Barbara Biernat (on the right) with Verena Mahin and a training client.
Barbara Biernat is a personal shopper to the stars: Dressage stars, that is, including Adrienne Lyle, Shannon Peters, Christine Traurig and up and comer Sarah Lockman, just to name a few.
But unlike some celebrity services, Barbara is no "yes" girl. Her clients' show ring appearance is a reflection of her work, and if something doesn't look quite right on a rider, famous or not, it's not going out the door of her Horse and Rider Boutique.
"My only interest is in my clients looking good," says Barbara, a native of Germany who has called California home for several years. "If the outfit is too boring, too this or that, or the rider doesn't look good in it, I say so."
Her honesty is one reason for Barbara's growing success since she got started as a personal shopper about four years ago. Impeccable customer service and extensive connections in the world of international equestrian attire are attributes her clients also count on.
Barbara rode seriously herself, competing up to Prix St. Georges and taking several young horses to Germany's Bundeschampionats over the years. At about 21, she burned out on riding and moved on to a 12-year career in the entertainment business. She worked with rock bands for independent record companies and eventually ran her own artist management company, travelling frequently between Amsterdam and Los Angeles. That became a little too much like babysitting bratty adults, which inspired her to reconnect with friends and associates in the equestrian world. By comparison, working with riders, even at the highest levels, is a breeze, she laughs.
Barbara picked a perfect time to pitch her unique services. Ten years ago, black and white outfits were the norm in the dressage arena and there was little room for dressing to express personality and have some fun.
Dressage fashion remains elegant and traditional, but shifting attitudes and evolving USEF attire rules have created considerable latitude in colors for coats, boots, helmets, shirts and stock ties, not to mention bling on almost any part of an outfit. It's now OK to match coat, helmet and boot color for example. In the past, riders often kept one show jacket for 10 years or more. (Famously, Steffen Peters competed in shadbelly of his youth until 2011, although that had more to do with luck than dress code restrictions.)
Nowadays, riders who can afford it have a few outfits, often to match a particular horse's coat color or just for fun and because they can't resist the beautiful new offerings from manufacturers happy about the growing market for their goods. Barbara's work with professionals often leads to assignments for their clients. The Boutique's roster of beautifully clad riders includes top amateurs Charlotte Jorst, MacKenzie Pooley and Brandi Roenick.
Being a Horse and Rider Boutique client means getting a big jump on future fashions. Barbara regularly attends apparel trade shows in the States and, more importantly, in Europe, where trends begin. Clients get "look books" from their favorite lines, based on fit, color and fabric preferences, and marching orders from Barbara to make up their minds quickly so she can place orders for pieces that will arrive in six to eight months time. At trade shows, she'll snap and send photos of new styles she thinks a client will like. Her mobile unit based in California and the tents she sets up at most CDIs in the States also stock items she's confident her clientele will like. Not having to carry the wide range of options necessary for a normal apparel retailer, Barbara can experiment with her inventory. "I stock pink pants and coats with purple collars," she notes.
New customers can count on finding a range of sizes, typically 6 to 16, at Horse and Rider Boutique. That facilitates the critical first step in assembling the perfect ensemble: finding out what fits and is most flattering. After that, preferences for color, fabric and personalized accents can be accommodated, even when it means a considerable search for a favored shade in the right fabric or another specialized quest.
Do's & Don'ts
It's not too often that Barbara wonders "who dressed that person?" at a major show, but she does see some easily-avoidable mistakes. Wearing a too-tight coat is a somewhat frequent faux pas, especially in jackets made of the new high tech fabrics that don't offer quite the structure and support of traditional wool. Athletic fabrics that breathe and move come in various weights and drapes, so it's wise to try different manufacturers until landing on one that complements your figure, Barbara advises. There's no shame in ordering a larger size than normal, she adds. "Play around with your underwear a little." Spanks or their riding specific equivalents can be a big help.
An Equiline shadbelly and a Samshield helmet are components of the outfit Barbara would choose for herself if she were competing today.
And don't go overboard with bling, tempting as it may be. Crystals and/or embroidery on collars, pant pockets, boot tops and helmets are all possibilities in today's penchant for personalization but restraint and balance are recommended. No need to go nuts about color coordination. "People are over-thinking that," Barbara observes. "They're asking, 'If I have a brown coat, do I need a brown bridle now?' No, you don't."
Although her busy life doesn't allow her time to ride at the moment, if she were to return to the show ring, Barbara knows exactly what she'd wear: An Equiline show coat, Pikeur breeches, DeNiro boots and a Samshield helmet. The coat, helmet and boots likely in navy, perhaps with a bit of alligator pattern trim on the boots. "That is definitely the outfit right now for comfort and looks," she says, and for people, like her, of normal size. "I'm a size 10-12 and this is an outfit in which I'd look very elegant."
Barbara spent much of the winter circuit in Wellington, FL, while her husband Marc Freeman and top young rider Brandi Roenick manned the Horse and Rider Boutique mobile unit at Southern California shows. She'll be back to attend the big West Coast competitions, starting with The Dressage Affaire March 7-9 in Del Mar and the Festival Of The Horse, March 27-20 in San Juan Capistrano. It's a family affair for Barbara and Marc. Their 4-year-old daughter Ella is a show regular and Marc mixes a mean cocktail at show side soirees the Boutique hosts regularly.
Barbara enjoys sharing the latest in dressage fashion. The brands her clients favor are typically on the higher end of the price spectrum, but the Boutique also carries a wide range of stock ties and hair buns, fun accents that are within most competitors' budgets.
Barbara is a fashion expert, but she's no snob. "I have fun dressing people and seeing them look smashing," she says. "My riders get compliments all week at a show and I love that!"