Jessica McClintock Credit: Contributed

Jessica McClintock, an Aroostook County native who built a $150 million fashion empire, died on Feb. 16 at her home in San Francisco. She was 90, according to a New York Times obituary.

Starting with her original line, Gunne Sax, introduced in 1969, McClintock outfitted prom goers, brides, and those who needed a great dress for a special occasion, through decades of changes in taste and style. Women from the Boomer generation might remember her lacy, retro-chic “granny dresses,” which were popular in the early 1970s, while Generation Xers may look back fondly (or not so fondly) on her poofy, jewel-toned silk taffeta dresses of the 1980s and early 90s. Today, her designs are still sold in stores including Macy’s and JC Penney.

McClintock was born Jessie Earle Gagnon in Frenchville, the daughter of Rene and Verna Gagnon of Presque Isle, who divorced when she was two, according to the New York Times. As a child, she was taught to sew by her grandmother, and she credited her mother, a hairdresser, with instilling her work ethic in her. In a 1989 magazine interview, McClintock called her mother “the hardest-working person I have ever known.”

She graduated from Presque Isle High School in 1948 and went on to attend Boston University. Shortly after graduating, she married Alston Staples, with whom she had a son, Scott, and moved to California. When her first husband died, she married Fred McClintock, whom she divorced a few years later — keeping his name, as well as the more formal-sounding first name, Jessica.

In 1969, she invested $5,000 in a San Francisco fashion company called Gunne Sax, which catered to Bay Area hippies with its signature granny dresses — a long dress that was part Victorian, part prairie dress, often crafted out of paisleys and calicos, and always festooned with lace and ribbons. That ornate, aggressively feminine style became McClintock’s signature throughout the years — as was the affordability of her dresses, which rarely cost more than $300, even today.

By the mid-1970s, her dresses were in stores nationwide. By the 1980s, she was a household name, with Jessica McClintock dresses becoming a staple of proms, quinceaneras and Sweet Sixteen parties all over North America. In the 1990s, she expanded her brand to sell fragrances, handbags, jewelry and home goods. According to a 2002 story in the Bangor Daily News, her signature fragrance, “Jessica,” was inspired by the lilies of the valley and lilacs around her grandmother’s County home.

In this June 2002 file photo, he sign for Hedrich’s Presque Ilse Motel lets passers-by know about the dress shop inside. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik

McClintock’s family in Presque Isle, including her mother Verna, her aunt Teddy and her sister Dolores, ran Hedrich’s Dress Shop for decades, a retail store housed within Hedrich’s Presque Isle Motel, a family-run motel. There, the family sold the full array of McClintock’s designs, as well as designs from older lines from as far back as the Gunne Sax days.

Her brother, Jack Hedrich, was a vice president with the company, and other family members also worked for the brand for many years. She is survived by her son, Scott McClintock, as well as several half-siblings and a large extended family in Maine and across the country.

McClintock lived most of her life in San Francisco, where she owned a mansion she purchased from director Francis Ford Coppola, which she famously decorated in satin, marble, crystal and her beloved lace.

“Every woman wants to be romantic at some point,” McClintock told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1990. “The hard edges will always be there because, let’s face it, women are living in a world where they have to keep up with men. So I design for memories, for dreams, the softness of life.”

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.