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Farewell to Hawke’s Bay fashion designer

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This week we were sad to hear of the passing of Barbara Herrick.

Herrick was the founder and designer of the fashion label Babs Radon, which created garments synonymous with style, elegance, and glamour in 1960s New Zealand.

Barbara had a close relationship with our museum. We were lucky to have partnered with Barbara in 2008 to do the exhibition Babs Radon – The Elegant Moment which was about the Babs Radonclothing label and brought together a beautiful display of her designs. The museum also has a wonderful collection of over 20 Babs Radongarments (and the wonderful matching fabric coat hangers that the brand was renowned for). Over half of these garments were kindly donated to the museum by Deanne Spiro. Deanne was Barbara's assistant at Babs Radon. The Babs Radon fashion archive holds a key position in our 20th Century costume and textiles collection.

Barbara’s first boutique opened in Auckland in 1957 in partnership with her husband Don Penberthy. The name Babs Radoncombined the couple’s Christian names – Barbara and Don. Barbara was the sole designer, while Don, whose background was in engineering, became skilled in bias cutting. While formal and special occasion gowns were initially the mainstay of her range, Barbara quickly developed a reputation for elegant, well-cut suits and daytime dresses which offered young New Zealand women a modern alternative. For Barbara, fashion represented confidence and self-esteem, qualities which attracted clientele with similar values. In Barbara’s words “I wanted to make beautiful clothes for women to feel good in.”

Barbara and Don built their small boutique up into an exclusive wholesale business, distributing Barbara’s designs to department stores around New Zealand. The first competitive recognition of a Babs Radon design came as a commendation in the 1962 Golden Shears Awards. In 1964 Babs Radon received the premier award for Racewear – the Silver Shears. The New Zealand Wool Awards were an even more significant accolade, and in 1963, competing against a field of more than 5300 garments, the Babs Radon‘Lambda’ dress and jacket ensemble received the Supreme Award. With these major national awards and publicity, Babs Radon was firmly established as one of the leading high fashion labels.

Barbara took over the business in its entirety in the late 1960s, and as an independent working mother continued to build on her already significant reputation as a designer. A regular in New Zealand and Australian Vogue, her designs were high-profile. In the later 1960s she completed prestigious design commissions such as the air hostess uniforms for airline New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC), the bridal outfits for a Vice-Regal wedding, and the personal outfits for pioneering female broadcaster and spokesperson Cherry Raymond. We have two Babs Radon dress and jacket sets worn by Cherry Raymond in our collection.

By the 1970s fashion was changing. The high-quality fabrics which Babs Radonand its contemporaries based their reputations on had become too expensive for a market looking to get more for their fashion dollar. As the emphasis in local fashion moved from couture towards design-led manufacture, Barbara’s interest waned, and in the mid-1970s she retired the Babs Radon label.

We will remember Barbara through collections like ours where her legacy as a fashion icon will live on and inspire generations of new designers.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 11 November 2023 and written by Sara Perrett, Collections Care and Access Manager at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Babs Radon – The Elegant Moment 2008 exhibition at MTG (then HBMAG)

13 November 2023

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