04/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
Inside a steamy Hong Kong sweatshop, the Chinese workers hunched over their sewing machines and mumbled that their New York-born boss was bonkers. Why was she ordering up dresses with no backs? In fact, Jan Dutton, the 31-year-old wife of a U.S. doll manufacturer based in the British Crown Colony, was sinking $10,000 of her own money into manufacturing a garment that had been out of fashion since Gilbert & Sullivan: the Victorian pinafore. The gamble paid off. Just seven months after Dutton launched the Paper White company, her cotton aprons trimmed with lace—meant to dress up a party frock or hostess gown—are now the rage in stores from Macy's to Henri Bendel.
The New York native made her first apron using old lace when she was 19, but was never enthusiastic about sewing. Indeed a career in the rag trade was far from her mind when she graduated from Berkeley with a degree in ancient and Near Eastern history. She taught for a time at an experimental school in New Hampshire before marrying San Franciscan Christopher Dutton and taking a managing job in a flower shop.
After Chris was transferred to Hong Kong in January 1980, Jan began looking for something to keep her busy. When a relative visited, bringing along an expensive apron from France, Jan recalls thinking, "Why not make something like it here?" Relying on gestures (Dutton speaks no Chinese), she purchased the white fabric from the Chinese mainland, where the lacework and embroidery are also done now. "I put the first sample through hell," she says, "washing, ironing and wearing it every day for a month. I wanted to make sure it wouldn't fall apart."
Now four workers labor full-time on orders for Dutton in conditions that she concedes are "dirty and overcrowded," but Jan hopes to expand to more suitable quarters as her business grows. Toward that end, she recently toured Paris and came back with ideas for five new styles—including a mother-and-daughter set. The demand for pinafores comes as no surprise to Dutton. "People," she explains, "say to themselves, 'This is what my great-granny wore.' " Not quite. Although cheaper than the French prototype, at $30 to $46 apiece, there is one place Dutton's aprons should not be worn: in the kitchen.