We sat down with the creator of the Sarah Alexandra shirt, Renee Bassetti, to uncover the inspirations that brought her to designing the world's finest shirt for women.
What were the early influences in your life that ultimately led you to where you are today?
As a child I was exposed to beautiful clothing and beautiful things. When shopping for clothes, my mother included me in the decision making process, and taught me to discern quality. I loved to turn garments inside out to see how they were made.
Another one was that my mother let me sew on her Singer Featherweight Sewing Machine when I was about 6. I was immediately fascinated by being able to sew. Constructing with fabric and getting the pieces to fit together intrigued me.
Another influence was how something felt next to my skin and the imported cottons were magnificent to the touch. All of my life I have been drawn to the Italian and Swiss cottons as they are the finest.
I went to Sun Valley to ice skate in the summer when I was 11 and I walked into Picardi, a small European boutique in the Sun Valley Lodge. I purchased a pale yellow Italian cotton shirt with gray mother of pearl buttons. It was the silkiest cotton and obviously I've never forgotten it. I would have to say that was a pivotal moment regarding my relationship with Italian and Swiss cottons.
I was truly influenced by my father, my grandfathers, my uncle, and my great aunt as they had their own businesses. If you had an idea, why not make it into a business, hence my entrepreneurial spirit was probably fostered by them.
What happened that caused you to design the Renee Bassetti shirt?
I was out shopping for shirts in Seattle early 1989 and I was not finding a single shirt to buy. Then I had the thought - If I designed a shirt - what would it look like? One thing led to another and in 3 years I had developed the shirt I was looking for.
What inspired you to create your shirt design?
There was not a great woman's shirt in the market place and I had frequented some of the finest shirtmakers in the world. They would have the beautiful cottons but not the design.
How did you start selling your shirts?
When I was working on the prototypes, a friend dropped by and saw me sewing a shirt. She tried one on and said, "This is the best looking shirt I have ever seen." I subsequently did a trunk show at her home and sold some shirts to her friends. That was the beginning of me becoming an entrepreneur.
You have a philosophy, 'buy quality rather than quantity.' Quality is a big deal to you, as it is to everyone at Sarah Alexandra. Tell us more about why it matters so much?
I have always appreciated anything that was beautifully executed. Quality is equal parts design, craftsmanship and materials. In our case that's why we use only the finest cottons woven in Italian and Swiss mills. Also speaking of quality, I would rather have quality than quantity.
Comfort makes a big impact when wearing clothes, influencing how we feel in them. Can you share how that factors into a Sarah Alexandra shirt?
I wanted the design to be flattering and I wanted to be able to move comfortably. To me it is as much about form as it is about function. There was a lot of engineering and real-life testing that went into creating the body of this shirt. I had to get a woven fabric to have the ultimate in mobility and comfort. The armhole and setting in the sleeves were critical and I spent months on that aspect of the shirt. I literally went 1/4" by 1/4". There is an integrity of fit that gives you the freedom of movement. There is a misnomer that a big, loose shirt is easier to move in. The closer the seams are to our anatomy with an added ease, the better the garment will move. Accomplishing the body design and combining that with the fine cotton resulted in my shirt not only feeling wonderful but also fitting superbly.
Is there a secret to how your shirts complement all women, not matter her age, size or style?
Number one there is really nothing about the shirt that will distract the eye. This may sound like a contradiction but the design is complicated simplicity. The collar is pivotal in creating the leading line. There is no confusion about where the leading line takes the eye - drawing it right up to the face. I wanted the shirt to become the woman wearing it. It is all about her; her eyes, her soul, and her personality, which is held in her face. The collar acts as a frame around a picture.
Can you expand about the versatility of the style? How it works with any outfit - dressy or casual?
The shirt design is so well thought out and executed that it is substantial. Every detail was analyzed and it wasn't over stylized. Visually there are no complications. I would define it as a bit of, "feminine architecture". Therefore, having said all that, the shirt combined with jeans as well as a silk taffeta long dressy skirt. It will take you from the boardroom to the ballroom. It's so good looking that it looks good with everything. It's a masterwork in complex ideas delivered in a simple design. It has no limitations.
You began designing the shirt 27 years ago and have sold it to countless women all over the world. Why is it still so popular today? And what feedback have they shared with you?
I've had the privilege of fitting thousands of women from all over the world with every imaginable body type. The amazing thing is this shirt works beautifully on every single woman. They try the shirt on and the immediate response is - "this is a fabulous shirt!" The comments I hear are the same even when the women themselves couldn't be more different. "This is the best looking shirt I have ever owned, my husband loves it, my sister wants one, my friends never stop complementing me, I need to order more. When I want to look and feel great I reach for your shirt. All of my other shirts have been eliminated. I just look better in your shirt. Every time I step out the door wearing your shirt, I receive compliments. I have never owned another article of clothing that has been as admired." That's the hallmark of great design: everyone gets it and everyone loves it. It is effortless and this is the best looking women's shirt in the world. Hands down. The quality is impeccable. It flatters EVERY woman. There's not a woman on the planet who won't look fabulous in this shirt. This is the most important aspect: it really takes on the personality of the woman wearing it.