Back in 1993, Janet Freeman’s sister requested that she make her a pair of winter pants “that recognized the fact she was a girl,” recalls Freeman. And that desire to show off her curves evolved into Portland-based Betty Rides, one of the country’s first women’s-only outerwear companies.
Freeman had the skills, with a fine arts degree from Parsons School of Design in New York City, and stints as a designer at Jantzen Swimwear and at a men’s snowboard company — Tonawawa — that she co-founded in 1989. “And I knew my sister was right,” says Freeman. “There just wasn’t much women’s-specific outerwear out there.” So Freeman “created a little line,” as she describes it, and brought it to a fashion trade show in Las Vegas the following year.
Her hunch was spot on. Reaction to Freeman’s designs was enthusiastic from the start. That little line grew gradually for the first 10 years, and then doubled from 2005 to 2007 before leveling off in the later part of the decade. Betty Rides’ retail distribution — which Freeman establishes at annual trade shows, including one in Munich, Germany — covers the globe, including Europe, South America and Australia. Today the firm employs a staff (along with a variety of freelancers) at its Southeast Portland headquarters, a sweet clapboard house bedecked in pink walls and crystal chandeliers, an appealing hodge-podge of desks, design tables and wandering dogs.
Betty Rides’ looks are feminine without being overtly frilly, with lines designed to fit and flatter a woman’s shape. An otherwise masculine plaid is softened by a mint green and gray color palette; florals, animal prints and acid washes also show up in the collections she and her staff design each year. How does Freeman know what will sell? “We get ideas and inspiration from everywhere,” she says, from Vogue fashion spreads to requests from the female athletes Betty Rides sponsors. They also listen closely to their customers, both retailers and end users. “I think that’s how design works. It’s all so subjective.”
It also doesn’t hurt to have Freeman’s pluck and business acumen. She shrugs off compliments about her success with a casual confidence. “It’s kind of common sense,” Freeman remarks. “We focus on fit and quality, and we make things that are fun and are cute. If you can deliver it on time and make it for less than someone will pay for it, it seems like a good idea.” Today Betty Rides focuses on water wear and apparel for the surf market, with a line of swimsuits and rash guards.
Her challenge, she says, was bringing production back to the U.S. Her first beta-test line of surf wear was made at a garment manufacturer in Oregon. “It would be two-thirds cheaper to make it in China,” she concedes, “but I’m starting to put my foot down. I want to bring jobs back here. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
It certainly adds another variable into an already competitive business. “That’s OK,” she says, with another shrug. “This is Oregon. Didn’t we invent recycling?” (Oregon did, in fact, pass the nation’s first “bottle bill,” putting a deposit on bottles and cans.) “I like that we try to do things the right way — even if it isn’t always the easy way.”
To find out where you can shop for Betty Rides, visit the company’s website.