Draped in art and so cozy Comfort: Organically grown cotton makes Jennifer Barclay's clothing easy to wear, but it is the unusual colors and hand-blocked designs that make it stylish and unique.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Under the watchful eye of Jennifer Barclay, the 31-year-old designer and founder of the Blue Fish apparel company, a half-dozen models in cotton jersey and gauze clothing pose for fashion photographers in the courtyard of the American Visionary Art Museum.

Barclay, the models, and a dozen or so staff members from the Frenchtown, N.J., company, have come to South Baltimore to shoot clothing for the company's nationally distributed catalog.

The models are of various ages and body types, but the flowing lines and softly muted colors, pale greens, creams, dusty plums and roses, seem expressly designed for each of them. With their block-print designs, unusual lines and striking colors, the clothes also seem to echo the charming and compellingly offbeat artwork displayed by the museum.

None of that is an accident. Barclay, who was 17 when she started her company with $100 worth of T-shirts in her parents' garage, is widely credited with creating the genre of commercial "art clothing." Her garments are meant to be wearable art, and each hand-painted, hand-blocked piece is signed by the artist who worked on it.

It's a mission

She says it's "a mission" to create interesting-looking garments that flatter all body types and work in varied lifestyles. "We make clothes, but we have a purpose. We want to make people feel good about themselves, and we want to introduce fun and comfort into clothing."

Although these days she concentrates on design and sales, her hands-on management style was evident months ago in Baltimore as she watched the photographers and models closely, occasionally offering suggestions.

She's clear about what colors she wants against the soft brick walls of the building and about how she wants each outfit to look.

"Very pretty," she says at one point, of a pose, and then, "What do you think about those shoes?"

Amid a scramble to find something different for the model's feet, Barclay explains her interest in using the museum as a backdrop. Although Baltimore has provided the setting for a number of movies ("Diner," "Tin Men," "Washington Square," "Sleepless in Seattle,") and TV shows ("Homicide"), it's rare to find it the backdrop for a national fashion layout.

But Barclay and Blue Fish had participated in a "Goddess Sleepover" fund-raiser at the museum last October that included everything from spiritualism to shopping.

Besides offering a group of discounted Blue Fish clothing for sale, Barclay, Kimble, and another staff member were among nearly 200 women who participated in the event with museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger.

Apocalyptic visions adorned the walls of the museum at the time, and Barclay, 31, found the setting particularly appropriate for her clothing, which combines environmental responsibility with artistic individuality.

In fact, Blue Fish is developing something of a Maryland connection. Now through Sept. 8, Blue Fish has set up a temporary studio outlet store at 407 Talbot St. in St. Michaels, Md., with clothing priced at 50 percent to 80 percent off regular prices.

An in-store silent auction of various Blue Fish outfits will benefit the Chester Park Fund, providing aid to a community near St. Michaels. Bids will be taken through Saturday. Maryland is "a great area for us," Barclay said during a phone interview from New York, where she was showing her new spring designs at a trade show. "People like to be themselves, and there's a lot to do in culture, and in nature."

Strong individualism just might be the hallmark of the Blue Fish customer. Jill Lehr, one of the owners of Kokopelli, which sells unusual lines of clothing at stores in Columbia and Gaithersburg, says, "Most people who wear her clothes are very comfortable about their own style -- they want something that is not the ordinary." And, she says, Blue Fish customers are loyal because they know "they won't see themselves coming and going."

Among the clothing lines are tops, T-shirts, vest and jackets, tunics, skirts, leggings, pants and dresses. The colors are designed to mix and match, and the separate pieces can be layered for individual looks.

Individual pieces

Each piece is adorned with painted designs, often in abstract or geometric shapes, but sometimes the shapes represent objects, such as teapots or leaves, or musical notes and instruments, or architectural elements.

"Everything we make is individually hand-printed and hand-blocked," says Barclay, who with her dark hair and porcelain skin is as striking as any model. There are between 24 to 42 artists in the Frenchtown studio working on designs, and when they print a garment, they sign it with their own individual block, inside the garment on the hem.

"It gives [the artists] pride in their work, and connects them to the products they're making," Barclay says. It also gives people a chance to follow a particular artist whose work they admire. "People do collect our clothing."

Prices of Blue Fish clothing range from a low of $68 for a T-shirt to $529 for a long tapestry coat. The company has 350 wholesale accounts, plus Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, and also has five retail stores -- in Frenchtown, Westport, Conn., Santa Fe, N. Mex., Austin, Texas, and SoHo in New York City.

Barclay is as concerned about what her garments are made of as about their design. "We use organic cotton -- that means it's grown with no pesticides or chemicals. And it costs more than twice as much as other cotton."

All of Blue Fish's cotton is grown domestically, in Arizona, California and Texas. Barclay worries about the effect that heat, drought and flash-flooding in Texas will have on prices. "The weather has really been hard on the cotton crop," she says.

That's a touch of expertise that shows how far she's come since 1985, when she was a teen-ager in Bucks County, Pa., with an idea for block-printing artwork on fabric.

It was just a year later that she launched her work in New York, and within 10 years had built the business to $10 million a year. An initial stock offering in May 1996 (on the Chicago Stock Exchange, symbol BLF) raised $4 million.

The rapid growth, however, coincided with an industry-wide decline in women's apparel sales that cut into company plans to develop lines of children's and men's clothing and to expand retail operations. In addition, the structure of the company had grown unwieldy. The stock price reflected the problems, dropping from a high of $10 shortly after it was issued to just above $1, where it hovers today.

The past year or so has been devoted to streamlining operations and putting in place a new management team. (Barclay is founder and chairperson.) "We've had some hard times," she says. "We're going through a cycle. I've learned this year that strong management, a strong structure, combined with creativity, are important." A business that expects to grow, she says, "can't just be run casually."

Her prints will come

All the changes, plus a national turnaround in retail sales, however, have left Barclay feeling upbeat about the future. She's excited about the two lines for next spring. One of them features muted, romantic colors (heliotrope, plantain, tea-dye) with nostalgic "retro kitchen" designs, such as sets of bowls and garden herbs. "It's very soft and feminine, but fun," Barclay says.

The second line features brighter colors (spearmint, raspberry, iris). "It has a lot of energy," she says. "It makes people smile."

In addition, she's experimenting with different fabrics, and has a holiday line that features silk velvet and silk organza. There'll be more solid pieces to mix and match with the printed things, and the company is working with women's cooperatives in Peru and in Appalachia on new lines of sweaters.

She's especially excited about the new colors. "I think even I will be wearing bright colors this spring," she says.

Call for catalog

For a catalog of Blue Fish clothing, call 908-996-7333. (This is not a toll-free call.)

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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