Happy clothes. That’s how I describe the free-flowing designs made by Hand Jive, a company based in Fort Wayne, IN that started 17 years ago by Dawn DeSanto in partnership with her friend Kenna Jackson. Both women were enthusiastic about fashion and especially loved shopping together. When they turned 40, they became frustrated by the matronly options afforded to them as “older women.”
“We wanted to go to the junior department where the clothes looked so much more interesting and fun, but we had to go to the misses department to get a fit,” DeSanto said. As a visual artist who specializes in print-making, DeSanto waded into the fashion business almost by accident. Starting with what’s known in the fashion business as a “blank” (a ready-made garment that’s intended to be used as a canvas for some other design) DeSanto began embellishing the clothes she wore to dance and fitness classes with her own customized prints. “I’d wear something to class and people would ask, ‘Where did you get that?'”
Meanwhile, her 16-year-old fine art business hit a plateau. As interest in her customized clothes grew, DeSanto began to scrutinize the blanks with a more critical eye. “I knew I could design cooler things than that,” she said.
After getting serious about the idea of starting a fashion business, DeSanto and Jackson gathered their favorite clothes—the ones they grabbed when they needed to look good in a hurry—and analyzed what made them work. Shortly afterwards, they began making and selling their designs, joining a fashion movement that has become a popular new category of clothing: wearable art.
Although the clothes have evolved since the early 1990s, they are still made to flatter a mature figure—without looking matronly. “I loved the whole British Invasion influence on fashion, and sophisticated yet unstructured clothes,” DeSanto said. Although the clothes she makes today are more body-conscious than her earliest designs, they are made for real bodies. For example, Hand Jive sundresses and tank tops have wide straps that allow you to wear a regular bra. Tunics flow smoothly over hips without adding bulk.
DeSanto has no compunctions about using models that reflect Hand Jive’s customer base of women who are well north of 40. In fact, her strongest models are 68 and 73. “I’m excited about filling this niche,” she said. “Just because you’re middle-aged or older doesn’t mean you can’t have funky, fun clothes. I think having older models signals to other women that you don’t have to choose between giving up or trying too hard with fashion.” DeSanto notes that there are plenty of younger women who enjoy the spunk found in the Hand Jive fashion vibe, which has a cross-generational following.
Hand Jive benefits from the fact that there are still surprisingly few options for mature women who want to wear fun, flattering clothes, even among brands that are supposedly targeted to that age group. “They are either too tidy and neat, or too pastel,” she said.
Hand Jive clothes are made in Fort Wayne, IN and sold online and at art shows around the country, mostly in the Midwest. “Because of my fine art business, I knew how to market that way, so it was a natural way for me to go about selling,” she said.
In addition to making a living, DeSanto feels blessed that Hand Jive has allowed her to spend quality time with two sons who sometimes travel with her to help load, set up and sell. During the prime summer sales season, DeSanto and Jackson frequently divide and conquer, covering more than one city in the same weekend. The majority of the shows are in the summer, which works perfectly for Jackson, a school psychologist who can’t travel during the school year.
When they do a show together, they are very strategic about what they wear, repeatedly proving that they are their own best models. “Whatever we wear, we will sell a lot of,” DeSanto said. The tunic that sold like hotcakes on Day One of an art festival will languish on the racks if they wear something else on Day Two.
“Aside from the financial benefits, it has been really rewarding to hear someone say, ‘You know, I’ve gained 30 pounds and I was feeling so bad about myself because nothing fit. Thank you for making stuff that makes me feel good and flatters my body,’” DeSanto said.
If you visit their site, you will get genuinely fun updates on their travels and special deals (They call them Hot Flashes—a play on words that most of their customers can relate to). They also share cool video content on how to style Hand Jive garments.
I’m now the proud owner of three Hand Jive pieces that get compliments wherever I go.