‘Comfort first’

‘Comfort first’

Jill McGowan, Clothing designer/business owner
Jill McGowan, Inc., Freeport

Two decades ago, after working as a patternmaker in the men’s apparel business, Jill McGowan was inspired to start her own business selling quality women’s clothing.

“I wanted to put the quality that is in men’s apparel in women’s apparel,” said McGowan, a longtime fashion designer who lives in the Greater Portland area. “I didn’t see it on the market, and saw this potential for making (women’s) products that hold up, and are as durable as menswear.”

And McGowan, 55, has done just that.

“I have customers that come back to me and say, ‘I have this one shirt which I’ve had for 10 years and it’s one of my favorites,’” McGowan said. “That’s really what we want to hear. That something that we’ve made has held up and has endured fashion changes.”

Beginning in 1994 with making a series of white shirts from a studio in Portland, McGowan’s business has since grown to offer dozens of styles and several seasonal collections that are available online and in specialty stores nationwide.

She and her sister, and business partner, Jolene, opened Jill McGowan’s flagship store on Main Street in Freeport in 2011, which also sells other designer brands that complement McGowan’s line. Her corporate office and studio, where she designs and develops product, is located on Casco Street in Portland.

McGowan appeared on the “Martha Stewart Show” in 2010. Her spring 2014 featured a seasonal tunic named Martha, after Stewart, who is one of McGowan’s most loyal customers.

This winter McGowan plans to open a pop-up store in Portland, Ore., during the holiday season. She said she wants to test different markets to determine the best location to possibly open another store. All of her products are made in the United States.

“We pay close attention to the quality of yarns we use,” McGowan said. The feedback she gets is, “If you compare our fabrics to other companies they really stand out, above and beyond.”

McGowan designs and develops two collections a year – in the fall and winter, and spring and summer – to take to tradeshows. She works mostly with Egyptian cotton, wool, linens, silk and silk blends.

“I just try to find the best fabric on the planet,” from family-owned mills in Switzerland, France, Italy, Belgium and Japan, said McGowan.

McGowan fell in love with fashion at the age of 11, when her mother, Ann, first taught her to sew. She remembers going with her mother and sisters to the five-and-dime store Dysart’s in the 1970s in search of fabric and patterns.

McGowan spoke with Maine Women recently about clothing design and what makes her clothing line unique.

Q: What inspired you to become a clothing designer? What do you love most about what you do?
A: I was inspired to become a designer because I wasn’t seeing what I wanted to wear and buy on the market for women’s apparel. I wanted to design more timeless clothing that held up season after season. The inspiration originally came from menswear, where I worked for three years and noticed how much quality and care went into the product. I started with a series of white shirts with a feminine twist and integrated the details (French seams, topstitching, woven interlining) that is typically found in menswear.

Q: What makes your clothing line unique, and what inspires your designs?
A: The fit and quality of construction and the amazing fabric is what makes my product unique. We hear over and over from our customers how impressed and inspired they are by the fabric and they love that garments endure fashion whims.

Q: Is there a certain age or body type your line targets? What is your No.1 goal as a clothing designer?
A: Our age range of shoppers is 25 and up. We sell to professional women and anyone who is looking for quality product. Each season, we create styles in three categories, fitted, relaxed and full shirts and, personally, I wear items from each category depending on what my needs are for the day.

Q: What was it like meeting Martha Stewart?
A: She was in Maine on the way to her home, and she stopped at the studio. She really liked what she saw. She was drawn to the quality of the fabric. Her art director was with her, and they invited us on her show. It was very exciting. It was a nice gesture, and very generous. We were really lucky to be part of that.

Q: What do you consider to be stylish?

A: We try to guide our customers toward styles that work for their body type and try not to impose trends on them. It’s important to us to help our customers develop their unique style that suits their lifestyle.

Q: Can you tell us about your fall clothing line?
A: Our fall line is filled with beautiful, vibrant colors and styles inspired by nature (deep greens, blues and reds in cottons, linens and silks) and one of our more popular shirts this season is a chicken-print shirt made from fabric from one of our favorite Italian textile mills. It’s featured in our window at the Freeport store and it’s something that cheers other people up when you wear it. It looks great paired with bright sweaters and jackets.

Q: Do you have any advice for women about choosing what to wear?
A: Comfort first. If you try something on in a store and it feels awkward but you like it and think you’ll adjust to it, it’s likely never going to happen. We want our customers to feel confident and comfortable enough to want to walk out the door wearing our product. When that happens at our Freeport store, it makes my day.

Jill McGowan launched her brand in 1994 with a series of white shirts. 

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