Blue Fish Clothing, a national niche brand of eco-friendly garments for women, began in a 17-year-old Solsbury, PA, artist’s garage. Founder Jennifer Barclay started making her own clothing in 1985 because she felt the apparel that she found in other stores did not reflect her personality.
As her sewing machine danced beneath her hands, the bright designs flowing through her imagination came alive in the form of loose, multicolored skirts and blouses.
“Our clothing is designed to be comfortable and comforting, expressive, full of spirit, and fun to wear,” says Barclay. “Blue Fish is always in style, not trying to be fashionable or trendy.”
After getting many compliments on her unique wardrobe, Barclay started making and selling her clothes at local boutiques and craft fairs. Soon wanting to expand, she followed the advice of a local boutique owner and participated in a New York trade show.
There, 18-year-old Barclay obviously tapped into something that women of all sizes had been craving but not finding in stores—she received $110,000 worth of orders in three days.
Today, the company she started, Blue Fish Clothing, offers artisanal clothing for women, including plus sizes, both via its online store and three brick-and-mortar stores in Taos, NM; Frenchtown, NJ; and Fairfield, IA. The clothing is 100 percent made in the USA.
Blue Fish’s pieces have always been handmade since 1986. In 1995—long before organic cotton became a trend in the clothing industry—the company has made its products from organic cotton and natural fibers exclusively. Barclay learned about organic cotton from other green business owners.
“I never knew that conventional cotton was so polluting and toxic to the environment,” says Barclay. “As soon as I found out, I could not in good conscience continue to use it.”
In addition to organic cotton, Blue Fish uses a wide variety of natural, eco-friendly fibers, including silk, bamboo, linen, and wool. Once, the company produced a line of black clothing made from 100 percent recycled materials. Another time, Blue Fish made clothes out of a blend of hemp and yak wool fiber.
Today, Blue Fish items are sewn by a family-owned company in Pennsylvania and colored with low-impact dyes in the back rooms of its New Jersey and Iowa stores. In Iowa, three artists hand-block-print and silk screen the items that appear in Blue Fish’s shops.
These artists carve the printing blocks by hand, occasionally adding hand-painted details to the clothes.
Barclay has added jewelry, accessories, and other clothing lines to her stores, as well.
While Blue Fish’s organic cotton and artisanal production cause its clothes to be more expensive than a shirt or dress from a big-box store, they have greater value in the long run than many conventionally made clothing pieces—particularly cheap, sweatshop-made items—due to their durability, high quality, and classic styles.
“People still wear their [Blue Fish] clothes from 20 years ago, and they’re still going strong and looking really beautiful,” says Barclay. “People who invest in clothing that’s going to last a long time tend to love [our] clothing… Their memories are tied up in it. It really expresses who they are.”
Blue Fish’s website features testimonials from a wide array of women who feel like this clothing has increased their confidence and their overall well-being. Astred Griffin, who works in customer service, particularly remembers a story that one customer told her.
The woman, who has been shopping with Blue Fish for over 20 years, told Griffin that she works for a women’s shelter and sees her Blue Fish clothing as a way to provide emotional support to the shelter’s inhabitants.
“She always wants to have the most bright and happy paint and print-work on her clothing,” says Griffin. “Occasionally she’ll buy [Blue Fish] sale items to donate so that the women will have eco-friendly clothing to wear as well.”
Blue Fish also hosts a famous “friends and family sale” in its New Jersey shop biannually. Sales associate Laura Younkman views these sales as “reunions,” in which dedicated customers discuss the pieces in their Blue Fish collections, some of which are 25 years old.
“We have a lot of fun here every day, actually,” says Webmistress Laura Mullikin. “We get a lot of work done, but we like each other, too. It makes the days go by really fast.”
Blue Fish’s sustainability extends beyond its choice of fabrics and its products’ durability. The company uses vintage buttons and nontoxic water-soluble inks. Its catalog is exclusively online and updated several times a week. (Customers can sign up to receive e-mail notifications when new Blue Fish pieces are released.)
Around one-third of the company’s clothing items are made from other designers’ leftover fabrics, which would have otherwise been thrown away. This commitment to reuse extends to its three brick-and-mortar stores, which all contain salvaged building materials and repurposed fixtures.
In the past, Barclay was more focused on expansion than she is now. At one point, Blue Fish had ten stores and supplied clothing for 500 boutiques, including Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. In 2001, after her son was born, Barclay decided to slow down.
She closed her company and then reopened a new Blue Fish with three stores and a smaller, more artisanal focus.
“We used to try to grow, grow, grow,” says Barclay. “When the company was bigger, that was important. But now, my life is different, and what’s important is just to do small things with great care and produce beautiful products that last [and] that people love.”