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B.C. designer found her niche and never looked back

By Jim Gordon and Leeta Liepins

Published 12:16 PDT, Fri April 12, 2024

Her father was the first Black Speaker of the House for British Columbia. He was a well-known politician, a revered football player in the CFL, and there is a park dedicated to her father, Emery Barnes, in Yaletown. Recently, Our City Tonight had a chance to sit down for a chat with one of his very accomplished daughters, Beverli Barnes. She is a designer, an athlete, and a writer, who has made Vancouver her home since returning from New York in 1983. As a designer, she is proud to say that everything is made in Vancouver and always will be. “I’m not a supporter of cheap labour or throw away fashion,” Barnes says, “quality over quantity has always been my mandate. I’ve built my business one customer at a time. Many of whom are still with me today”.

OCT: Let’s start with your design career as it’s quite an interesting story.

BB: I’ve got a niche market, doing the lawyer’s robes and judicial robes and regalia for universities. I had wanted to be a fashion designer forever, since I was 5 years old. My mom made all our clothes when we were kids and I think that’s where I got the “bug”. She was very creative and I was like a dog with a bone; I knew what I wanted to do and I went after it and I got it. There have been some bumps along the way but I’m happy to say I have a very successful business

OCT: But both parents weren’t equally supportive.

BB: That’s true. My mom was a 1000 percent behind me, and helped me find Parsons School of Design in New York—it was a very difficult school to get into as they only accepted about 30 students each year into the fashion design program. My father was the opposite. He said something to me which I will never forget: you have three strikes against you—they only accept the crème de la crème from around the world, you are black, and you are a woman. That really stuck with me, but as I’ve learned, if someone says to me you can’t do that, watch out!

OCT: That’s true. We’ve known you a long time and you’ve done everything you said you would do, with your successful design career, from your former company called ‘Is It Legal’, to currently designing under your own name (, and you’ve also expanded your business across Canada. Tell us about working early on with Emily Carr University.

BB: That’s right. It started with Emily Carr when it became a university, and I approached them about who was designing their regalia. They wanted someone local, so they hired me and I did their robes for eleven years. Then it just branched off to University of Alberta, Mount Royal, Manitoba, SFU, really prominent universities. And then incorporating Indigenous art to all the regalia—which is the way the country is going—has been phenomenal as a designer to work with all of these great artists.

OCT: We love the story that explains how and why you got into designing robes. Your best friend was a nurse and she became a lawyer and she realized the clothing was a problem.

BB: My friend, Michelle—we’ve known each other since the 1980’s—decided to switch careers and become a lawyer. She was “called to the bar” and she said to me, these robes are awful, they don’t fit, they’re basically men’s clothing. She said that I needed to get into this business, but I didn’t even know what this stuff looked like. So, I started with shirts, then waist coats, robes, and the whole thing just took off. In 1996, I was nominated for “Entrepreneur of the Year” by McCarthy Tetrault, one of the largest law firms in the country, for innovation, design, and marketing.

OCT: That’s wonderful. You found your niche and have kept it up to this day. We must mention your athleticism. You’ve been an athlete for most of your adult life.

BB: My first year at Parsons Design School in New York, the level of stress was something I’d never experienced before, and I had ulcers in my first semester. I’d never felt such pain in my life, and my doctor asked what I was doing for exercise. I said nothing, I didn’t like to exercise. He said if I didn’t find some way to deal with the stress physically, I wouldn’t see thirty. That scared me to death. And so, I started aerobics, and I haven’t stopped.

OCT: And you’re a runner, which is so inspiring. We want to end on your memoir. Knowing your life, we must say, we’re excited to read this when it comes out. And you’ve warned us, it’ll be a tell-all from your childhood through your adulthood and everything in between.

BB: There will be some shocking things, and some incredible stories, like my time at Studio 54 in New York, how I got there and what I went through. There’s so much that has happened and you can’t make this stuff up. It will be very entertaining, but there will be some dark stuff. I’m really excited about writing it and getting it out there.

More on Beverli Barnes at

For the video interview in full go to

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