JESSICA MCCLINTOCK AT 30
FROM RICKRACK TO RICHES
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — Her esthetic might have been ripped from the pages of a romance novel, the kind that tell of satin-tied corsets, billowing ballgowns and clingy black velvet slips. But at heart, Jessica McClintock is a tie-dyed hippie.
The irony that is part of Jessica McClintock’s career is most profound in the story of how this designer — whose signature has become “serious occasion” dresses — during the days of nonconformity, had one of her off-the-rack frocks at Dillard’s purchased by Hillary Rodham to wear at her wedding to Bill Clinton. But times do change.
In those early years of McClintock’s business, which was founded in the heart of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1969 as Gunne Sax, her designs were influenced by a different sort of romantic philosophy: Make love, not amour.
“At that time, everything was very counterculture,” McClintock said during an interview late last month at Lord & Taylor here, where she was kicking off a national tour of public appearances to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her business.
“I was designing for the hippies and flower children, so when I started, I was designing granny dresses,” she said. “I had a basket full of trims and rickrack, muslin and jute trim, even beads dangling from the jute trim. I never knew it, but I was doing bridal for counterculture kids.”
Thirty years later, McClintock is doing bridal for just about everyone else.
Her business is expected to have sales of $140 million this year, which includes revenues from a wholly owned fragrance, Jessica, which turns 10 this year; Gunne Sax, now a junior line; Scott McClintock for the moderate market, and Jessica McClintock in better and bridal.
McClintock also owns 26 stores around the country and plans to open a 27th in Portland, Maine, this month.
The firm has been revving up its licensing division, which is headed by McClintock’s half-brother, Jack Hedrich. The company’s oldest license, for home furnishings, was with Bibb Manufacturing. That company was recently acquired by Dan River, which plans to continue the line. In the past two years, deals have been made for licensed lines of jewelry, eyeglasses and fine china.
In addition, McClintock has been developing a new fragrance for the past three years with Givaudan-Roure, which makes Jessica, a scent based on the lily of the valley, which is plentiful in New England.
“For this one, I’ve got them going crazy trying to match the scent of a plant we used to call mayflower,” she said. “It only grew on the sides of streams. It was a very small, delicate flower, and the fragrance is extremely light. But it blooms only in the spring, so they’re going to have to go up there to capture that fragrance.”
Jessica McClintock ranked 92nd in the 1997 Fairchild 100 consumer survey of recognizable brands and fourth in its top 10 ready-to-wear category. NPD Beauty Trends named Jessica as the 10th most popular in its 1996 prestige fragrances survey, while Working Woman ranked the designer 39th in its 1997 survey of the top 50 women-owned businesses, one spot ahead of Oprah Winfrey.
Despite her success, it was a circuitous route that brought McClintock, who is 68, to the apparel industry.
Born and raised in Presque Isle, Maine, McClintock studied anthropology and psychology at Boston University, where she met her first husband, Frank Staples, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Staples led her to California, where he worked at Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, developing tantalum and titanium, which are used in the nose cones of rockets.
“He was killed in an automobile accident, and I was left with a 10-year-old son,” she said. “I went back to my home grounds — New England — and ended up on Long Island.”
There she met and married Fred McClintock, but when that marriage didn’t work out, Jessica moved back to California.
“We sailed on a big sailboat for six months,” she said. “He was an adventurer, but we should have just been lovers and stayed that way. But that’s how I got my name, and it’s a great name.”
McClintock taught in the Cupertino School District, just south of San Francisco, for a few years, usually working with sixth graders on their science studies, and sometimes teaching music, because no one else could play the piano. But McClintock said she wasn’t happy, so in 1969, she moved to San Francisco with her son, Scott.
“There was a company there called Gunne Sax that had just started,” she said. “For $5,000, I became a partner. I never went to design school, I never did anything, but my grandmother was a fabulous pattern maker and designer, and from five years old on I was sitting at her Singer sewing machine, and I would make anything I could get my hands on.”
In the beginning, McClintock sold dresses to local boutiques and specialty stores around Berkeley. When the style was mini, she experimented with the midi, using a big, wide rickrack trim that was, she said, “a knockout seller” for Joseph Magnin, one of her earliest supporters. Magnin was trying to make a change in fashion away from looks coming off the stage of Mary Quant, the British designer widely credited with popularizing the miniskirt.
“I started to do all these flower-child-influenced clothes,” McClintock said. “I was trying to feed an entire generation of people that came off of a strong visual sense. They had been going to school and having more art lessons than ABCs and math, so they were very visual, and they were used to mixing things and putting things together artistically.”
Young kids and “far-out movie stars” wore her dresses in films, like Sissy Spacek did in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1980 rags-to-riches story of country music superstar Loretta Lynn, McClintock said.
“I did make Hillary Clinton’s wedding dress,” she said. “She was really counterculture. She was part of that hippie generation, I’m sure, and didn’t want to marry in a traditional bridal dress.”
The line was originally called Gunne Sax, which today is McClintock’s junior social occasion collection, worn mostly for proms. Her San Francisco contemporaries included other labels with tongue-in-cheek names, like Ginger Peachy, Foxy Lady and Plain Jane, which later became Esprit.
“Gunne Sax was not a serious-looking label, and it’s funny, because I do very serious-looking clothes for very serious occasions, like proms, bar mitzvahs and communions,” she said. “As the years have gone on, like every other area in our society, the focus has become more and more specific.
“Now, you go into a store just to find special kinds of lightbulbs, then another just for bath products. My focus has been extremely special occasion, and what people want to wear to those occasions, either going to them as a guest or being part of the event.”
McClintock was quickly discovered by Bloomingdale’s, which displayed her playful dresses in its windows, as did Saks Fifth Avenue. Eventually, Federated Department Stores and the May Co. stores followed suit.
“I built this myself. I sold everything and designed everything,” McClintock said. “I just kept working. I didn’t think it was work because I loved it so much. I didn’t even stop to think about it.”
“It must have been 22 years ago,” McClintock said. “I had just gotten the windows of Saks, and the Bon Marche was doing a designer appearance event, when a young man came up to me and said his name was Tommy Hilfiger. He said, ‘Jessica, I want to be doing what you’re doing.’
“The next time I see him, I’m going to say, ‘Tommy, I want to be doing what you’re doing.”‘