Sustainable Style

An Old Port boutique brings Jill McGowan’s classic, Maine-made apparel to Portland

Owner and designer Jill McGowan stands in her Portland studio.
The Jill McGowan boutique on Exchange Street offers a carefully chosen selection of accessories to complement the company’s Maine-made clothing.
A rack of signature “Great White Shirts”.
Garments are hand-assembled in the Casco Street studio.
Each design starts in the studio with a handmade paper pattern before being prototyped and eventually moved into production.

It’s long been a gripe of mine that when my husband buys good-quality clothing he can expect it to last for years, even decades—but when I do, it might hold up only a season or two. When Jill McGowan moved from working in women’s couture in New York to a Maine company that made men’s shirts, she wondered why it had to be that way. As a product developer for the C.F. Hathaway Company in Waterville, she says, “I was fascinated by the quality, the price point, the fabrics. They would test these items, put them 50 times in the wash; there was a whole inspection system.” McGowan tried to convince Hathaway to start a new women’s line, and eventually she decided to do it on her own. Since 1994 she’s been manufacturing “The Great White Shirt” in Maine, and last June moved her retail store from Freeport to downtown Portland.

Today racks of McGowan’s beloved shirts fill a bright and cozy room in a historic Old Port building. There’s lots of variety even in her trademark white, with cuts from easy to elegant and a globe-spanning range of fabrics: Belgian linen, Italian silk, Swiss cotton, Japanese silk. Jewel tones, neutrals, and stripes diversify the selection, which includes dresses, pants, and jackets as well as shirts. Most items are made a few blocks away in McGowan’s Casco Street studio (some sewing is done in Scarborough). While she sells a good deal of clothing online, the brick-and-mortar shop lets McGowan try out one-off items and experiments, like some boiled wool jackets that she hasn’t yet slated for production. It’s also a place where customers can experience the clothes in real life, rather than trying to pick them from a website. “I think our clothing needs to be tried on,” says McGowan. “People will walk in and see a row of shirts and think, ‘It’s not my style, it’s not my price point.’ When we start seeing them on people, it just transforms them and the garment; it takes the person’s look up to another level.”

“We can fit anybody,” says sales associate Janice Peterson. “Everyone here has a lot of experience with selling fashion; we’ll ask about your lifestyle, how you want to wear the clothes. We also know Jill’s shirts.” On the day I visit, Peterson is wearing an “Astrid” silk and wool shirt in a mottled pattern of red and gray. It’s several seasons old, she says—as is McGowan’s shirt of the day, in black cotton lycra with Liberty-print trim. Both women look gracefully put-together, comfortable enough for a long workday, sharp enough for any meeting (or interview) that might arise, and stylish enough for evening cocktails. “It’s nice to see the clothes in circulation for a long time,” says McGowan, who notes with pleasure that younger shoppers are discovering her shirts in vintage shops. “They are sustainable on a lot of levels—the quality of the fabric, stitching that will hold up. People are taking such care with the way they purchase food; I hope they are mindful when they shop for apparel, to.”

What’s in store on Exchange Street

  • Jill McGowan loves woven fabrics, but in response to customer demand she’s introduced knits in recent years. Some of her best-selling shirts are “hybrids,” which combine knit and woven fabrics to offer stretch and comfort as well as a tailored look. The 94 Portland line, in breezy chambrays, dots, and stripes, was developed to cater to the city’s casual style.
  • The shop offers carefully curated accessories that complement McGowan’s simple, time less aesthetic. Cashmere wraps and scarves in neutral colors and interesting textures are piled in soft heaps; raincoats, boots, and umbrellas printed with stripes, dots, and bees make a cheerful display. Portland-made products include wrapping papers printed by Pretty Flours, cheeky Bespolk knit hats, and leather handbags created by Jayme Lane, a store employee.
  • After 25 years in the business, McGowan keeps her collections fresh with the help of students and graduates from the Maine College of Art, where she teaches in the textile and fashion design department. Company designer Jordan Carey is a recent MECA grad, and the store sells canvas totes hand-painted by students to raise funds for a New York City field trip.