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Q&A March, 21 2014

Selectism Q&A | Northern Grade’s Katherine McMillan on “Made in America”

Over the past few years, the “Made in America” movement has grown at a fairly steady clip.  As she prepped for the debut of the 2014 of Northern Grade markets, we chatted with Katherine McMillan about what it all means.

“I don’t like the word, ‘movement,’” says McMillan, co-founder of Northern Grade. The mother of four – that’s two children as well as two businesses – finds something wrong about the word when associated with “Made in America” goods, as she does with the word “Americana.” “At this time, the words ‘heritage’ and ‘Americana’ do not resonate with me,” she confesses. “It’s like the chicken and the egg argument: I think that a brand that is born here in America will have a certain classic American style somewhere in its DNA, but ultimately, to me, that doesn’t mean ‘Americana.’”

And who better than she to put a finger on it?  After stints at Gourmet and Elle magazines as well as a short stint at Ralph Lauren where she admits she truly learned how a garment is made, McMillan started her first company, Pierrepont Hicks, as a line of ties in Minnesota.  A homemade line of samples turned into a steady stream of businesses that saw the designer making in-roads into the local menswear scene.  “After we started Pierrepont Hicks, because we were in Minnesota where there were a lot of heritage brands like Red Wing and JW Hulme,” McMillan says — using heritage to refer to storied brands as opposed to an particular aesthetic — “we thought, ‘Why not have an event where we celebrate these brands and people could come and buy their product?’”

That 2010 event turned into the first Northern Grade market — hosting local brands that all recouped their fees in sales — and over 1,000 customers. Four years later, McMillan and co. are still putting on markets with vendors that feel more like friends than competitors, all made in America. 

“The cost is the biggest struggle,” says McMillan of making her goods locally — Manhattan, to be specific. “You’re going to pay a lot more per item than you’re going to do abroad.” For small brands with little start-up funds, that cost can be the prohibitive factor. Even McMillan herself was tested when she explored making sweaters in Hong Kong. She said for that process she only had to pick colors and send the factory a picture and they would produce the garment in 2 weeks for $27 that some brands could then mark up for a few hundred.

“I send my factory a chocolate cheesecake twice a year,” says McMillan of the benefits of working locally. “There are 49 women working there and they love it.” The proximity allows her to stop in the factory, check on production, and halt it if needed to fix errors. It also provides a source of inspiration at some points: “I go to my factory and I see that we have this fabric from past seasons that we never used and I’m like, ‘Let’s use this,’” McMillan says.  “I couldn’t do that if I manufactured in China. They’d probably throw it out.”

For Northern Grade, the focus will continue to be on made-in-America products, although the venues may change each time. McMillan says that her team is talking to partners in Japan and the US Chamber of Commerce, which could open up the possibilities to a lot of different countries as well. “Somewhere in my mind, I’ve always wanted to make sure our economy is growing and I want to be a part of that.”

Northern Grade kicks off their markets this year in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn, New York and will also make stops in Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago and Minneapolis.  See the schedule here.

Words: Mikelle Street/Selectism.com

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