Meet Katherine McMillan, designer of footwear and accessories line Pierrepont Hicks and one half of the duo behind Northern Grade, the South Street Seaport store and roving pop-up marketplace that only carries goods made in America. Recently Katherine and her husband and co-owner, Mac, opened a new branch of Northern Grade, in a barn in High Falls, NY. We chatted with Katherine from her home upstate about the evolution of Northern Grade, what inspires her and the importance of 'Made in America.'
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, went to college at Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania, where I studied English Literature. I played squash growing up and spent summers in the woods of PA with my family. I ended up working in magazines after college (Elle and Gourmet) and then somehow wandered into a temp position at Ralph Lauren in Production, which led to my starting Pierrepont Hicks. Which then led to founding Northern Grade as a pop-up market in Minneapolis.
Northern Grade started as a one-off pop-up in Minnesota and has grown into so much more, over the subsequent years. Can you tell us a little bit more about how your initial idea (of providing a pop-up marketplace featuring brands made in America) developed into the Northern Grade that we see today?
We were living in Minnesota, and hanging out with folks from brands like J.W. Hulme, Red Wing and Duluth Pack. All heritage brands made in that great region. We felt that we had to provide a place for folks to shop these brands directly, and so we launched the first [Northern Grade Fair] at Architectural Antiques in NE Minneapolis. It was a pretty successful day for all and this continued for several years, traveling to other cities.
Around 2013, we connected with the folks downtown at the [South Street] Seaport, and they convinced us to launch our flagship location there. It was special because I can remember when our space was the very first J. Crew on the ground - kind of surreal. We have since expanded to a barn Upstate with a concept shop up in High Falls, which carries a variety of the same goods (and others) from our NYC location. We have a couple events planned around the country for the holiday season, and will continue to do traveling markets each year on a smaller scale. We feel that the pop-up market world is becoming sort of saturated and played out and it's time for the next thing.
Since starting Northern Grade, have you noticed a general increase in consumers’ dedication to finding products that are made with a conscience? Is the backlash against fast-fashion becoming more noticeable?
Every single person who walks into our store, and finds out the store has an American brand focus, with attention to quality and ethical manufacturing, lights up and and says 'keep it up!' I would say it's on track to only grow, especially with the next generation caring so much more for the environment and a brand's backend philosophies.
You mainly carry menswear and homewears in your store, do you think that the appreciation for ‘Made in America’ is stronger in the menswear sector right now than it is in women's fashion?
We just find it is tougher to find women's goods made here, but the appreciation is there...
Which are some of the brands and makers that you think are doing a sterling job at running a business with integrity?
We work with a ton of great brands and they are all running their brands with integrity from what I can tell! I love Handyma'am Goods coats, they are pretty much my favorite item currently to wear. Ranger Station includes matches with their candles which is nice, Freenote Cloth anything and everything they do is so detailed, they really put the little things first. And of course, my people at Crisloid who are making games in Providence, such great folks and a beautiful factory.
In your opinion, what is the importance of supporting brands Made in America?
Community. I feel like no matter what direction this country goes in right now, people want to know what they are buying and who it comes from, and they are smart. They can't be fooled by a corporate giant who claims to create jobs and then does not. Americans seem to want to know their knife-maker, tailor, seamstress, coffee roaster because it's about community. Everyone wants that. We always will. It's human nature.
What’s up next for you and Northern Grade?
Living upstate and loving it! Working on some creative consulting gigs for brands, and more that I can't talk about currently.
You also started a men’s accessory and footwear line, Pierrepont Hicks, how did that begin?
In 2010 when we moved to Minnesota I found a factory in Chelsea and they created our first line of ties. We also sell women's shoes now! Comfort is the focus, and outdoor capabilities. I just felt, as a mom, I wanted better options for comfortable shoes than sneakers. I love my sneakers, I am sort of addicted to them, but I wanted some suede and leather options.
What inspires you?
Hmmm. Nature. Old magazines. Flea markets....people. I swear I meet so many great folks when I am running sales at the barn and we end up talking forever, its just so fun. I met a guy who is about 75, literally growing his own hops, who sells off old factory equipment for extra cash because he knows how to fix it up for people still. He's a gem. I have found that everyone in life seems to have a couple different paths, but folks seem to always find their passion and what they love doing. It's been really inspiring. I think when someone you meet is focused on doing what they love every day, you see how happy they are.
Check out Katherine McMillan's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Courtesy of Northern Grade