Today I’d like to tell you the story of the Gunne Sax clothing label and it’s owner, Jessica McClintock.
The above is a recent find, one of her original sweet boho chic dresses that were all the rage in the 1970s and early 80s.. I have fond memories of this brand, with it’s vintage inspired silhouettes and feminine touches of ribbon, lace, calico prints, velvets, tapestries and ruffles. I owned only a couple of Gunne Sax pieces way back when and I so wish I had held on to them!
Anyway, I had never really delved into the background of the company until recently. Turns out it’s quite an inspiring story of a single mom who turned a small investment in a tiny business into a multi million dollar fashion empire. And being in the clothing business myself, stories like this really fascinate me.
Born Jessica Gagnon , originally from Maine. Her grandmother taught her to sew at a very young age. She attended Boston University, became a teacher, married an MIT engineering student named Al Staples and had a son, Scott. They moved to California where she lost her husband in a tragic car accident. She moved back to New England and eventually met her second husband, Fred McClintock. But that relationship only lasted a few years.
So in the late sixties, with her young son in tow, she headed back to California. But she didn’t find a teaching career to be creative enough for her for anymore. When she heard from a friend about a woman named Elle Bailey, who was looking for an investor in a small clothing line in San Francisco, Jessica was intrigued. The woman was one of the original founders of Gunne Sax. Here’s an interview with Elle’s son about how the Gunne Sax label started.
Elle Bailey wanted $5000 for a partnership in the business. And against the advice of her attorney, Jessica jumped in and never looked back.
She eventually bought out the Elle’s share of the business, which gave her free reign over her design ideas. She was inspired by the street styles of the “flower children” hanging out in the Haight Ashbury district. Those hippie chicks were pretty creative dressers, mixing and matching prints, antique and ethnic clothing.
Here’s a quote from one of her newspaper interviews.
“The girls wore long denim skirts with fabric panels and bare feet.The jeans and skirts were so raggy they patched them with all different fabrics, tapestry, prints and solid squares. I liked the way it looked and I thought I would add print panels to muslin, denim and poplin.”
Even though I never ran away from home to live on the streets of San Francisco, I was certainly influenced by that whole hippie style of dress. I vividly remember sewing all kinds of patches on my distressed bellbottom jeans and making halter tops and belts out of scarves, then adding beading. Back then you could still find really cool inexpensive antique and vintage dresses and skirts in thrift stores too. Those sure were the days!
And Jessica McClintock was right there at the beginning of it all, creating her clothing based on the street styles of the time.
The young women back then loved her designs, even buying them to wear for their weddings. From a 1972 newspaper article.
Her designs in the 1970s and early 80s were always romantic and super feminine, incorporating Renaissance, Victorian, Western/Prairie/Americana elements.
Jessica McClintock for Gunne Sax also became a very popular brand for prom.
In 1978 Jessica McClintock, was one of five designers chosen by the Simplicity Pattern company for the launch of their first Original Designer Fashion Collection. This enabled girls to sew up their own Gunne Sax creations.
At the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s Jessica McClintock introduced a children’s line, Gunne Sax Jeune Fille and a misses line, Scott McClintock, named after her son.
A quote and some wise words from Jessica from a 1982 newspaper article.
“I feel fortunate and lucky that I have a business that I created and that I love. I’m happy and very fulfilled in many areas of my life. Although I may be driven, I learned a long time ago not to take myself too seriously. Life is too short for that.”
Since fashion is always evolving while pulling from the past, her boho designs eventually gave way to the 1920s and 1950s inspired looks that were popular in the late 80s.
This is a pretty example of one of her 1920s inspired styles. Available at DistressedDenimCo. on Etsy
80s doing 50s prom dress
Late 80s bridal party looks
Her clothing lines continued through the 90s. Then in 2013 Jessica McClintock decided to quietly retire at age 83. Though she does intend to license her name for special occasion dresses sometime in the future, it is definitely a bittersweet end to an era.
So many will miss those pretty classic dresses that appealed to both young women and their moms.
But luckily there are still vintage ones around to enjoy! And, in case you haven’t noticed, that bohemian look she made so popular has made a major comeback recently.
From an article in Women’s Wear Daily about the recent return of these romantic styles originally popularized by Jessica McClintock. Here is a quote by Valerie Steele, fashion historian and director of the Museum at FIT
“For ordinary women who weren’t card carrying fashionistas, she assimilated important trends and made them accessible. The idea that there was a purer time in the past that was somehow a golden age is referenced whenever fashion is exploiting a hippie feeling. The kind of pretty feminine stuff that she popularized in the 70s is absolutely having a revival now.”
So, how about you? Did you ever wear Gunne Sax dresses? Do you still have any in your closet?
Till next time…….