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.

August 27, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

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."

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