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State of the city
Local fashion reinvents MKE style

By STEPHANIE S. BEECHER
Photos by Matt Haas

May 2016

        

Steph Davies, owner of The Waxwing

Last fall paparazzi captured Kourtney Kardashian shopping in Beverly Hills with her son Mason. While the reality TV star’s racy ensemble garnered the typical pseudo news coverage — the photo was, per usual, plastered on numerous fashion blogs and entertainment outlets — little Mason’s threads amassed attention in their own right. Featuring white harem bottoms, a black letterman jacket and a cool graphic tee, the outfit was on point with L.A.’s hip street-style scene, a trend that has been trickling from parent to child in appropriate fashion.

None of this seems significant until one realizes that Mason’s look wasn’t plucked from a boutique on Rodeo Drive. Rather, it was purchased from a growing fashion company right here in Milwaukee: theMINIclassy.

Amy Keppeler, owner and fashion stylish of The Barn Owl

Located in the Historic Third Ward, theMINIclassy’s loftlike studio feels like it belongs in L.A. Murals adorn the wide-open space, which is filled with work tables, sewing machines and racks of the company’s popular high-end children’s streetwear. A poster of rapper Drake is taped to a wall. It’s übercool. Definitely not Gymboree.

"Kourtney Kardashian helped (theMINIclassy) get out of Milwaukee," says Andrea Dotzauer, who is co-founder and lead designer with her partner, Michelle Lopez. "Now we’re starting to see support here, because people are starting to see this cool thing happening here in Milwaukee."

"Milwaukee’s (fashion scene) is coming around," Lopez adds.

              

Julie and Whitney Teska, founders of Orchard Street Apparel

Over the past few years, the city’s fashion fault lines have been grinding. A largely failed attempt at establishing a fashion district, rivalries between designers over the quality of their collections, and debates over the sustainability of a style scene — especially here in the frugal Midwest — haven’t derailed the efforts of Milwaukee’s fashion-centric crowd. But the friction has helped to shape its identity.

What’s emerged from the quake isn’t a force into the dernier cri — it’s an acknowledgment of the prevailing Midwest aesthetic, and the determination to build businesses that are rooted in acumen and homegrown pride. It essentially comes down to what works, and what doesn’t.

A couture brand may be perceived as persnickety, for example, an indulgence reserved only for special occasions. A ready-to-wear or a T-shirt brand, on the other hand, is more likely to flourish.

Inside the studio of Orchard Street Apparel.

There is perhaps no greater example of this than T-shirt company Milwaukee Home. In four short years, its now ubiquitous logo — a large square with the eponymous words emblazoned in the middle — has become the city’s cult brand of sorts, having evolved into partnerships with local artists, sports franchises and colleges. People in every corner of the city have gravitated toward the shirts’ simple message.

"Milwaukee is my ‘home,’ and I think that (over) the last couple of years, people have actually took pride in that, whereas before people were like: ‘I want to leave the city; this place has nothing going on,’" explains Melissa Thornton, the brand’s founder. "Now as a collective, the younger generation has really grasped on to wanting to create something here and put Milwaukee on the map."

Thornton, who had moved back to Milwaukee after living and working as a graphic designer in Florida, says the birth of the brand happened by accident.

The Waxwing

"I saw how much the city had changed in the time that I was gone, and I created a shirt for me and my friend because this was where my home is," she says of the company’s origin. "I thought it would be cool to see my design out there — I never thought of it as a business."

Eventually, however, Thornton’s apartment was stacked with boxes, and she found herself selling the tees from the back of her car and in local bars. After being let go from an ad agency, she turned her focus to building the business full time.

"I don’t think of myself as a fashion designer," Thornton says. "I think I’m more of a brand builder. I’m one of those simple Midwestern girls. I know what I like. It’s not Hollywood."

"I just want to be here as long as the ‘I Love New York’ stuff has lasted," she adds. "We’ve never had that."

Melissa Thornton, founder of Milwaukee Home

It may not be Hollywood, but other fashion retailers, such as Lizzibeth, a chic boutique on Menomonee Street, are speaking to a growing demand to snag high fashion right here in the city. At just 28 years old, owner Lizzi Weasler is her market — millennial women who have a penchant for smartphones, social networks and online shopping. But her Midwest business ethic is what took her shop successfully offline.

In addition to the store, Lizzibeth hosts private shopping parties and events. Weasler’s strategy is twofold: She gets to network with customers and manipulate her business to meet their needs. It was all part of Weasler’s solid and strategic business plan.

"I run Lizzibeth as a business, not a hobby," say Weasler. "We’re not New York, but there’s great potential from Milwaukee’s boutiques and shoppers. The direction is going more toward local designers and makers."

The Barn Owl

Amy Keppeler, owner and fashion stylist of The Barn Owl in downtown Delafield, is a millenial like Weasler, but Keppeler’s target demographic skews much broader — and it’s her understanding of this nuance that’s allowed The Barn Owl to thrive for the last two years. "I cater not only to someone who might be my age, but my mom’s age as well," she says, referencing the various age groups living in Lake Country. "When I go to buying shows in Chicago or work with online vendors, I’m not shopping for myself. I’m shopping for my customer."

The result is a carefully curated mix of fashion apparel and home decor pieces handpicked by Keppeler. Supporting the community that supports her is still kept top of mind, so Keppeler stocks items crafted by Milwaukee area artisans, including the Oconomowoc-based Tammy Spice Jewelry, Rachel Keppeler Designs and Cloud Nine Soap Co. of Hartland, throughout her store.

        

Orchard Street Apparel

Steph Davies was a jewelry designer, bouncing between part-time retail jobs before she took a chance and launched The Waxwing, a local arts and crafts boutique recently reopened on North Avenue. The store features her designs, and the work of more than 150 artists — mostly from the surrounding area and the Great Lakes. She says the support of the community has been invaluable.

"I don’t think about the big-box stores," she says. "People are a little more invested (in handmade items), rather than Kohl’s just putting stock out. We know that Target is convenient, but there is a difference in services, product and quality here. Watching the arts community grow is empowering."

Though the shop focuses on handmade items, Davies tries to keep prices below $50 — in line with the city’s frugal shopping behavior. Unsurprisingly, Davies says her most popular items tend to be those that surround a love of the city.

"I’ve seen a revolution happening here in Milwaukee," she says.

Products centered on state and city pride seem to be a successful thread for Orchard Street Apparel in St. Francis too. Husband-and-wife team Whitney and Julie Teska run the 12,000-square-foot screen printing company, which began in Whitney’s basement eight years ago. Similar to Milwaukee Home, Orchard Street Apparel started with T-shirts sold through word of mouth. And similar to Weasler, the Teskas created a serious business plan; the couple even won a business competition through UWM.

"It was still very DIY in the beginning," says Julie.

"We’d pay our bills and reinvest back into the company until we built it up — we didn’t take out any loans," adds Whitney.

The Teskas say they owe their success to partnerships with many local businesses, including artists, ad agencies, restaurants and corporations, such as Roundy’s. Having that foundation allowed them to branch off into creating their own brand, which is now moving across the country, thanks to social networking and their website.

"Milwaukee has advantages like a big city, but it’s also accessible," says Whitney. "It makes you feel connected."

Julie says it would have been nearly impossible to make the same impact in places like Chicago.

"Milwaukee’s business community is extremely supportive of one another," she says. "That’s the spirit of Milwaukee." M

 

 

 


This story ran in the May 2016 issue of: