In a town filled with lawyers and lobbyists, we know a thing or two about professional dress codes — and the struggles that come with them, like sprinting to meetings in pencil skirts and navigating sidewalk grates in skinny-heeled pumps. So, we're pretty taken with the story of Rochelle Behrens, a D.C. local who is slowly building an empire off of her exasperation with traditional work clothes. The short story? Behrens channeled her irritation with ill-fitting button-up shirts and launched her own line — simply called The Shirt — with the mission of creating a blouse that doesn't gape open between the buttons.
We were already fans of Behrens' pretty, feminine tops, and, after snagging a one-on-one chat, we dig her even more. This gal is a real go-getter — she's attracted famous fans (think Oprah and the cast of E! News), patented a few fashion inventions, and landed her product in stores from Connecticut to California — all by the time she turned 29. The former Washington insider (she was a White House intern and a lobbyist) gave us the inside scoop on her seemingly overnight success, what she misses about the Hill, and how you (yes, you!) can achieve your dreams — read on!
Photographed by Maria Carey
What inspired you to start designing?
“When I was working on the Hill, I always needed proper button-down shirts but could never find one that fit properly. I was always pinning my shirts closed from the inside to keep them from gaping open! I wanted something beautiful, feminine, and tailored — I became obsessed with the idea of the perfect shirt, and decided to do something about it. I came up with a prototype, took it to NYC, and had a small run manufactured. I sent [the shirts] to my family and friends to test out, and got a really positive response."
The Shirt blouse, rag & bone pants, Zara heels.
When did you decide to devote all your time to The Shirt?
“I had a trunk show for a few friends, and an NPR reporter showed up to cover it. The Today Show picked it up and called me. At that point, I was working in politics and moonlighting as a designer — I knew I had a good concept, but [the Today Show coverage] pushed me to pursue it full time. I couldn’t exactly hide it from my colleagues and say I was going to a doctor’s appointment! I took it as a sign that there was a market for my product and interest, and I left my job to devote full time to The Shirt.”
We hear that Oprah is one of your famous fans — tell us about that!
“I sent a shirt to Oprah, and in 24 hours, her production team contacted me to feature it as one of Oprah’s Picks and do a giveaway to her audience. It forced me to build out infrastructure!”
Editor’s note: Oprah named The Shirt the "fashion must-have of 2011" and Behrens' line was quickly picked up by Bloomingdale's, Fred Segal, and specialty stores throughout the country.
What has been your proudest accomplishment in the four-and-a-half years since you designed your first prototype?
“The Oprah moment was incredible, but I was in the New York Times' Sunday Style feature. There was an editorial about The Shirt, and it was a great feeling to be respected in fashion and journalism. [The Shirt] is a really high-quality line — we use exquisite Italian cotton, beautiful silks from China — and it's also a fashion line with seasons!"
We asked Creative Director Meredith Carter to give us the scoop on Spring '13 for The Shirt:
“The Spring ’13 line was inspired by the culture and colors of Italy — from rich jades and roses in the architecture to the fanciful tassels found in luxurious interiors, or just the Italian way of finding enjoyment in an everyday moment, like hopping on a bicycle to go to the market. My favorite shirt this season is The Signature Shirt in Bicycles print for that very reason!”
What’s the best business advice that you’ve gotten?
“Women are generally inclined not to go for it — my parents encouraged me to dream big. My impulse is to ‘just do it.' Had I known all the hardship I would encounter, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So, just do it, with reckless abandon — it’s the only way to succeed. You figure it out if you have to. Don’t over-analyze. Finally, you must really, really care about it — it consumes you and becomes your life. It would be hard to work as hard as I do if I didn’t love what I was doing.”
What’s your ultimate goal for The Shirt?
“My ultimate goal is to make women look and feel incredible. I want to outfit the stylish, cool, young professional women — and to reach as many as I can! Women’s fashion is serious business — we’ve gotten through a little bit, but we still have a long way to go. We’re building a really modern digital flagship and working really diligently to build a strong online presence.”
The Shirt blouse, J.Crew skirt and heels, Zara tote.
Do you miss anything about working on the Hill?
“D.C. can be a company town — sometimes I miss being at the heart of politics. I love being an entrepreneur, but sometimes I wonder what it would be like to not have to pave my own way and take a well-trodden path [instead]. The wonderful thing about being an entrepreneur is that it’s flexible — every couple of weeks I like to go on a trip. I recently took a trip to South Africa for a safari. You can work from anywhere, but the downside is you are always working!”
A peek at how Rochelle makes The Shirt work in her own closet.
Tell us about your favorite places to hang out in D.C.
“I live in Logan Circle and I’m at Whole Foods basically every day — I love cooking and entertaining! There’s nothing better than wandering Georgetown, checking out the market, and I love Kafé Leopold for cappuccino. I really like all the new furniture shops on 14th Street — check out Timothy Paul for bedding! Also, I bicycle everywhere — to meetings, to the office — and I always do it in heels!”