Designer of the Great White Shirt: on timeless style, finding just the right fabric and what keeps her up at night
While working as a pattern maker at the Hathaway shirt company – a famed menswear manufacturer, Jill McGowan discovered that there was a big gap between the way men’s and women’s apparel of equal value was made. In 1994, Jill set out to improve the standard of women’s clothing and launched a signature line of shirts under the Jill McGowan brand. Today Jill McGowan products can be found in over 300 specialty shops across the country, its flagship store in Freeport, ME and on its e-commerce site. Jill shares her views on what makes a great shirt, finding the right materials that provide comfort and style and how she partners with suppliers. We also discuss the state of retail, fast fashion and the ever-evolving consumer.
Jill’s Interview Transcript
Nancy: Hello, I’m Nancy Fendler and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers, and other guests in the outdoor fashion, home furnishings, and other industries about what inspires and influences them to create, why and how they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they’ve built with their customers in industry.
I’m very excited to have Jill McGowan as my guest today on Material Wise. Jill McGowan is the owner of Jill McGowan Inc., which was launched in 1994 with a signature line of women’s white shirts inspired by Jill’s work as a pattern maker for the Hathaway Shirt Company, the famous menswear manufacturer. After comparing her work on men’s shirts to women’s clothing of equal price, she realized the genuine need to improve the standard of women’s clothing. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Free University in Berlin, Germany, the University of Maine in Orono, and the University of Salzburg at Austria.
Jill shirts and seasonal collections are now available in over 300 specialty stores around the country, her flagship store in Freeport, Maine, and online at JillMcGowan.com. Her work has been featured in publications such as Women’s Wear Daily, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, More, Real Simple, and – not to mention – an appearance on the Martha Stewart Show.
Jill’s and my family grew up together in Maine and while we’ve been in and out of each other’s lives over the years, I’ve always admired her accomplishments as a successful designer and business woman.
Nancy: Oh Jill, I’m so happy to have you here and be my first guest on Material Wise.
Jill: Thank you, thanks for inviting me.
Nancy: Yeah. So what did you want to be when you were growing up? Did you dream of being a designer?
Jill: I didn’t dream of being a clothing designer, but I thought I wanted to be an architect. I think that was from the Brady Bunch. I wanted to be Mr. Brady. So then I realized that I had no real interest or passion in building materials and so it really wasn’t the best direction for me to go.
Nancy: So you decided to be a clothing designer.
Jill: Yeah, that came late in my 20s. I had … went through a traditional liberal arts education and just was drawn to the process. I worked on some theater projects and then I worked on a film project in costume design and I just wanted to know more about it so that’s when I applied to design school and went back and got my degree in pattern making technology and then started my business.
Nancy: Wow. In doing some research prior to interviewing you, you mentioned your love of the detail that goes into men’s design or men’s apparel. And you noticed a gap in women’s design. Can you elaborate on this?
Jill: Sure. In design school, we were told to just hit the streets and start comparing and critiquing apparel. And so we would go into stores and I would notice that the men’s departments weren’t as interesting, but they were always, they always had better more consistent quality. And then I ended up landing a job in men’s apparel. I worked for a men’s shirt company, Hathaway Shirt Company. And right away, compared to what we were doing in women’s wear and in design with women’s apparel, there was a distinct difference of attention to fabric, attention to quality, attention to construction of the fabric, the durability of the fabric. And I just was so fascinated by all of that. This is a giant factory that was cranking out 3000 dozen units a week and so I would just go watch the process. And then I thought, “Well, I think women really deserve this kind of attention to detail. And there really isn’t anything on the market that’s close to this kind of quality and quality fabric and detail.”
Nancy: That’s where you found your niche.
Jill: And started my company.
Nancy: I also read that you feel Jill McGowan is timeless rather than classic. What do you feel the difference is? And do you think your customers feel the same way?
Jill: I think they do. I hope they do. The comments, the customer feedback that we get is that they pull these garments out of their closet for upwards of 10, 15 years sometimes. And sometimes it’s just a special occasion piece or it’s everyday wear, and that just warms my heart. To know that these are favorite items, they … the fabrics are so wonderful that they get softer over time. And as far as the timelessness, I’ve always thought … I don’t know why, but I just have an association with classic being boring where there’s no real design put into it. And so we really tried to add our own touch. And so each shirt, each product of ours is designed in our studio, it’s original. And it has our hand on it and there’s a lot of attention to detail. There’s subtle attention where seaming and maybe the drape, the length, the collars might look unique. So we try to put our signature look and that’s the other feedback I get from our customers, that they can spot a Jill McGowan. It’s distinctive enough on the markets and that’s another thing that makes me very happy.
Nancy: Yeah, very flattering.
Nancy: So I’m curious, if it’s a particular textile that inspires you to design a product that you might have in mind or if it’s the other way around, like maybe you have a product in mind and then you go search for the fabric.
Jill: Yeah, it is, it’s a combination and we … sometimes I’ll see a fabric and I’ll be so inspired by it that I’ll try to figure out how to, or what I’m going to design around that. And a lot of times we just have core silhouettes in mind and then we find gorgeous fabrics and plug them into our silhouettes. So it’s a … It definitely is a mix of the two. But what really drives me and inspires me is finding new fabrications.
Nancy: Well, it also shows in your work. Does a brand name or a consumer recognized material make a difference in your products?
Jill: I think our customers pretty sophisticated as far as fabrics go. We’ll get the question, “Why is this $160 shirt when I can go get my $49.99 white shirt at a chain store or whatever or fast fashion store?” And we try to give as much product knowledge to our customer and explain that these are cottons that are sourced and they’re pricey because there’s attention to detail in the fiber. It’s a longer filament yarn, which means that it’s going to hold up longer, so much longer, and it’s just going to get softer and softer rather than wear down and break down. Sometimes you’ll even see cotton pilling and that’s because it’s a lesser quality fiber that they’ve started with.
And the same case with our linens. There are a lot of linens on the market, but we buy and source the best quality linen and that’s because it’s grown, it’s just been cultivated for over 100 years and they just do it right. They … It’s a finer filament, a longer filament, and it’s a better quality.
Nancy: So Jill McGowan is made in Maine just like the namesake. Do you think consumers appear to be more conscious of where and how their apparel is made?
Jill: Yes, I think it’s definitely … There’s a movement now that is on the rise. I think that’s it’s very … You can compare it a lot to the food movement where there in the past 10 to 15 years there’s just been so much more awareness about where our food source is from. I think more and more people are really looking for less is more and they’re looking for quality products. And they’re looking to purchase investment pieces. And from all the trade publications that I’m reading now, you know the apparel industry is definitely up in a turmoil of sorts with brick and mortar being in jeopardy and online taking over and Amazon making apparel and all of these things. But when it comes down to the millennials, they’re measuring and the baby boomers are all seeking quality. Not all of them, but I think that more and more are seeking quality product and fewer items in their household, in their closet, and they’re looking for better quality. And also they want to know the story behind the company, they want to know that the company is ethically managed and the products are ethically sourced. So we’re trying to put more and more of that information out to the customer. That’s something that we’d really kept a little closer to the vest and I think we need to really promote it a little bit better.
Nancy: Are sustainable practices required in your supply chain? Meaning do you look for companies that you buy textiles from to be ethically and responsibly sourced?
Jill: Almost by default we … When I first started sourcing fabric, I was really looking for some of the best fabric on the planet. I thought that I’d be able to find it in the United States and I ended up having to source Europe and other parts of the world where there was just time, attention, more money, more resources put into the product. And most of my fabrics are … I think all of my fabrics are milled in countries where there are environmental laws in place. So I feel really good about all the fabrics that I purchase and I love dealing with the companies that I work with….I’m working with the cream of the crop in the industry. So it’s really nice.
Nancy: That’s great. So it sounds like that’s what makes a good textile partner.
Nancy: I was going to ask.
Jill: It’s so true. And it is, I’d say by default, I think we’re all in the same page as far as making and marketing quality product. So it’s nice to partner with them.
Nancy: Yeah. So where do you find your design inspiration?
Jill: Oh, I find it in lots of places. I’m a people watcher at airports and I love going in to cities and seeing what’s on the street. I do dig into history. I’m a big fan of some American designers from the 1950s and 60s and so I dig deep into their archives. And I try to move forward. So it’s kind of looking back, seeing what’s on the street, seeing what’s at trade shows, and then moving product forward. I try to just think what is going to be relevant in the next four years, five years, 10 years.
Nancy: Where do you turn to for the latest news on design and textile trends?
Jill: I love the New York Times style section. I read that every Sunday. Wall Street Journal, Saturday Weekend, I love that. And then my trade, my go to trade publication is The Business of Fashion, which is a London based publication and I really respect the way that they’re covering apparel and industry news.
Nancy: What’s your favorite most successful Jill McGowan product?
Jill: Oh, my favorite and most successful? They’re too different.
Jill: Because I … My most successful is this one silhouette and we just keep selling it. It’s just one of these things that’s a universal fit and it just caught us completely by surprise. I put it on the line in 2005. It’s still the item we cut the most. It’s a style called Astrid. But … It’s not my go-to. It’s just it’s a really great piece. I do have a few of them, but one of my favorites now is what we call a hybrid where I’m integrating this wonderful Swiss cotton and Lycra, it’s a knit fabric, combined with beautiful wovens. So we’re taking these really premium designed whites that are embellished or embroidered or they’re eyelets, and we’re integrating them in with this knit. So if it helps bring the price point down but it’s also an item where you feel dressed for work or business meeting or going out to eat, but you’re as comfortable as you would be in a t-shirt. So that’s my favorite, and that style is Erin.
And so, I just feel really comfortable in that piece and I’m trying to really bring that into the ‘Best Ofs’ because I just believe in it. And I believe that that’s the go to item for the customer that doesn’t want to iron a shirt, that doesn’t want that feeling of a woven. Somehow they’ve never really taken to wovens, but it’s just an alternative to a t-shirt. Because I just think we need, some of us just need to get ouy of knits now and again and get into really nice, crisp wovens. And they just hold up so much longer.
Nancy: So it’s like a blend of comfort and performance and the timelessness.
Jill: Yeah. And it was inspired by athletic wear because it was … You’re just watching how they’re working these tech fabrics into elastic and they fit right and they’re comfortable and you can move and you can breathe and you can live out a busy life with it.
Nancy: Yeah. It’s so interesting to see the crossover markets. Having my roots in the outdoor industry and then how some of that spills over to fashion and how home (textiles) are going into technical.
Jill: Yeah. There is just a big crossover and … But should we show up at work in athleisure? I don’t know. I still feel that there’s … It’s really important to … when you’re professional you just need to look the part. I think that to see some of these tech people showing up with shirts and ties says something. They’re kind of growing up a little bit and it’s not a bad thing.
Nancy: No. It’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing like a nice, crisp shirt. So do you have one that you designed but it bombed?
Jill: Let’s see. One that bombed. Well, sometimes things are just very short-lived. We’ll put it on the line for one season and if it doesn’t get traction … and sometimes I think it just needed a second or third season and it was just maybe too soon or just didn’t quite fit into the line that we were showing. Like there’s nothing like where we got high returns of one item that was just a poor fit. I think I remember grading my first extra-large because we expanded to extra- small to extra-large and I just made these ginormous sleeve lengths that were ridiculous, and I just scaled it back. I realized okay, that there’s a little different proportion in grading, which was new to me.
Jill: But I’m trying to think of a bomb, bomb, bomb.
Nancy: Of course there hasn’t been. I’m sure.
Jill: Maybe we pulled it fast enough. So, we would pull a product off the line fast enough so that we didn’t get these … But the fear is getting a return of one … I did have a linen and I pulled it from … It was from the (fabric supplier’s) home division and I just ended up falling in love with this fabric. It was an iridescent blue-gray, it was just gorgeous. And I said, “I want that fabric.” And they were like, “Well, it is home.” And I said, “I don’t care. I’m going to make shirts.” And the seams all split. So that was a recall shirt, definitely a recall shirt. So my bad for pushing.
Nancy: Oh well. A risk. No, you just had to get it out of your system.
Jill: Right. Right. Right.
Nancy: So these are difficult times, you said, in retail and wholesale. Are there any other professional challenges that keep you up at night?
Jill: Yeah, there are lots of challenges and I just … I see … The way that I see the future of apparel, I hope, is what the trends will be for this country. And I’m more in the waiting game for that. And I … We have this beautiful store in Freeport and traffic, to be honest, has been down because the traffic in general has been down for brick and mortar. We still have sales and there’s still some momentum, but the growth that we anticipated isn’t there and we just think there’s just not the foot traffic. But I do think that people will swing back to wanting to go into a store, wanting to walk in and try something on, especially with apparel because it’s so uncertain when you’re buying something online whether it’s going to fit. And so I think that this has been a big trend, an online trend. And my argument is do you want to go to the UPS store or want to come to the retail store and try it (a garment) on? It’s just that you’ve got some good choices out there. And I think that finding the niche market in the specialty stores will thrive in time because they’ll offer unique product to the customer and that’s what we’re doing.
Nancy: In times of self-doubt, how do you build yourself back up?
Jill: In times of self-doubt, I think our customers really help drive that. When we hear from our customers and when there’s demand from our customers it’s just really reassuring that we are doing something right. But I do … Sometimes I think that people will just buy cheap and deep in that they’ll be this throwaway economy. Sometimes I get really … The despair is there where are they not hearing and knowing that this isn’t really … All this waste, all this … you’re probably spending as much money on multiple products that aren’t even going to hold up more than one season. And it’s not really what you want. And I think in time, a consumer will become more aware, and if it’s not in their budget they can’t buy it. But if you could source it at a thrift store and it’s a Jill McGowan, that makes me happy.
There was another report that just came out from Business of Fashion that said that by … I think it’s by 2027, there will be more resale stores than fashion stores. There’ll be more growth in resale, which I think is really interesting. And so that means that the chain for resale will have to be quality. And so we can be in line for that.
Nancy: That’s great. That’s very interesting. I was at a seminar a while back where they were saying that millennials like to share things or go to places to rent equipment. Say, if they’re going on a hike, rather than buying a new pack or buying whatever to go hiking, they go to the secondhand store, either to buy it or rent it.
Jill: Yeah, yeah. I think … And they’re less attached to the things maybe that our baby boomer generation is buying a home. I don’t think they’re on a mission to own a home and they’re not on a mission to stay in fancy hotels – so Airbnb has gotten such great traction. And the car rental, the Uber, Lyft, and renting a car for a weekend and the car shares, the bike shares that you see in the cities. Yeah, I think there is definitely a movement. And that’s an age range. And who knows, the millennials when they reach their late 20s, early 30s, there could be a shift in consumer purchasing too.
Nancy: What are you most proud of, Jill?
Jill: I’m proud of my product. I’m proud of the quality that we put in our product and the process. I’m really proud of my team. I love my team, I love coming to work. Everyone’s engaged and everyone works really hard. I’m proud of my son right now who just got an award.
Nancy: Yeah, something else.
Nancy:Yeah. What’s next for Jill McGowan?
Jill: We hope to increase sales at our retail store. We really love having and owning a retail store and driving more customers there. We’re working on getting more of the local customers there. We get a really great tourist base every summer. The traffic is phenomenal in Freeport and we get people from all over the country and all over the world who discover our product, which is great. But we’re really trying to reach out to more local customers.
And then building our online base. We have to really get a better handle on how to draw that customer into our website and make it a really, really good experience.
Nancy: Can you leave us with a memorable fabric story?
Jill: A memorable fabric story. Well I think the Hathaway shirt product, I remember having a Hathaway shirt, or it might have been my sister’s and I borrowed it, but I just remembered that fabric and the quality of that fabric and the longevity of it. And then I had another … It was a cotton shirt from Sweden of all places. I think I found at a thrift store when I was living in Berlin in the 80s. And that thing, I wore until it turned into fiber molecules. It was just this cotton that just got softer and softer and it was just … It was effortless to wear and you just felt secure in it and so I think that that’s really what drives my design and building those memories for other people. I keep telling people, “I know you have that favorite shirt you go to or that favorite t-shirt. And why is that?” And it’s really … The answer is always either the … Well, it’s often the cut or the fabric. And so I think those two things if you can stay on top of that, it’s a great thing.
Nancy: Well it sounds like you have.
Jill: Just trying to. Yeah.
Nancy: Yeah. Thank you so much, Jill.
Jill: Thank you.
Nancy: Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise, please visit materialwise.com and please subscribe, rate and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again and until next time, take care.