The scents of lavender, sage and chamomile hang in the air at Studio, the downtown Orono boutique and workshop owned by fashion designer Jessi Sader. Glass jars of dried herbs sit on shelves next to the countertop where Sader, 36, an Orono native, spends most of her afternoons making clothing on her old-fashioned Singer sewing machine.
Yards of fabric sit in piles, waiting to be sewn into Sader’s floaty cotton tank tops, embellished with “yo-yos,” little fabric discs she takes from old quilts she buys at fabric auctions. In a wardrobe hang her elegant wrap dresses made of supple bamboo cotton. If there’s a particular vintage fabric she covets, it’s real silk lace from the days before polyester and nylon.
“I’ve always been crazy for vintage anything,” she said. “I’m very much a textile snob. They definitely don’t make them like they used to.”
Sader’s shop serves triple duty: It’s her workspace, it’s her retail space and, once a week, it’s a community gathering space for an array of workshops she and others organize. Studio, open since February 2009, is home base for Sader’s clothing line, FXDressed, as well as clothes and accessories from an array of Maine designers, such as Orono designers Emma Thieme’s dyed leather earrings and Isis Bell-Smith’s birch bark bracelets.
“I am really, really passionate about being local and buying local and supporting local designers,” she said. “China owns us. It’s really easy to buy and sell stuff that’s made on the other side of the planet, but I don’t want to support that. I’ll never be a millionaire, but you know, all I want is to pay my mortgage.”
Since the early 1990s, Sader has made clothing, starting with hippie dresses she sold at music festivals and on streets from Bangor to San Francisco. In 2002, she opened her first Orono shop, Past Lives Boutique, specializing in vintage clothing, which she still sells on eBay to customers all over the world. That store closed in 2005, and since then Sader has moved away from vintage buying and selling to focus on her own clothing line.
FXDressed launched shortly before Studio opened. For her designs, Sader employs as much fabric as she can that’s made in the USA. The origins of a lot of new fabric are sometimes fuzzy, so she can’t always be sure, but whenever she can buy fabric that’s American-made, she does. She also uses lots of vintage fabrics, which she purchases at auctions held monthly in Massachusetts.
Earlier this year, Sader began selling her clothing in 10 different stores in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She began working with a regional sales representative to market her clothing to boutiques in New England. While it seems inevitable that her clothing will be hanging on racks next to clothing made in China or India, Sader has accepted that fact.
“My ethics are based in small, grass roots, putting money in the pockets of your neighbors. But I know that my stuff isn’t always going to be sold in places that always jive with that,” she said. “My goal is just to always have my own product reflect that sensibility, and to always be affordable. I don’t want to price out my customers.”
Sader’s profile continues to rise, as her designs spread across the region. In April, Sader sent an audition tape to “Project Runway,” the Bravo reality TV show that focuses on fashion designers competing to create the best clothing line. Producers of the show contacted Sader to see whether she wanted to audition. While Sader received encouragement from her many friends and fans in the Orono area, she decided a few weeks after submitting her tape that reality TV wasn’t for her.
“Besides the fact that I’d have to leave my shop and go to New York for three months and not really see my daughter, I just felt like it really wasn’t the right thing for me,” said Sader, mother to 12-year-old Nixie. “I’m not the reality TV type.”
Though the television spotlight isn’t in the cards, Sader is content to let word spread organically. An increase in awareness, however, means an increase in production, so most days of the week, Sader is making shirts, dresses, skirts and headbands in mass quantities.
“What I wouldn’t give for an experienced seamstress,” she said. “A lot of the women who have those kinds of skills are over 65, and they’d much rather be sewing clothes for their grandchildren instead of making dresses and tops. It’s becoming a kind of lost art.”
The original spirit that inspired her to make those hippie dresses nearly 20 years ago remains present, but it’s tempered with a more refined eye and years of practice. FXDressed clothing is earthy, romantic and simple, with flowing lines, vibrant colors and the occasional silk-screened graphic or vintage button. It works for women of any shape or age, from slender teens to mothers and grandmothers seeking a comfortable but funky look. Sader specializes in custom work and will design dresses for special occasions.
Studio is about more than just clothing. Sader, a trained herbalist, began offering herbalism classes in March, in which participants can makes teas, oils, cough syrups and other products using herbs and plants found in Maine. Other artists and designers hold classes in jewelry making, recycling old clothing, crocheting and more. Starting Saturday, June 5, and continuing each Saturday through the summer, Sader will lead herb walks from 5:30 to 7 p.m. along the Stillwater River. She also will offer walks from 10:30 a.m. to noon Sunday.
“Trying to fill up space in town and contributing to the community is really important to me,” said Sader. “It kind of ties in with the whole idea of being local, buying local. That’s why I started these classes and workshops, so there could be a place for that kind of thing. I want to get people pumped up about being creative.”
Studio is located at 24 Main St. in downtown Orono. It is open noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. FXDressed clothing is available at Bella Luna in Bangor, Local Color in Northeast Harbor, Macey’s in Bar Harbor, Molly’s in Winterport and Roots and Tendrils in Belfast. For information, visit www.fxdressed.com.