Designer heads home for Pittsfield benefit

Posted May 06, 2009, at 7:09 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine, A town native who owns a highly successful fashion house in Portland will return home this week — as she has for the past seven years — to host a special sale to benefit the Pittsfield Public Library.

Jill McGowan grew up on Manson Street, a short walk to the library. “It is a beautiful landmark, the centerpiece of the town,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

McGowan is bringing hundreds of her private label shirts, dresses and other items back to Pittsfield. They will be sold Friday and Saturday to boost the library’s renovation and expansion fund. Last year, the sale made more than $2,000.

“My mother, Ann, has been spearheading the fundraising,” McGowan said. “Other communities might be able to raise $1 million in a year but Pittsfield has been working on this for seven years. It is a project very close to my heart.”

McGowan, 49, manages a successful fashion house in Portland, but her love of fabric and fashion began when she was a student in Pittsfield’s elementary school.

“My mother taught me to sew when I was in the fifth grade,” she said. “I thought it was so amazing that you could take a bolt of fabric and turn it into a garment.”

After graduating from Maine Central Institute, McGowan went to the University of Maine, studied abroad, and planned to be a journalist like her mother.

“I was only in my 20s and I couldn’t land a job,” she said. “I had always had this side passion for selling and creating and began looking at where that could take me.”

Two design schools and a career start on 7th Avenue in New York later, McGowan ended up at Hathaway Shirts in Waterville, a men’s dress shirt manufacturer with a strong international reputation.

“They mastered it. They had shirt-making down to a science,” she said. “There were more than 30 steps to each Hathaway shirt. They made a national, global product and they were proud of it. I spent three years there learning from the masters.”

Making the decision to move to Portland and establish her own fashion house, McGowan leaned on those Hathaway roots and created a line of high-fashion based on the men’s dress shirt.

“I turned it into a women’s product,” she said. “I used the finest Egyptian cottons, cottons with longer filaments. My mission became to make quality products for women.”

McGowan and her sister Jolene McGowan are partners, and their studio is in Portland. All the fashions are cut there. They are then sent to two factories, one in Scarborough and one in Philadelphia, where they are constructed. They are then sent back to Maine to be shipped.

“I might get more attention in New York,” she said. “But the upside is I get to live in Maine. The overhead is lower and I have a better lifestyle.”

Jill McGowan’s fashions will be on sale at the former florist shop on Main Street in Pittsfield from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday, May 8, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 9.

More information about McGowan’s business can be found at www.jillmcgowan.com.

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