"The 50 States of Style 50" highlights influential American designers, buyers, crafters, and other intriguing creatives.
Name: Katherine McMillan
Company: Pierrepont Hicks, est 2009
Co-founder (and husband): Mac McMillan
What: Men's and women's shoes, outerwear, and ties
Made in: Long Island City, NY
Of course we talked about ties. After all, that's the accessory that launched Katherine McMillan and her co-founder-husband Mac's company Pierrepont Hicks five years ago. But we mostly talked about navigating entrepreneurship and motherhood (the couple live in DUMBO with their daughters Camille, 5 and Margaux, 3), their new collection of outerwear which they can barely keep in stock, and the duo's roving U.S.-made pop-up market Northern Grade that visits 8-10 American cities a year (schedule here). Katherine is smart, hilarious, and down-to-earth. I found her honesty totally refreshing.
We had a destination wedding in Scotland, and while we were shopping for our groomsmen's outfits in kilt stores, the ties really stood out. They were made of this beautiful, soft wool that had so much texture, and they came in interesting colors like limestone green. They were much skinner than what was being produced in America at the time. After we got back to the states, we found a factory online and had some samples made.
Did you immediately think: "This is what I want to pursue full time," or did it just start out as a hobby?
At first it was just something fun I thought I'd toy around with, but when the real estate industry tanked in 2010 and Mac got laid off, we began working together and really saw the potential.
How did you get started?
I basically created a page on a free host site with some photos and I added in a Paypal account. Looking back, it was so archaic. Now we use Shopify and it's much easier. We sent out samples to press and did a lot of blind emailing and hitting the pavement. Editors pay attention to what's on Twitter and they follow bloggers. Our first big feature was on The New York Times T Magazine Blog. One of their writers had purchased a bow-tie without us knowing it and he contacted us for an interview. That was huge. Also, we were featured on the popular Tumblr account "How To Talk to Girls at Parties." We're so grateful to people who have supported us from the beginning because great things resulted from their coverage. And Twitter definitely helped us grow.
How do you divide and conquer as a husband and wife team?
In the beginning, we were working together on setting it up, but now Mac actually spends more time doing the operations and the account management and I pop in and out with the creative.
How do you manage a business together while raising two young girls?
An aunt on my husband's side of the family gave me the best advice: "The laundry can wait." Send it out to get done or just don't do it for a few days so you can catch up on your sleep so you're a better person. The lack of sleep was the hardest thing for me.
How did you cope?
When you have toddlers, it's known to be one of the hardest times in your life. And the irony is that society tells you it's supposed to be the best time of your life, so there's all this pressure. All these old ladies at Target are like, "cherish every minute!" and, "aren't you walking on air?" And I'm like: "No, I'm not." And nobody talks about that beforehand, so you feel like you're failing quietly inside.
When did things start to improve?
When I started taking time for myself. Even something as simple as getting a pedicure helped. Before, l'd say: "I can't leave Camille because she's going to cry forever and I'm gonna be a bad mommy." But then I realized I was the bad mom for not taking time for myself.
It's so true! We're constantly being pulled in a million directions.
Right. And nobody wants to admit that they had a hard time in their marriage or their life and we all do. I was a better person around my children and my husband when I wasn't martyring myself.
How did Northern Grade come about?
We were still in Minnesota (note: Katherine and her family moved back to Brooklyn last October). We had launched Pierrepont Hicks, and we had subsequently met folks at Red Wing and J.W. Hulme, and the heritage boom was happening everywhere, and we basically said: "We should have an event to celebrate and promote all of these brands."
Only American brands, right?
Yes. People want to buy this stuff and some of it isn't even available in any stores. So we had one event in Minneapolis and it ended up doing really well, and then we did one in Chicago, and it kept growing and growing, and before we knew it, people in LA wanted us to come out there. So it took on a life of its own pretty quickly.
What's your favorite aspect of Northern Grade? We have a lot in common with each other because we understand what it's like to start up a company and produce and manufacture. So we're friends. We love hanging out and talking shop and seeing the collaborations that come out of these events.
Do you take the kids on the road with you? It depends on the city. We're going to Austin in June as a family to see some close friends, so it's a good opportunity to go together. But sometimes it's easier to just get in and out, so Mac will go on his own.
Where do you guys work day-to-day?
Right now, out of our apartment. We were going to rent out a space in DUMBO, but since we outsource our shipping from a fulfillment center, all we really need is a laptop. It's nice to be near the kids. And I get to go into an office a couple of days a week because I freelance at eBay. Sometimes it's just nice to be a grownup, have a fancy coffee, and talk to people.
Where did you get your last great idea?
From watching the movie Days of Heaven. It's so beautifully shot. In general, ideas come from our lives offline. it sounds cliche, but I get lots of them when we travel. We were just in Richmond, Virginia, and we went to this cool Greek restaurant called Stella's. They had the salt in this big, no-frills container, but it was from Greece, so the label was colorful and gorgeous. That's the kind of thing that will always catch my eye.
What's coming up for you?
We're doing a Father's Day collection for Gilt Group in a couple of weeks, which we've done every year. I'm coming out with a pony hair loafer for women in about a month, and I'm most excited about our outerwear. It's doing so well for us right now.
Thanks so much, Katherine! xo Below are a bunch of her favorite things.
Favorite American shops: I love an old stationery shop. There is one here in Brooklyn on Court Street that's really old, no frills, and carries amazing pens and notebooks. I love taking my kids to Kid Robot on Prince Street, too.
Favorite American bars: I used to go to bars more in my 20s. I always enjoyed Tom & Jerry's on Elizabeth and Houston or The Monkey Bar in Manhattan. Before the remodel.
Favorite artists and designers: Shane Garron is my favorite artist right now because I just turned a corner in SOHO one day and there he was. My favorite fashion designer is Isabel Marant.
Your most prized possession: My kids. Okay, aside from those two: My collection of Burgess books. They're something I started collecting on eBay a while ago for the girls.
Favorite trip you've ever taken in the US?: Every summer we go to North Carolina and it's my favorite place on Earth. We are a block off the beach. We walk to and from with our wagon of toys, books, sunscreen and towels, and BBQ at night with family. There are wild ponies on the islands nearby and some of the friendliest people in the world.
Five things that make you happiest: My family, riding in a taxi through NYC at night, my Laura Mercier radiant primer, my white Birkenstocks I just got from Need Supply Co., and I am reading the new Updike bio and it's really good.