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Beyond Performance: Patricia Barker, Dancewear Designer/ Business Owner

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Published September 1, 2008.

Patricia Barker started creating her own leotards shortly after she joined Pacific Northwest Ballet when she realized she was no longer tied to wearing only black leotards as she did as a student. But now that she could wear whatever she wanted, she found that many leotards available at the time (1981) didn’t fit her well. 

“A leotard to a dancer is like a suit is to a lawyer or a businessman,” says Barker. “We wear them for 8 to 10 hours a day and they need to be comfortable. They are also a reflection of our personalities.” She decided to create leotards and unitards made especially for professional dancers, constructed from fashion fabrics that moved and stretched, dried quickly, had a designer look, and, most importantly, had a great fit.

Initially she made items exclusively for herself and her friends. She cut apart her old leotards to see how they were constructed and took a sewing class. Soon she branched out to selling to other dancers. In 1984, dancewear-maker Bloch hired her as a spokesmodel and after learning she made her own dancewear, asked her to head a design team to help create dancewear for the company. In 1999, she left Bloch to found her own dancewear company, BKWear.

From the beginning, Barker knew that she did not want to compete with the large dancewear manufacturers. Rather, she would carve out a niche for BKWear as a specialty shop, one that could provide customized dancewear to a select customer base. “I learned you can’t be everything to everyone,” said Barker. “Our leotards, unitards and tights are not necessarily made for recreational-dancer body types.”

Barker retired from PNB in June, 2007 and from the stage in February, 2008. She and her husband Michael handle BKWear’s day-to-day operations and, at the height of production, staffing expands to five full-time plus a few part-time workers. Barker says she is happy with the small size of the company, which allows her to pursue other interests. Currently she serves as an artistic advisor to the Slovak National Theatre Ballet Company and has aspirations to one day become an artistic director.

So what is Barker’s advice for someone wishing to follow in her entrepreneurial footsteps? “Read. Get all the books you can on starting and running a small business,” says Barker. “A dancewear business is not just about designing leotards, it also has a business side.”

Early on, Barker realized that she had to understand every aspect of her business, from sewing to selling. “There was something new for me to learn every day,” she says. Many of the skills she needed—such as discipline and perseverance—were learned in the dance studio. “Whether it was how to make a spreadsheet, deal with suppliers, or do my taxes, the ability to learn new things was something I learned from dance. That became invaluable to me in running my business.”