“I’m a size large and I don’t know what to wear,” the woman said to Jill, doubtful that the shopping trip would result in any success. She had arrived at Jill Ryan’s South Freeport home at the coaxing of a friend, who believed in the transformative power of Jill’s clothing. Energized by the challenge of dressing a new client, Jill started to pull clothes off the rack.
“Try this on, and try this on,” Jill led the way as the woman stood in front of a long mirror, her friend standing nearby for moral support, weighing in with “Oh, I love that on you!” and “I love that on you, but you would never wear that!”
Little by little, the woman’s reluctance transformed into surprise, and surprise into tears of joy.
“I feel so good in these clothes,” she told Jill, “I feel like a different person in them.”
For Jill, her clothing line, Just Jill Design, is all about these empowering moments of self-discovery. Despite the line’s name, the clothing is so much more than just Jill Ryan. From its inception through its continuing evolution, Just Jill was built on trust in community, trust in creative process, and trust in self.
It may come as a surprise that Jill Ryan spent her early adult years suppressing her self-expression. She resisted personal style, believing it was “bad” to care about how she looked.
“In my 20s, I was a closeted Vogue reader,” Jill recalls, “I really loved clothes, but I thought you weren’t supposed to care about that.”
It wasn’t until Jill was in her 50s that she began to embrace her creative self-expression. Her friends, Cynthia Selinger and Laurie Hadlock, were oil painters whom Jill admired but never thought she could paint like.
“You clearly have an eye. You can have a hand,” Jill recalls Cynthia saying.
Her friend had noticed the artistry in Jill’s everyday life, from her home to the way she dressed, though Jill had never considered herself an artist. Cynthia and Laurie began to meet weekly at Jill’s home to mentor her in oil painting. Riddled with self-doubt, Jill would make a draft then crumple it up and throw it away. Slowly, Jill began to relax into it, embracing the playfulness of painting and developing an eye for color. With a little trust in her friends and patience for herself, she began to awaken her artistic confidence.
As Jill’s creative juices began to flow, she was presented with a life-changing opportunity. Jill’s sister, Marla, who owned a clothing company in Hawaii, invited Jill to design a few pieces for her existing line. Drawing from her proficiency in oil painting, she played with fabric color and silhouette. She began with a pencil skirt, but soon let her self-expression and creativity take hold, and Just Jill Design was born.
Officially a clothing line within her sister’s company, Just Jill Design would be conceptualized by Jill and produced in Bali. It took some work and patience to align her personal vision with the fabric companies with whom she collaborated.
“My first few dyers did not get my color,” she remembers of her first trips to Bali. “So, I would send swatches of my oil paints and ask them to match it.”
With shades of marigold, Amalfi blue, and charcoal gray, Just Jill clothing now stands out for its unique hues. The woman who once crumpled up and threw away her paintings was now trusting her keen eye for color and design.
With her creative compass continuing to guide her, Jill now thrives off collaboration with her sister and a pattern maker in Bali whom they deem the true artist. They travel to Bali every year for a month-long trip to work with their team on the latest ideas and options. These trips are just as much about relationship building as they are production, which is why they always hire the same driver, spend hours in the factory, and immerse themselves in production alongside their team.
“They are like family to us,” Jill says of her Bali team. “There’s a 12-hour time difference, but we find a way to connect.”
This relationship was put to the test when COVID hit.
“We felt responsible for keeping them going,” Jill says of the decision to continue production during the pandemic. Although the dyers were not working, Just Jill Designs kept the sewers and cutters in business by using up leftover fabric from past seasons.
“We limped along,” she says of her COVID experience, a true feat for a business that operates across borders.
COVID threatened to disrupt the entire ecosystem of the company—from the Bali team members who produce the clothing, to the representatives who promote the brand, and the stores that sell it. While the big annual trade shows in Vegas and Atlanta were cancelled, Jill, Marla, and the brand representatives stayed connected to the small boutiques across the country, many of which, including Maine-based stores like Bohemian Rose in Bath, Corey & Co in Portland, and Calypso in Boothbay Harbor have continued to carry Just Jill Design.
In a usual year, Jill receives back any leftover clothing that representatives and stores have not sold, and hosts a trunk show at her South Freeport home. Jill managed to continue a semblance of the trunk show tradition through small group showings and sending options to clients through the mail. COVID was a true resilience test for the clothing line, but the company stayed afloat thanks to cohesive teamwork, strong communication, and trust in buyers.
While creativity and collaboration keep Just Jill Design strong, the consumers give the line its magic. The clothes come alive on the canvas of each person’s body and through the aura of each person’s energy.
“When I’m selling the clothes or dressing people, part of me is looking at each person as an oil painting, and the other part is intuiting each person’s energy,” Jill says of her process.
Her personal clients range from an 11-year-old middle school student to Jill’s own 99-year-old mother, a testament to her clothing’s capacity for individual creativity. The inspiration goes both ways, as Jill often names new pieces after clients who have given her design ideas or suggested altered necklines, lengths, or fits. Consumer relationships are essential to the line’s success.
Having found her artistic mediums later in life, Jill said her creativity has always moved like a river – ebbing and flowing but ever-present. As she has relaxed into this flow, she has found the playful curiosity and dedication that leads to artistic evolution. Many people have untapped creative talent that lies dormant if not suppressed. Jill’s story reminds us that innate talent can shine when supported by community, trust, and self-confidence.
Learn more about Just Jill Design on Instagram or Facebook, or visit Bohemian Rose in Bath, Corey & Co in Portland, and Calypso in Boothbay Harbor to purchase her clothes.