In an opulent San Francisco mansion, the sounds of Chopin drift in the night air. A delicate, intense-looking woman in a lace-edged frock floats through the Italianate garden into a marble dining room. “I see rooms filled with dancers in beautifully flowing, ethereal dresses,” she says dreamily, “waltzing, moving like fading shadows.” Despite her frothy tea gowns and lavender prose, the woman is no overheated romance novelist, although she peddles the same product. “I sell romance and fantasy,” says fashion designer Jessica McClintock, 54. “I like a woman who is secure and very feminine.”
Women like her, too. Her wildly successful 13-year-old clothing empire hauls in some $75 million a year from her lacy, frilly, sweetly sentimental designs. Her best-selling Gunne Sax label, which this season features ribboned, ruffled ballerina-and matinee-length hems and Victorian lace collars, is a national teenage rage. Women in their 20s and 30s are enthralled with her more sophisticated, Gatsbyesque Jessica McClintock and Scott McClintock (named for her only child) labels. Among the designer’s fans are Sissy Spacek, Mary Crosby and Melissa Gilbert. Marie Osmond and novelist Danielle Steel wore her clothes during their pregnancies.
Her home is a lavish, 16-room, 19th-century mansion that she bought three years ago from director Francis Ford Coppola. But the designer puts in grueling days at her Art Deco-style plant near downtown San Francisco, where she employs about 300 people and designs 2,500 new outfits a year. A former grade-school teacher with no formal fashion training, McClintock stumbled into the designer business in 1969 when a friend told her about a fledgling dress firm in need of a partner. Intrigued by “the sound of the sewing machine and the smell of fabric” at Gunne Sax’s one-room plant, Jessica says, “I knew I’d found my niche.” Months later McClintock bought out her partner and was on her own.
Her early “Gunnies,” influenced by ’60s hippie clothes, were the rage at Joseph Magnin in San Francisco, and soon McClintock was selling to major department stores nationally. (The Gunne Sax line ranges from $36 to $148, the more expensive labels from $160 to $260.)
Jessica grew up in Frenchville, Maine, where her father was a shoe salesman and her mother a beautician. She began making clothes as a child, and her mother encouraged her creative side. At 19, McClintock quit Boston University to marry Al Staples, an MIT engineering student. (Her son, Scott, now 29, is a Hollywood actor who also works with his mother’s business.) They eventually settled in Santa Clara, Calif., where she taught sixth grade. But in 1963 Staples was killed in an automobile accident. “It was a horrible, horrible time,” says McClintock. Her second marriage, to airline pilot Fred McClintock, a friend of her husband’s, ended in divorce in 1967. These days the man in her life is Ben Gollober, 60, who handles the firm’s finances. They started out as business acquaintances but have lived together since the mid-1970s.
Jessica has never lost her ability to fantasize her worries away. “I imagine myself lying here reading Emily Brontë,” she whispers, stretched out on a cream-colored chaise. “I live in a dreamworld.” That seems to be the secret of McClintock’s phenomenal success.