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Juicy Montreal Couture

Jessie May and her hip-hop dancers come out to play

by Laura Osborne

Don't underestimate Jess Wolfe, one of Montreal's hottest young designers, just because she's all smiles and has a fabulous mane of blond hair. Although she could be mistaken for a model at one of her photo shoots, beneath the sparkly blue-green eyes, bronzed skin and wafts of coconut-scented lotion is a hard-nosed entrepreneur with some serious business acumen.

The Jessie May fashion label (Wolfe's first and middle names), launched its first collection in spring 2003 with a line of retro T-shirts and lingerie featuring 50s-style pin-up girls. Wolfe chose a butterfly as her signature motif, a symbol for the "butterfly effect," which suggests that the beat of a butterfly wing in China can affect the weather in New York City. The idea that a small happening can actually produce complex results embodies Jessie's personal, urban-hippy philosophy of spreading a little bit of happiness around her every day.

Jess's father discovered his daughter's entrepreneurial spirit when, in grade six, she dyed their gravel driveway psychedelic colours while trying to get a tie-dye T-shirt operation off the ground. Studying in England at Herstmonceux Castle, and working as an assistant photographer in Australia developed Jessie's taste for travel, but it was at the International Academy of Design and Technology, in Montreal, that she honed her skills as a designer. Armed with chutzpah and a degree in graphic design, she moved back to England. Within two weeks, she secured a job in London at Phaidon Press, the international publisher of art books. Despite working on the acclaimed Halston and notorious Fruits books, Jessie discovered that she was not a nine-to-five girl. Returning to Montreal, she spotted an ad for a freelance designer for Dex and in May, 2002, designed a men's vintage T-shirt line. Its success gave her the confidence to start her own label.

With her playful clothes ("saucy zippy," "luscious lyocell," "French terry and twill") and come-out-and-play philosophy, Jess successfully negotiated her first line into a dozen stores. Jess uses colour as an energizing force in her collections, believing that when women opt for a pink grapefruit top and pair it with a papaya bottom instead of the uniform black and grey, they experience an undeniably revitalizing result. She uses her friends as models, choosing to promote a healthy, strong, realistic female body type. Quotes from Einstein, Gandhi and Mother Teresa are often printed on her clothing.

Patricia Field, of Sex and the City fame, is a fashion trend-setting stylist whom Jessie was determined to meet, confident that her line was a perfect fit for Field's signature mix and match vintage look. When Patricia's deep, husky voice graced Jessie's voice mail (after a cold call, no less) giving her the thumbs up about the pin-up collection, she went to New York for a meeting. Jessie considers Patricia a key supporter of her label, but she also has a loyal fan base here in Canada. The boutique Glam on Montreal's St. Paul street was one of the first stores to place a Jessie May order, and Véronique, the "yummy mummy" owner, is still clad in head-to-toe Jessie May whenever Jess pops in for a visit. Other loyal retailers include Girl Friday in Toronto and Plush in Tofino.

More recently, Jessie May has materialized on the ground floor of Ogilvy (a high-end fashion flagship in Montreal), nestled between fashion powerhouses Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Estée Lauder. Her fall collection has a sensual theme, combining luxurious cashmere fabrics and sumptuous colours like cocoa, blush and butter cotton. Note to all fashionistas: hip-hop dancers will be modelling Jessie May's Spring/Summer Island Parade collection at Maisonneuve's 3rd Annual {Not Just} Art Event on Thursday, April 21, 2005 at 9 PM.

For more information about Jessie May, please visit her website at www.jessiemay.com.

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