When most native New Yorkers leave New York City for a considerably smaller midwestern city, you think that either they will live a quiet, simple life planting gardens and such, or they will just move back. A few years ago, when Kat McMillan and her husband Mac (a Minnesota native) left their Soho apartment and headed west, I remember distinctly thinking: Minneapolis? What is Kat going to do in Minneapolis? Having worked for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, ELLE and Glamour, Kat (who is one of my closest friend’s older sister) used to sell me her cast-off designer handbags. She was way too chic to move to the Midwest.
So, what did Kat do? While enjoying a quiet life and having two beautiful daughters, in her spare time she made a few hand-sewn neckties for her husband, who hated all of his ties. On a whim, she posted some of the ties online under the moniker Pierrepont Hicks (the cross streets in Brooklyn Heights where she grew up.) Of course, the ties started selling immediately. That was 2008. Today, Kat and her husband Mac both work on the line full-time and have started branching out from neckware. The collection now includes shoes, blankets, handbags and other accessories, all completely hand-crafted in the United States. Known for their collaborations with American heritage brands such as Red Wing, Duluth Pack and J.W. Hulme, in 2009 Pierrepont Hicks started a pop-up market showcasing high-end men’s fashion also crafted exclusively in the United States. That endeavor, called Northern Grade has steadily grown from one location in Minneapolis to fairs in Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C and Dallas. Also, Pierrepont Hicks, now includes women’s line Mrs.P.Hicks, which collectively will be introducing a unisex outerwear collection this year.
I just bought my first pair of Mrs.P.Hicks shoes recently and I don’t ever want to take them off. They capture all the coolness of well-made functional American clothing, but they use hot pink suede and neon orange leather. (Not at the same time.) Most importantly, at the core of all of this, is the McMillans’ dedication to production within the United States, which Kat says lets her “sleep better at night, knowing your products are made in factories with ethical labor practices.” Here, I picked Kat’s brain about what it takes to run a future American heritage brand.
Katherine Krause: How did you start Pierrepont Hicks?
Kat McMillan: In 2008 I had my first daughter, Camille, and in its truest form, giving birth gives a woman a need for something to call her own – aside from the rewarding role of mother. I found myself nesting before she came, and I would have these intense urges to create. I started with three tie samples, made in New york City at a very old factory – and suddenly after tossing them up online, we had a pretty nice response.
Katherine: What is your background in fashion?
Kat: I have worked in the magazine world and then did some time at Ralph Lauren in production for Women’s Collection and Black Label. I also had a brief stint at Calvin Klein as a temp after college. It was in the creative services department with an incredible team. My time at Conde Nast was the most educational experience. There is no room there for missing details and I still work that way to this day. But my time at Ralph was where I learned the process from design to production to retail.
Katherine: What was the first thing you made and why?
Kat: At age 14 I cut up my dad’s heather grey Brooks Brothers v-neck sweater and turned it into a cropped very 80′s-style top for myself. You could say I did it to rebel and also because I couldn’t find anything that was that quality but in that style.
Katherine: Why did you start making shoes?
Kat: I made the shoes for totally selfish reasons. I really love the classic hand-sewn men’s shoes. Loafers, desert boots, camp mocs. I wanted to make my own versions of these fine items. It was purely for myself.
Katherine: Why did you do men’s first?
Kat: Neckwear was where we started because a tie can be the most significant part of an outfit. A look cannot be complete without the right accessories. We saw that as an opportunity rather than starting with a t-shirt or pants.
Katherine: What is the breakdown with your husband?
Kat: My husband does the really vital stuff like operating our entire online e-commerce process and managing our wholesale accounts. We design together. He also manages Northern Grade which has become its own animal… he does a lot on a daily basis whereas my work is less time sensitive so I get to be a mom for most of my day.
Katherine: What is working with your husband like?
Kat: It’s been a brutal learning experience if you want the truth. You work with your spouse and you not only have the privilege of celebrating “wins” together which most spouses do not – but you have this partner you have an entirely different dynamic with at home – and we find ourselves discussing work after dinner… it’s our third baby so it’s important to us. I will not lie and say it’s been all rosy and dancing around the office. But at this stage, my husband is my valued partner in life and I respect his opinions – we have found our rhythm now and that has made all the difference. You have to create defined roles and work hours when you are self-employed. Just like a large company – you must have defined tasks and delegated projects. It is vital for success to give yourself that piece. The best part has been having him home with the girls at such young ages. They were so confused when he started going to our office recently they were like: “where is Daddy going to work?” But now they get it. I was lucky to have him here when they were babies. I could shower in peace.
Katherine: How much of the design do you do?
Kat: Design happens constantly for me. I am always taking pics with my iPhone and saving them for inspiration. Colors and fabrics, instagrams etc. It’s my mood board in my phone. So when we sit down and choose fabrics and create, it’s already semi-hashed out. Then Mac rolls in and gives his take on things and we change a ton of stuff. Then we come together and go over it again after samples are created.
Katherine: How did you find the place that makes your shoes in Maine?
Kat: Kyle Rancourt had been around in our same circle in menswear and we basically chatted about my women’s line and he decided to give it a try. Rancourt does not make women’s shoes for anyone else. We love them.
Katherine: Tell me a little bit about your amazing blankets?
Kat: The blankets were designed by us and manufactured at Faribault Woolen Mills. A very old factory that was closed down, only to be reopened by the Mooty family. It’s been such a fun project because who doesn’t love a good blanket? I like the stripes in the gradient shading. We tried to do a modern take on a classic.
Katherine: Tell me a little bit about Northern Grade. How did that get started?
Kat: After I moved to Minnesota, I was inspired by all the heritage brands here: Red Wing, Duluth Pack, J.W. Hulme, etc. We worked with J.W. Hulme to launch and it’s been going strong ever since. We have eight markets planned nationally this year. People want quality and the movement toward domestic manufacturing is in a snowball effect. We’re really excited about it. We are in it for the long haul to hopefully help create a cultural shift and get our country’s manufacturing going again. It was my way of celebrating these heritage brands at first… but now it’s more.
A look from the S/S 2013 collection
Katherine: As a born-and-bred New Yorker, how is it living in the midwest? What are the differences? Similarities?
Kat: Sometimes I feel like a laugh track should follow me around town here as I say the wrong things and am perhaps a little too, umm, “direct” at times. Minnesotans are a stoic bunch – which I respect and have learned from a bit. But ultimately I was born and raised in New York and I tend to be pretty honest with people – even if it’s uncomfortable.
I love the coziness of winter in Minnesota. It is a beautiful state and Minneapolis has the gritty vibe in some parts of the 1990s East Village which is amazing. Places like The Electric Fetus and our live music scene have made my life here more interesting – people don’t necessarily know that Minneapolis is cool. But it is. It is very similar to the Brooklyn I grew up in…
An assortment of Pierrepont Hicks footwear
There is a saying here, that Minnesotans will give you directions anywhere in the state, except to their house. I miss the relaxed nature of friendships in New York. People there are mostly transients so they are naturally more open to new people and friendships really grow there – at any age. I think the only difference there is that Minnesotans could be a bit more open to new friends at my age – 38 seems a little old here to me. Does that sound sad? I love it here – but it could be warmer – both in weather and in the social scene.
Katherine: Do you miss New York? Do you think it is easier or harder to run a business form Minneapolis?
Kat: Great question. Yes, I miss New York. I will always miss it. I think it’s easier to run a business in New York when you are in fashion but I have access here to things that would be more difficult to come across in NYC like cool fabrics, etc. We are looking at apartments now to get a place to crash there more frequently. We have been back so much at this point it just makes sense. Ideally we can have a house here still and go back and forth and accomplish more in both cities.
Kat McMillan in one of the new Pierrepont Hicks designed jackets
Katherine: Do you have any interesting collabs on the horizon?
Kat: We have some stuff in work which is classified for now. I am doing a shoe with Kate Arends of wit + delight… she’s a gem…
Katherine: What’s next for Pierrepont Hicks and MRSPhicks?
Kat: We are doing some outerwear for both men and women. The parkas and vests will run XS – XXL for both genders. We are now a luxury outerwear and accessories brand. Men are getting back into the art of dressing up for the hunt. We are going to outfit them for that – in a contemporary way. We hope.
All images courtesy of Pierrepont Hicks