By Melba Beals.
Updated March 03, 1980 12:00 PM
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Only five years ago designers Jeanne Allen and Marc Grant lived and worked in a tiny one-room apartment, sleeping at night on a quilt underneath their cutting table. They stored the ironing board in the tub. Today their San Francisco-based company, Jeanne-Marc, has boosted sales to $3 million a year. “The experts say you have to have at least $50,000 and lots of technical training to start a business,” Jeanne marvels. “We had neither. We just stumbled ahead with blind faith that we’d make it.”

Jeanne-Marc offers a complete line of dresses, blouses, evening wear and sportswear, but their success is based on vivid, one-of-a-kind patchwork jackets with a bird stitched on the back. Pam Dawber displayed the jacket to a national TV audience on Mork and Mindy. Dinah Shore, Goldie Hawn, Cyd Charisse and Jane Fonda all own one. “I love their clothes,” says Stockard Channing. “I feel bright and cheery when I put them on.”

Lauren Bacall, on the way to the San Francisco airport a few weeks ago, kept her limousine waiting at the curb while she dashed into Jeanne-Marc’s Sutter Street boutique to make a few last-minute purchases totaling $700. Later she phoned from New York with another order.

Jeanne-Marc dresses run from $60 to $250, blouses and shirts from $30 to $150 and the hand-batiked silk jackets themselves are priced at $600 to $700. The clothes are sold at stores like Neiman-Marcus in Houston and Henri Bendel in New York. Saks Fifth Avenue plans to open Jeanne-Marc boutiques in six branches from coast to coast.

“The first thing everybody asks is whether we are brother and sister because we work so well together and look alike,” says 34-year-old Jeanne. Not related by blood or marriage (but lovers for 10 years), they met in 1970 at the San Francisco branch of Design Research Inc., where he was display director. “I was standing on a ladder changing the window display,” remembers Jeanne, then a new employee. “It was obvious he didn’t approve of what I was doing.” Interjects Marc, “I couldn’t imagine she could be making changes without my permission.”

Jeanne, who grew up near Seattle, graduated from the University of Washington in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in English and history. Her food-chemist father, Alfred (Jeanne calls him “the Instant Food King”), invented products like quick gravy and packaged spaghetti sauce. “My friends and I were his guinea pigs,” Jeanne recalls.

The 33-year-old Marc was raised in San Diego and says, “I was shy, an only child. Art and design have always been the most important things in my life.” By age 13 he had already put on two one-man shows of abstract oils and prints. In 1969 he graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in fine arts.

Not long after they met, Jeanne and Marc took off for Europe together—first to Finland, where he earned 800 an hour hand-screening fabrics in designer Armi Ratia’s Marimekko factory. Weekends the couple lived in splendor at Ratia’s summer house mingling with guests like Buckminster Fuller, Edward Albee and James Baldwin. “During the week,” remembers Jeanne, “we lived in poverty with the gypsies.”

Next came England, where Marc studied for his M.A. at Brighton Polytechnic’s College of Art. Meanwhile Jeanne began sewing quilted patchwork jackets and dresses from old clothes she unearthed at flea markets and rummage sales. The couple had decided to settle permanently in England, but during a trip home in 1974 changed their minds. They lugged a bagful of their work to Joseph Magnin in San Francisco, “pretending,” Jeanne giggles, “to be British to make ourselves seem more important. But a woman sitting in the corner at a sewing machine greeted me enthusiastically, asking wasn’t I from Bothell. That blew our cover.”

It did not affect their reception by the California department store, which placed a large order. Others followed. Marc remembers, “The Bloomingdale’s buyer would call long-distance from New York and say, ‘Could you go to your factory and send us 30 garments right away?’ We’d say, ‘Sure,’ and run back to our little room and sew full speed to meet their request. We were frightened they would find out how small we were and cancel.”

Today Jeanne and Marc, who have no intention of marrying because they “get a better tax break this way,” own a 4,000-square-foot factory in downtown San Francisco and have 60 employees on their payroll. At night they repair to an elegant three-room apartment in a castle-like mansion on Russian Hill. But they still sleep on that quilt on the floor.