July 01, 2022

Dressed for Success Famed designer-CEO Jessica McClintock living a fairy tale that started in Aroostook County

If you’re not paying attention to the signs on Route 1, it can be a little tricky to find Hedrich’s Dress Shop.

It’s set back from the road. On a hill. In a motel. In the basement. In Presque Isle.

To get there, you walk into the motel’s carpeted lobby, where you are greeted by Verna Hedrich, seated on a cream-colored recliner, and Taurus, a long, fluffy white German shepherd who may or may not meet you at the door. Verna’s sister, Teddy Nelson, is there, as is her daughter, Dolores Hutchins.

Many of the girls who come to the shop seeking prom or pageant gowns have been there before, so they know the way: Follow the posters down the stairs, past the sale rack, hang a left at the beauty parlor, and head straight into a former banquet room packed with rack after rack of dresses.

Some are a muted green, embellished with Swarovski crystals at the straps. Others are variations of the little black dress. There are gowns in shimmery pink organza and patriotic red, white and blue satin. Pale blue princess dresses with boned bodices and puffy tulle skirts hang beside sexy, elegant columns in black and white.

The styles, colors, prices and sizes may vary, but the dresses have one thing in common: Each was designed by Jessica McClintock.

Anyone who has ever been married, gone to the prom or leafed through Seventeen magazine is familiar with the San Francisco woman’s romantic style. Her gowns are the industry standard, normally found in the formal-wear section of higher-end department stores or in one of McClintock’s 43 signature boutiques around the country. So it may seem a bit unusual that the designer’s latest designs – nearly her entire collection – can be found in a motel in Aroostook County.

Unusual, that is, until you learn that Verna Hedrich is Jessica’s mother. Nelson is her aunt and Dolores is her sister. McClintock, now 71, was born in Frenchville and grew up in Presque Isle. After graduating from Presque Isle High School, she went to Boston University, married an MIT student and later became a teacher. After her husband’s death in an accident in 1969, she moved to California with her young son, Scott.

Around that time, she decided to invest $5,000 to become a partner in Gunne Sax, a struggling San Francisco dress company that catered to young hippies, incorporating calico, jute and lace in its designs. The other partner backed out, and the business became her own. What happened in the years that followed was the stuff of fairy tales.

“When she got it, it was a little room not much bigger than this with a sewing machine, the kind you run with your feet,” Hutchins said, sitting on a black couch in the motel’s lobby.

“She built this little Gunne Sax into an empire,” Hedrich added.

What started as a small shop catering to flower children is now worth $150 million, its headquarters occupies a full city block in San Francisco, and McClintock recently acquired a distribution center the size of six football fields. The dresses, which have been sold under the labels Gunne Sax, Jessica McClintock and Scott McClintock over the years, made Jessica a household name, and in recent years she has become a “lifestyle brand,” selling jewelry, furniture, china, eyewear, perfume, handbags, home accessories and area rugs.

One reason for the brand’s success is its affordability. Her prom dresses start around $100 at a time when many teen-age girls spend upward of $300 on gowns and accessories. While Hedrich’s Dress Shop has an “in,” the dresses are still priced the same as they would be at a department store, for consistency’s sake. But you can find past-season dresses at a discount, and Hedrich’s has an intriguing selection of vintage dresses that haven’t been worn.

She recently revisited some of her earliest styles in the “Jessica McClintock Vintage Collection.” With dresses that range from the calicos of the early 1970s to the pouffy sleeves of the ’80s and the short cocktail dresses of the early ’90s, the shop’s stock shows the evolution of McClintock the designer.

“Her themes are romantic, always,” Hedrich said.

Romance infuses nearly everything McClintock designs, from her special-occasion clothing to her home line, which is inspired by her 16-room mansion in San Francisco, the former home of “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola. When she bought it, she put in Italian marble floors and turned it into a Victorian fantasy of lace, silk, crystal and silver.

Memories of lilies of the valley and lilacs around her grandmother’s home in Aroostook County inspired her first perfume, the best selling “Jessica,” and her newest fragrance, “Jessica McClintock Number 3.” Her grandmother was the one who taught her to sew clothes for her dolls and later for herself.

Though she hasn’t been back to Presque Isle since 1970, “Babe” – the family’s nickname for McClintock – calls home every day.

“She loses time, and time to her is the essence,” Hedrich said. “She’s a worker. She’s up at 6 in the morning and works until 7 at night.”

In a 1989 interview with Victoria magazine, McClintock credited her mother for her work ethic, calling Verna “the hardest-working person I have ever known.”

Her mother, sister and aunt visit San Francisco two or three times a year and Jessica’s brother, Jack Hedrich, is one of the company’s vice presidents. Dolores’ son, Bruce Hutchins, is in charge of the boutiques, and her granddaughter Jessica Hutchins is in charge of the bridal line.

“She says people from Maine are very hard workers, and she loves hiring people from Maine,” Dolores said.

But she has a special spot in her heart for her relatives, whether they’re in San Francisco or across the country in Presque Isle.

“It’s kind of a family affair,” Verna said, smiling.

Hedrich’s Dress Shop is located on Route 1 at Hedrich’s Presque Isle Motel. For store hours or information, call 768-5741.

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