Little Rock, 1972. Two friends forever changed the view of fashion in central Arkansas.
Women were leaving the state to find the latest in fine clothing and accessory options, and these friends decided Arkansans deserved better.
Barbara Baber, co-founder of Barbara/Jean, the legendary upscale women’s clothing store, had a sister who was a model in New York.
“We had a plan that she was going to do the buying in New York and I was going to have the store. We were going to use a job opportunity to see each other and also to have fun.”
Baber and business partner Jean Chaffin together purchased a house on Cantrell Road across from Cantrell Gardens. The intention was to “just cute it up,” Baber says, but problems with the structure pushed the duo into building the mini-mall where Barbara/Jean is today.
With a lot of competition in the market for moderate-priced clothing, Baber had been keeping her eyes open for a competitive advantage, and she found it while in San Francisco.
“My husband had a meeting there and I went. I saw a line called J. Tiktiner there, and it was the most beautiful, beautiful thing I'd ever seen. It was French. And it was just gorgeous.”
Baber brought the brand to Arkansas and “it just flew out [the door].”
Barbara/Jean’s mission, since the beginning, has been to offer the world’s very best to the women of Arkansas, and in June of 1982, the specialty boutique gained attention in a Women’s Wear Daily piece titled “Barbara/Jean Carves its Niche in Little Rock.”
Once luxury clothing lines hit the racks at the store, Chaffin had the idea to introduce high-end cosmetics. Then came the shoes, jewelry and accessories the store still carries today.
“We figured out jewelry was a real money-maker and that jewelry doesn't take up much space,” says Greer Grace, Baber’s daughter and an owner of Barbara/Jean from 1985 until 2008.
When Grace first started working with her mother in the store, she brought an expertise in numbers. She had an MBA and a decade of experience in business under her belt.
“I think I'm the first one that ever looked at what we made a profit on last year and what we should go do the next year,” Grace says. “We got rid of our inventory, and we would bring in new fashion every year. Nowadays, you see the same thing a lot, but that's what Barbara/Jean focused on, and that's what the women wanted. That's why they came in season after season.”
During Grace’s tenure, the company experienced great growth both financially — sales went from $300,000 in 1973 to more than $5 million in the early 2000s — and in square footage when it added executive business, modern sportswear and contemporary departments.
With all of the growth came even more notice. In 1993, Hillary Clinton wore a Sarah Philips gown from Barbara/Jean to President Clinton’s inaugural ball, which was reported by news outlets like Women’s Wear Daily, People Magazine, Vogue and many others. The gown and another Sarah Philips suit from the store that she wore during her husband’s acceptance speech are now both on display in the Smithsonian.
In 2008, Christine Bailey, sales associate turned senior buyer, purchased the store from Grace. She had joined the team in 1992 and brought selling, buying and merchandising know-how with her.
“Well,” Bailey laughs, “I was 28 years old, and I literally answered an ad in the paper.” She was a jewelry sales representative in four different states, but was getting married to a Little Rock resident. “I knew I wanted to get off the road … I interviewed with Barbara and her daughter Greer and they hired me.
“I love and adore this store, and it is just where I've always been meant to be.”
Bailey felt strongly about attending European markets for new pieces “to continue to make Barbara/Jean really stand out and make us different than all the other boutiques in the state … and that turned out to be a very good decision for the store.”
“We always found our niche as being kind of a step above everything,” Grace says of Bailey’s visionary leadership.
And the fashion world was watching. In 2006, Vogue wrote a two-page spread and Harper’s Bazaar selected the company as a Style Leader for fashion merchandise and outstanding customer service. And in 2012, Barbara/Jean became the first store in the region to include a Lafayette 148 New York shop-in-shop.
Tiffany Robinson interviewed with Grace and scored an internship the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Hendrix College.
“I was able to work in all the departments that summer and learn about everything that goes on,” Robinson says.
Officially she joined payroll in 2001 as the marketing and promotions assistant after graduating. She worked her way up, moving to assistant buyer to senior buyer, then from merchandise manager to business manager.
In 2019, when Bailey decided to focus on her passion of helping the clients she had built relationships with, Robinson purchased the majority interest of Barbara/Jean from her. This new era reflects Robinson’s commitment to the customers, employees and community.
The company has been involved with many nonprofits in central Arkansas in one way or another through the years. Whether through fashion shows, exclusive trunk shows, auction items or dressing the guests, Barbara/Jean always shows up to help the community.
“We do a lot, and we should, because we have had lots of success from the community and a lot of support,” Baber says.
The 20th Century Club, Children’s Advocacy Center’s Women of Inspiration gala, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, Clinton Library, Race for the Cure, Arkansas Foodbank, Easterseals, Women and Children First, The Rep and so many others have been recipients of Barbara/Jean’s charity from the beginning, and there are no plans to change that. Employees are even encouraged to get involved by volunteering and are paid for time spent with nonprofits each month.
“This is something that always was meaningful to me as philanthropy has always been such an important part of my life as well,” Robinson says. “It’s great to work for a company who shares that value.”
Robinson is quick to say owning Barbara/Jean is her dream job, even if it's one she never anticipated.
When presented with the opportunity to move into the position of company president, “the timing was perfect” as she was expecting her son and the break from travel was welcomed. “And then when I was later approached with the opportunity to buy the business, I felt like I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I loved the idea of being able to lead us into the future.”
Robinson’s very first project in 2001 was celebrating the 30th anniversary of Barbara/Jean, and her research taught her about more than just fashion.
“One of my first interviews with Barbara left a lasting impression on me and brought to light some of the things I had always taken for granted. Things like back in 1972, it was not common for banks to give loans to women, so Barbara and Jean had to go to several banks to get the loan to build the building and open the store,” Robinson says.
“The fact that Barbara and Jean were progressive enough to want to build a building, which would not only house Barbara/Jean, but other businesses as well, speaks volumes.”
All of the female leads at Barbara/Jean through the years have impacted Robinson.
“I am beyond fortunate to have Barbara, Greer and Christine as mentors in my life," she says. "Each one brought a different set of expertise to share and inspire.”
There are countless stories about customers and celebrities through the years, but the common theme is that the real reward is in helping the women of the community.
“I think what we’ve always been really good at, thanks to Barbara's training, is listening to our clients and helping them find solutions — learning why they walked through the front door and doing our best to fill that need.
“Whether they actually just want to have a cup of coffee and tell us about something important going on in their life or if they need a new wardrobe for an upcoming trip, our job is to be there,” Robinson says. From photoshoots to first dates, “we won’t quit until we find a look [where] she feels and looks like the best version of herself.”
The friendships that develop from finding confidence in the fitting room are some of “the most valuable assets we have,” Robinson says. “We have so many clients and employees who are more like family. It’s a wonderful environment to be in each day.”
Baber enjoys seeing the transformations, too.
“You get together with a salesperson you really like, who likes you and understands what you want to do to make you into something a little bit nicer and better,” Baber says. “It gives you a lot of confidence when somebody puts something on you and tells you that you can wear it.”
“We have always prided ourselves on the genuine, honest relationships that we form with our clients,” Bailey adds. “When you work with someone for so many years and you end up working with their daughter or even their mother, it's just more than a salesperson relationship. It definitely becomes almost like family or more.”
From friends to mother and daughter to mentors and mentees, the company and the community would not be what it is today without Barbara/Jean’s legacy of professionalism, luxury and service.
“One of the most impressive things about Barbara/Jean to me is the strong female leadership and vision," Robinson says. "It started with Barbara and Jean, but continued with Greer and Christine. I hope to continue that legacy and pass it on to the next person, whoever that might be.”