working as assistant designer with Frank Usher (an established evening design house) in London, England, once I had graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles."

"Although I love Toronto-- I come home at least half a dozen times a year-- I felt then that if I came (back), it would take me four or five years to get established and then even longer to prove myself in New York. So, I thought, 'Why not go straight to new York?' "

While Bawden, also a University of Western Ontario graduate, ostensibly moved to New York to form her own design company, she simultaneously established herself as one of the city's busiest junior committee members, regularly sought after to chair one major fundraising activity after another.
It's a designer/socialite lifestyle that takes some cash -- New York social events often cost a hefty $500-a-plate and up -- which Bawden manages as a go-getter (she also consults on interior design and does private design wear) and with her family connections. She is the oldest of eight children of Calgary-based energy entrepreneur Peter Bawden.

"New York is really a small town, like anywhere else," she says. "I had a few friends from London, L.A. and Toronto here in New York -- we all sort of ran in the same circles. Photographers at social auctions would snap me in different designs of mine and eventually women started asking me where they could get one like it. These are women who can afford to pay $1,600 or $1,800 for a dress."

Bawden's formal evening dresses and cocktail wear are romantic and sexy. "I think women are much more flattered by a romantic look. When women wear plain, tight, short dresses I think they lack femininity. Even if it's just a touch of something--small bows or flowers-- that adds romance. The skinny little dresses that are popular now are almost a little sleazy, I think. You can have tight and short but give it softness." 

One example is found in a dress featured in Bergdorf Goodman's windows: a four-ply black silk crepe dress featuring a deep scope neckline, lavishly adorned with black feathers.

Canadians can hope to find Jennifer Bawden's cocktail line here some time this year. She is negotiating with buyers at Holt Renfrew and Creeds, both of which have expressed an interest in her work.