National Picnic’s specialty is the type of dress you toss into your gym bag, and when you put it on to go to work after performing an ungodly amount of burpees, you appear put together. This is the “pull it off the hanger and throw it on in 30 seconds flat because it doesn’t have to be ironed” dress. (In exactly how many colors does the National Picnic V-neck picnic dress come in?)
And this is the dress that designer Betsy Cook will make you to order wait a minute now in her 1,600-square-foot Haddonfield boutique.
“A woman asked me the other day, ‘Are you a dressmaker? ’” Cook said as I caressed every cozy frock, held T-shirts to my body, and inspected every seam that she and Lorraine Delphey made. “But that’s a loaded question,” Cook continued. “Because people assume you will make a dress for them. Technically, I can make you a dress, but it’s my dress. I can just make it fit so you are happy with the way it fits.”
More and more local designers like Mary Alice Duff of East Falls’ Alice Alexander and Bela Shehu of Nino Brand have taken to small-batch manufacturing in their own Philadelphia-based boutiques. I’m finding that industrial cutting tables, like the one that takes up a chunk of space at National Picnic, and straight-stitch sewing machines are as common in start-up boutiques as mannequins and sales racks.
The reasons are many: Designers who oversee their own manufacturing create less waste. In an industry that’s holding zero-waste business practices up as ideal, that’s a good thing. Slow fashion making clothes by hand stateside instead of sweatshops overseas is becoming an important part of a designer’s story. (Especially those stories they tell on Instagram.) Manufacturing overseas is also expensive and stands to become only more costly if looming tariffs are enacted.
There is also the personal-touch factor. When I walked into National Picnic last week, Cook was there to greet me. As I tried on dresses, she told me that she could make them with small tops and medium bottoms — if I needed — to fit my figure. She warned me that the sweatshirt dress fabric was less stretchy than the cotton spandex blends (whew, it still fit), and if I liked a certain style of dress, but wanted it in a different color, she could make it for me within two weeks.
“The whole idea is for people to leave satisfied,” Cook said.
The clothing is as reasonably priced as it is cute, ranging from $48 for a tee to $198 for a fit-and-flare dress.
Cook, 47, started her career as a graphic artist, but like many Gen Xers she saw her line of work go from a hands-on trade to a digitally focused one. That didn’t make her happy. As a mom of two young children, she knew she had many working years ahead of her. She turned to sewing, a skill she learned in eighth grade, as a creative outlet. Clothes, unlike web design, were an art form she could perfect and that she could also hold in her hands.
She made T-shirts with contrasting sleeves now one of National Picnic’s signature items — for herself. Her friends liked them and asked her to make them some. Eventually she found herself selling clothing at craft shows and open-air markets. Around 2011, she launched a website and settled on the name National Picnic because her pieces were made in America and, Cook said, “my clothing were the kind of pieces you could easily wear to a picnic.” In 2013, Cook committed to fashion full time and in 2016 she moved into a shared retail space in Old City with longtime special occasion designer Lele Tran. There, Cook said, she grew her following with city shoppers and tourists.
The grand opening for National Picnic’s Haddonfield store was in October.
Cook stores bolts of printed and monotone fabric under the massive industrial table. Four machines line the left side of the store. On most days Cook wears something she’s made. Today she’s wearing one of the versions of her sweatshirt dress fashioned from chunky sweater knit fabric with raw edges. I want it.
“I want people to think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe she makes everything in her shop,’ " Cook said. “I want my customers to picture me making clothes especially for them. It’s great imagery in a world where too many people don’t know where their clothing is coming from.”