Blue Fish Clothing founder Jennifer Barclay got an early start as an artist, pursuing a somewhat unconventional path as she found an avid audience for her clothing aesthetic.
"All the energy is centralizing right here,” Jennifer Barclay declared as she stood on the southwest corner of Fairfield’s square inside her soon-to-be opened Blue Fish Clothing store.
A few years ago, Jennifer, her husband Jim Leahy, and their young son Sam moved to Iowa to enjoy small-town life and be near her husband’s family. Overland Sheepskin Company, which Jim founded in 1976, is headquartered in Fairfield. Last month, Jennifer and Jim were busy preparing for the June 1st launch of Jennifer’s latest Blue Fish shop. This retail store is new to Iowa, but Jennifer’s artisanal women’s clothing company has been around for decades.
Outside their new headquarters in Fairfield, Iowa, Jennifer Barclay (center) gathers with Blue Fish staff, many of whom wear the signature Blue Fish look. (Jarmosco Photography)
The Personal Touch
Jennifer’s entrepreneurial spirit emerged early. As a girl she dipped her thumb in ink, pressed it onto card stock, and created animal pictures she sold for 25 cents apiece. During her teens, her passion for self-expression found additional outlets.
“I would try on clothes at this one funky boutique near where I grew up in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and the salespeople would say, ‘That looks great on you!’ ” Jennifer recently said. “When I looked at myself in the mirror, it may have looked fine but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like me.”
So she started designing and sewing her own clothes. During her freshman year in Philadelphia at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, a Valentine’s Day gift broadened her clothing design work.
“My college roommate gave me a set of carving tools,” Jennifer explained. “I carved a Valentine’s block and printed it on a T-shirt using a brush and paint. It was really cool, and I thought, I’m going to try to get into a local art fair.”
The year was 1985 and Jennifer was only 17 years old. For $100 she bought a batch of T-shirts. Working out of her parents’ garage and co-opting their washing machine, she dyed the T-shirts art-inspired colors and imprinted them with her own hand-carved designs. Blue Fish was the name she chose for her clothing label. When she succeeded in getting into a local art festival, she decided to make not only T-shirts but dresses as well.
“I made them by cutting up T-shirts and re-sewing them,” she explained. “The silhouettes were really unusual.”
Sales and special orders she took at the art fair encouraged her.
“Doing that festival is what got me started,” she said, “and I continued to do several festivals and fairs that summer.”
Attending art school deepened Jennifer’s commitment to self-expression in other ways, too. Finding freshman art classes uninspiring, she asked herself, how can I do something different? She created her own independent study course on fashion design and spent six months sewing in Rome and traveling in Europe.
The Accidental Career Launch
Returning home too late to register for university classes, she resumed designing, sewing, embellishing, and locally selling clothes. When September rolled around, an unexpected opportunity quashed her plans to return to school to become a fine art painter.
“There was a chance to do a wholesale show in New York City,” she said, “but I wasn’t going to do it.”
A boutique owner who sold Jennifer’s designs in her store intervened. She told the teenage designer, “Jennifer, your clothing is really different. I know because I have this boutique and I look. Your clothing is really unique and you should do the show.”
“Without that sentence I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Jennifer confided. Only seven days remained before the New York City wholesale trade show. Jennifer discovered that one booth was still available—and it was half-price! Borrowing $4,000 from her parents, she shifted her clothing design career into high gear.
“I put 60 samples together in the space of a week,” she recalled. “I went to New York knowing nothing, and in three days I wrote $110,000 of orders.”
To fulfill those orders, Jennifer and a quickly assembled team of friends slept on the floor of her newly purchased Frenchtown, New Jersey, Blue Fish Clothing store. Burning the candle at both ends, Jennifer and her team managed to somehow deliver the goods.
“Since that time I’ve been on ‘Fast-forward-Go!’ through my career,” Jennifer said. “So many wonderful things have happened that I haven’t stopped to be scared. I just keep going.”
Real Clothes for Real Women
In April 2012 the Frenchtown store, housed in an historic stone mill, celebrated 25 years in operation with a gala open house. Inside the store, Jennifer mingled with customers and gave them an opportunity to meet Blue Fish artists, tour the store’s printing studio, and take part in a professional photo shoot.
“I have a following,” Jennifer admitted.
Many factors account for Blue Fish customer loyalty, she feels. For one thing, Blue Fish Clothing isn’t fashion-oriented.
The Tawa collection is one of Blue Fish Clothing’s most recent lines. (Jarmosco Photography)
“Fashion is more fickle,” Jennifer explained. “These are clothes for real people to wear every day. They’re comfortable. They last forever. You can mix them together in all different kinds of ways. They work for all different body types.”
The fabric selections are special, too. Blue Fish Clothing is constructed from natural fibers, such as cotton, silk blends, linen, and hemp. Many of the buttons used are handmade, vintage, or recycled. In 1995 Jennifer adopted a policy of using organically grown cotton materials whenever possible.
“All of our cotton jerseys are organic and are knitted in South Carolina,” Jennifer said. Blue Fish Clothing has always been made in the U.S.A.
In Fairfield, Blue Fish Clothing employee Samantha Durfey feels using natural, organic materials produces a perceptible difference. “It’s just so breathable! You put it on, you’re like—Wow! You’re just more energized. You feel better when you wear it!” she enthused.
Blue Fish employee Barbara Wacknov, also of Fairfield, emphasized another appealing aspect of Blue Fish clothes. “They’re garment dyed,” she said. “I just love the way the colors have tones that have some earthiness to them.”
“They’re not off-the-rack colors,” Jennifer explained. “They’re always a blend of lots of things. I always say you can tell it’s a Blue Fish color when it takes you at least three words or more to describe it. It’s not just orange. There’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a rosey, persimmony, reddish, molten color. It has an energy to it.”
What inspires the complex palettes Jennifer favors? “Everywhere I go I imbibe the color,” Jennifer said. “I can drive across Iowa and soak the colors in through my being. It’s so pretty. The greens and the grays and the stark black outlines and the sky. I love it.”
Blue Fish staff carve custom blocks for the handprinted designs.
She draws inspiration for her hand-printed, hand-painted designs from a variety of sources as well. For a line of early pieces, now considered vintage, Jennifer drew inspiration from Dale Chihuly’s glasswork.
The New Fairfield Headquarters
Perched atop a tall ladder, Jim Leahy daubed a shade of paint (that would require at least three words to describe) onto the intricately embossed ceiling of Fairfield’s Blue Fish store. As she examined her husband’s work, Jennifer Barclay explained that she’s relocating her company’s headquarters. Like the Overland Sheepskin Company, Blue Fish Clothing will now be centered in Fairfield. Jennifer’s original New Jersey store will remain open, and artisans in both Fairfield and Frenchtown will handprint Blue Fish clothes. A Taos, New Mexico, Blue Fish store will reopen later this year to host the company’s third location.
© 2012 Cheryl Fusco Johnson. In July Cheryl will teach writing at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Summer Writing festival. She interviews authors on Writers Voices for KRUU.