Northern Michigan Shopping: Traverse City’s Haystacks Dress Shops

Northern Michigan’s most successful women’s fashion line is comfortable, cheery, wide-eyed and fun. Just like the woman behind it.

A woman sashays down the snowy sidewalk, her black and white skirt perfectly skimming her hips. The fabric print is a maze of lacy interlocking circles, an echo of the sleepy snowflakes drifting toward the pavement.

Or perhaps the skirt is turquoise, pressed with textural vines that tangle and unlock in a pleasing visual rhythm.

Maybe the woman wears a pair of mocha-colored pants embossed with a textured hibiscus motif.

These are the fashion creations of Lizzi Lambert, owner of Haystacks clothing company, which has grown to four locations and a burgeoning online business since Lambert began the company 10 years ago. Slim and 50-ish with shoulder-length mahogany-colored hair and an energetic presence, Lambert produces the Haystacks line in Suttons Bay with fabrics imported from Brazil, Los Angeles, New York and France. Some fabrics are leftovers she buys cheap from large textile mills. The clothes convey an easy artful profile, suggest a spirited, wide-eyed approach to the world. The sensibility reveals a connection to their inquisitive creator, who is continuously on the hunt for the next good thing, curiosities and collectibles, from the appealing to the offbeat, to bring into her life.

One such acquisition was a farm in Northport, which she and her husband, Steve, bought, sight unseen, over the Internet during the hazy dawn of Google when people were just discovering what they could find with their computers. The Lamberts were living in Florida, but had a dream that they’d move to Northern Michigan because they felt it would be a better place to raise their family. A hobby farm set amid the hills outside Northport, Lake Michigan not far over the ridge—in three directions—matched their vision.

Though they weren’t farmers, they gave hay farming a try, mostly so Lizzi could stay busy in their new place. Besides, that’s what the farm had been used for, and the equipment came with the sale. “It was fun,” Lizzi says. “But there were too many equipment breakdowns.” And fixing the machines was just too complicated and vexing. “I couldn’t make hay on the farm,” she says, “so I decided to make haystacks my own way.”

Lambert had developed a love of sewing from an early age, watching her mom sew for a small store called the Penny Pincher in Franklin, Michigan. The store basically sold the clothes as she made them. “She’d sew 10 things, and when someone bought them, she’d run back and sew 10 more. It was a formative part of my life,” Lambert says. When Lambert was in kindergarten her mom broke her leg badly and had to be in a cast for what eventually stretched to seven years. Mom moved her sewing to her basement, and while she sewed, Lambert and her sister spent their time creating mountains of Barbie clothes.

Years later, up on the farm in Northport, Lambert still had her mother’s old Pfaff sewing machine for inspiration—especially potent, since her mom had recently passed away. “Mom put me through college sewing on that,” she says. Deciding to try her hand at an apparel line seemed an organic next step. She purchased a home serger, found a newsprint fabric she loved and, with $1,500 in business expenses on her credit card, began making pants out of her home.

When the pants sold more or less immediately, Lambert knew she’d hit upon something, but she needed a supplier for the right kind of fabric. “It was always stretch fabric I was after,” she explains. “That’s what my mother sewed for rich Detroit ladies in the 60’s, and it was the perfect thing.”

Lambert scoured the Internet for a fabric manufacturer that would agree to sell wholesale to a small designer. She found a Los Angeles supplier who agreed to print 20 yards of a custom fabric. A few years later, desperate to find more of a discontinued fabric, she tracked down the Brazilian company whose name was printed on the roll. “Somehow I got them to make fabric for me,” she says. The signature fabric is a knitted stretch nylon with a sumptuous drape; it hugs the body without pulling or puckering. Lambert orders a textured version and a line of eye-popping graphic prints. She has a penchant for curving vines and circles, but nothing is fussy or overly intricate. The statement is bold and roundly pleasing. Each season she chooses a set of shades and has the fabrics custom dyed.

Ten years after Lambert sewed those first pants in her farmhouse dining room, the sewing room in the Haystacks design studio reflects the verve and ordered chaos of a growing small business. Beneath bright lights, fat cylindrical bolts of colorful fabric line the shelves to one side, and the floor space is crowded with machinery—cutting tables and sewing machines. Toward the back, two seamstresses sit between stacks of partially finished watermelon-colored tank tops and fill the space with the deliberate hum of their machines.

Kelly Florip, the webmaster and general manager, wanders in with a stack of printed online orders. Lambert, flips through the pile. “White pants!” she says. “I’ve never really thought of doing the full length epants in white. Why not? That’s great!” She slides the order to its own pile for the seamstresses; if the design studio doesn’t have the stock to fulfill an online order, the seamstresses create it that day. “We like to pretend we’re a big business, even if we’re not,” Lambert explains, of the rapid response system. Haystacks may be small, but it’s clear from the stack of orders that it also has a loyal following.

The mailing labels on the packages going out that day read like a poem: Contoocook, New Lenox, Napa Valley, Grosse Pointe. “We ship out all over the country, but all the customers are like a family. They all have this thing in common,” says Lambert. That “thing” is an appreciation for elemental style. You won’t find a zipper, button, or stiff dart on any of Haystacks clothing. Working from a few simple designs including a bias-cut skirt, yoga-styled pants, and basic tops, Lambert lets the fabrics speak for themselves.

Getting those fabric orders right all the way from Brazil isn’t easy. Lambert doesn’t speak Portuguese for starters. The freight must come by air. There are minimum orders. And Lambert’s office is regularly inundated by enough swirling botanical and sharply geometric-patterned fabric samples to make one’s head spin. But for Lambert, it’s worth the hassle to get this particular fabric. “I love that it’s a little exotic,” she says, rubbing a corner of heat-pressed textured fabric between her fingers. “Brazil has some romance for me, but there are also designers from Paris using this stuff and selling things for $400 a piece—I just found that out a month ago.”

Wearing black pants and a simple white blouse, Lambert strolls though her studio as though she’s seeing it for the first time. She can’t help this; though the studio is orderly in the way that it must be to operate a successful business, it’s also strewn here and there with the beginnings of ideas. Walking into the space is like walking into a perpetual springtime garden made of fabric, where scraps, trim, and buttons hang around like buds ready to burst into the blossom of new pieces. Lambert picks up a scarf and uncoils it from its figure-eight knot. “I love this because it’s unusual,” she says, referring to the small fabric bobbles hanging from it like fresh dew. She holds it at a slant to the beaming florescent light overhead, squints, and sets it down again.

A set of shelves house a pile of fabric with a cartoonish owl print. “This used to be dressing room curtains,” Lambert explains. “I couldn’t let it go; it’s too cool.” Beside the fabric sits a collection of spools wrapped in vintage ric-rac, its scribbled curves just waiting to trim something. On the bottom shelf there is a box of old zippers. “Look at this! These could be something. They are something, but I’m not sure what yet,” says Lambert. She gathers up handfuls of them, the metal flashing in her hand. Her ebullience is catching.

At first glance, Lambert’s office appears exactly as an office should: there is a desk, a set of bookshelves, a broad table for spreading out work, and a little end table to one side. On closer inspection, though, it belies a creative mind at work. The bookshelves house not books but an odd assemblage of vintage postcards, beaded belts of the variety sold at tourist shops, a ceramic clown’s head and a vintage pocket sundial, among other things.

The shelves function as a place to warehouse ideas and inspiration. “I don’t know why I have this stuff,” she says. “I just like to look at it.” She picks up the sundial and flips open its lid. “Why do I have this? I don’t know.” She aims it north and plucks up its spindle; she squints and tilts her wrist to bring the dial level with her eyes. The sundial is etched metal, its face circled in punched scrollwork. When she holds it at an angle the spindle points toward a scrap of Brazilian fabric named Doily; it is Lambert’s current favorite print. The pattern on the sundial’s face clearly echoes the Doily design. Lambert snaps the sundial shut and shrugs.

“I think I like to collect marbles best of all,” she says, and tugs a large mason jar full of them off the shelf. “They’re just so, well, appealing.” Sunlight streaming through her office window catches the marbles; they glint flashes of gold, silver, cool blue, and shimmers of emerald and red. Beyond her outstretched arm is the table she uses as a workspace. It’s piled with samples from a vendor from India; there are silky scarves, chunky metal bracelets, and colorful fabric purses. The table looks like an explosion of the marbles; it’s all the same colors and subtle sparkle morphed into fabric and jewelry.

Lambert explains that her idea for next season is a fusion of India and Indian motifs. “I don’t know; could that work?” she asks. She picks up one of the sample scarves; it’s an angular print trimmed with fat silver beads. “I think it could.”

Lambert spends a lot of time traveling to fashion and vendor shows in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles to stay up on trends, so a Haystacks store (there are three: Traverse City, Suttons Bay, and Leland, plus a store called Alice’s Closet in Leland’s Fishtown) serves up a product line with current style sense.

But the cut of the clothes rarely varies. As Lambert explains, “people wear the same pair of Levi’s forever. I believed that could happen at Haystacks too.” The clothes are designed to fit anyone who tries them on, and because they are stretchy, size is only a suggestion. You can go larger or smaller depending on the type of fit you prefer. The Tatua bias skirts can be worn with the lettuce-style side seams at the sides or down the middle. “Women are beautiful,” says Lambert. “People have to love their bodies, whatever shape they are.” If you mention shapewear, she shudders. “I make my clothes for every age group and every body,” she says.

This sensibility is in part derived from the mood of Northern Michigan. As Lambert says, “being in Northern Michigan is about feeling comfortable and looking good.” She intends for her clothes to be the ones you reach for first when you pack a bag for vacation, since they don’t wrinkle or require complicated washing, yet they’re the products of fashion inspiration from Brazil to Paris to L.A.

Throughout the years, Lambert has made her living stitching up riding breeches, giving horseback riding tours, working at the former Mettler’s clothing store in Petoskey, selling beaded bracelets with her kids at a farmers market, and running a T-shirt shop for a summer, among other things. Lambert's husband and son, Max, grow lavender on their Northport farm, which they sell at their stores, roadside stands and farmers markets, and her children have spent summers sorting buttons, counting money, filing, and helping out however they can. Her daughter Kacie, 18, has her own line of repurposed apparel called Down in History.

All of this collected experience and inspiration finds its way into each cheerfully appointed Haystacks store, where you are greeted with racks of skirts, neatly folded towers of pants, and baskets of colorful scarves: the fabric expression of Lizzi Lambert’s obsessively creative vision. If you try on a skirt, a sales associate will thoughtfully slip a plain black shirt into your dressing room so you can see what the skirt would look like as part of an outfit.

What the skirt looks like, then, is imagination, Brazil, a spacious sewing room in Sutton’s Bay, and the faint echo of a jar of marbles. It is beautiful. It fits.

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