Meet Our Friends / Katherine McMillan of Northern Grade

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Last fall, Northern Grade, a traveling menswear market that focuses on American-made heritage brands, made a stop in Richmond, Virginia. Ledbury was on hand to participate, showcasing some of our American-made accessories. We enjoyed meeting the people behind several brands that we closely follow and the opportunity to be introduced to new ones. With the anticipation that surrounds each market, clearly something is clicking at these events. To get a better idea of how the pop-up and the entrepreneurial community come together, we reached out to Katherine McMillan, co-founder of Northern Grade and the American-made menswear outerwear and accessories brand Pierrepont Hicks. During our conversation, we touched on Northern Grade’s growth, brand values, and staying productive while on the road.

Northern Grade began a little over four years ago at the tail end of the recession. Did the state of the economy at the time play into the establishment of the pop-up market?

We did not produce the first Northern Grade because of the state of the economy. It was more being in the Upper Midwest in Minnesota during what some call “The Heritage Boom”. We were getting to know our fellow local menswear brands like J.W. Hulme, Duluth Pack, Red Wing and others, and we thought we would have a small party to market and celebrate these brands and the new ones in the area. There was not a plan in place to have a series of markets after and we were very much just thinking of keeping it local at that time. It grew only because of demand. At this time, we receive emails on a weekly basis asking us to come to different cities here in the states and in other countries.

You’ve had the opportunity to meet many emerging and established brands through Northern Grade. For you, what qualities do you most admire in the brands that participate?

I am always blown away by the team at Billy Reid. To be part of such a major and successful brand, at their level, and also be the warmest, egoless and kindest team to work with.

We’re definitely meeting a ton of new, “young” brands these days and admire the amount of work these brands do on a daily basis. Our friends are creating amazing stories on and offline, translating them to Instagram graphics or incredibly detailed editorial on their sites, traveling the world to sell their goods… it’s nuts. These folks WORK HARD. And some brands have only two or three people behind them, or maybe are just doing it as their passion after they come home from their “Day Job”.

It is all about social media these days and of course if they have that locked up nicely, delivering a smart message, it’s something we pay attention to right away. I think when a brand has a clear voice – like Noble Denim for example – or a really original product backed up by a succinct lifestyle within that brand – like Clay and Bros. It’s something that makes us stop and dive deeper.

A major factor in an entrepreneur’s success is the community that rallies behind them. Northern Grade has made stops in Richmond, Austin, and recently in Nashville – cities with a strong sense of local pride and a thriving creative class. Have you noticed any common threads among the cities you have hosted pop-up shops in and the people you have met from there?

Anywhere that folks have a big, creative class growing, you’re going to find a serious group of hard-working, interested and bright people. But one common thread would be that all these cities have really good food. I am so excited for Austin because I get to eat amazing tacos and BBQ all weekend.

Very true, good food is something that we all can get behind. You and your team has been at it for nearly five years now. Are there any particular lessons you’ve learned through Northern Grade and Pierrepont and Hicks along the way? Any advice you’d like to give to up-and-coming makers?

I am the last person to give out advice as I have made mistakes left and right in the process so far. The only thing I can think of is to know what you’re good at and not good at… it’s better to hire someone to do the things you cannot do… we all try to do everything but ultimately having a partner or freelancer come in and really shine light on something that is their area of expertise is worth it. I think finding partners and people who you connect with is always a good thing. That’s helped us immensely so far.

Traveling from market-to-market, we are sure that you spend a lot of time on the road. How do you manage it all? How do you stay productive while traveling? What are you reading? What are you listening to?

Truth be told, I don’t go to every market because Mac and I have two young children. Mac travels the most and as a parent with young kids I can safely say that sleeping for 8 hours straight, in the “Dead Starfish” position in a hotel bed is an awesome thing. Staying productive while traveling means sticking with a routine I think. When we go to Northern Grades in other cities we definitely lose a few days of emails and have to play catch up.

Reading: I am reading the new Updike biography by Adam Begley and Night Film by Marissa Pessl. I tend to grow tired of fiction easily these days and I think that is because I am getting older… I turn 40 this December and preferring a good biography over a thriller, all come with the territory, …and preferring coffee to booze… 60 Minutes to The Bachelor… I could go on…

Music: I love Teen Daze right now. My Spotify is a mish mash but I have a list called “i like it” and that’s sort of what gets turned on for my workouts, long walks around Manhattan or whatever. Mostly I just type in the Radio feature “Wes Anderson Movies” and it plays a pretty good mix of songs with little effort on my end.

The first Japanese Northern Grade is scheduled for later this year. How do you think Northern Grade will be received there? Are there any other upcoming plans for Northern Grade that you’re looking forward to?

We were approached by a major Japanese retailer about a year ago and have narrowed it down to this September. They wanted us to do it in their store, but that felt inauthentic for us. So it’s taken a ton of time to work on details. At their request we are also considering including a few Japanese-made brands with our crew. I think it will be received well, but definitely it’s a lot of back and forth and details that are taking a while to work out. I hope it works out.

I am very much looking forward to Northern Grade Austin as I have never been there. And of course NG in Nantucket this summer is going to be so good…

The next Northern Grade market will be held June 14-15 in Austin Texas. For more information on the traveling menswear market, visit their website here.

Image source: Northern Grade, Ryan Plett of TravelWellDocumented

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