One day during her freshman year in art school, Jennifer Barclay made a valentine by pressing a paint-covered linoleum block, carved with heart shapes, onto a piece of paper. Not satisfied, she tried it on a T-shirt. Much better. So much better, in fact, that Barclay, then 17, spent $100 on plain T-shirts, which she hand-printed and sold for $450 at a spring fair near her hometown. Within a year she quit school and began hawking her colorful, hand-stamped dresses and tops from a booth at music fairs in the Northeast. Then in 1986 she launched Blue Fish Clothing, named after one of her whimsical designs. Her New Jersey company now has 217 employees and sells its brightly colored, funky, oversize clothing for women in more than 500 stores across the U.S.
First person: "I wasn't scared," Barclay says of starting her company. "I didn't have any idea of how...but I found a pattern maker, I ordered the fabric. I found a factory in the Yellow Pages."
Customers: Singers Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith. "That's part of what makes it fun," says Barclay, "to get to know these people."
Vitals: Grew up on a 20-acre farm in Bucks County, Pa.; two younger siblings; mother works in a bookstore, father owns a construction company. Began designing her own clothes in high school. ("I couldn't find anything to wear that I felt comfortable in. I never liked to wear jeans.")
Report card: Left Temple University's Tyler School of Art after one year ("Art? School? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?"); studied one semester abroad in Rome.
Second opinion: "Her best friends were always older," recalls father David Barclay. "She was not overly friendly with classmates. She clearly was more mature."
Interests: Fiction by Jeanette Winterson; flea market furniture; drives a Jeep Cherokee.
Home front: Separated from her husband of nearly five months. ("I make decisions quickly, which is why I'm in this situation," she says of the marriage.) Shares an old farmhouse near New Hope, Pa., with her 20-pound cat Bubba.
Motivation: "It was never about the money. I just wanted to do it because I was excited about what I had made and it was fun."
Sales so far this year: $9 million.