Photo by David Szymanski
DESIGNER: MELISSA EBEL
Photo by David Szymanski
At the West Allis headquarters for
Reliable of Milwaukee, Muk Luks designers Kathleen
Caylor and Melissa Ebel, both in dresses appropriate for
the mid-July heat, hover over sandal samples for next
year’s spring/summer line. They’re back at the office
after a meeting last week in New York City with Doneger,
one of two trend-forecasting services the company uses.
(The other is Pantone.) Energized by that discussion as
well as the street fashion and people watching on their
jaunt in the East Village, the women are beginning to
work on concepts for the fall/winter 2018 collections.
No wonder they have to pause before considering how
the brand’s signature cozy slippers and outdoor boots tapped into
this fall’s trends. But the 2017 collections do resonate with the
new season’s clothes and outerwear, particularly the collections
with soft, pastel faux furs; red, white and blue Americana elements;
and Fair Isles embellished with sequins and metallic yarns.
“There are still a lot of knits trending in fashion,”
says Caylor, executive vice president of design. “When we went to
Doneger, they were showing a lot of Fair Isle sweaters and patterns
mixed in with the knits and textures.”
Fortunately for Muk Luks, Fair Isles represent one of
its trademark looks and overall knit aesthetic, explains Ebel, the
senior designer who develops knits for the brand’s footwear and
accessories for women, men and children.
“We design all our own knits,” Caylor adds. “People
don’t know that about us. They think we go to the market and pick
out patterns or fabrics, but we do that in-house.”
In fact, when Muk Luks was first introduced in 1972,
Reliable was a longstanding knitting mill based in the (now
Historic) Third Ward. Years later, during Caylor’s senior year at
Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School, which is now Bradley Tech
High School, she apprenticed at nearby Eagle Knitting Mills.
“There were several knitting mills in the valley. I
started there as a design assistant, and I stayed there for seven
years,” she says of Eagle, which closed in the ’90s. “That’s pretty
much where I got my education.”
Afterward, she worked in apparel in Kansas City and
later at Spalding with textiles before joining Reliable 13 years
ago. At that time, Reliable wasn’t making Muk Luks any longer, but
Caylor would change that. “I was looking through some old catalogs
and saw that the company used to make Muk Luks in the ’70s,” she
says. “I had a pair when I was a little girl, and I got really
excited. I thought, ‘Oh, let’s reinvent them and bring them back.’”
As Caylor’s designs for the slipper socks connected
with a new audience, the way the company did business was changing.
“When I started,” she says, “everything was drawn by hand.” Then she
and the other designer — there were just two — began making
computer-aided designs, or CADs.
The technology enabled them to work more efficiently
with colleagues and clients anywhere. In 2006, President and CEO
Mark Blutstein, of the fourth generation in the family business,
made the difficult decision to stop production in Milwaukee, but
that saved the company. “We wouldn’t still be here,” he says
matter-of-factly, acknowledging the costs of manufacturing goods
overseas versus in the U.S. While some workers lost their jobs, the
company has since hired for other positions — now Caylor and her
team make seven designers plus a photographer in the creative
department — with the total number of employees at around 150 today.
“We had to take our production to China, but we’re
still able to design our own knits and choose our own colors and
work directly with the knitting mills over there,” Caylor says.
It’s fitting that Ebel, Caylor’s protégé, landed at
Reliable. “My parents owned an embroidery business growing up, so I
was around threads and textiles since I was a baby,” Ebel says,
adding that Reliable was one of her family’s customers.
Caylor hired Ebel for an internship while the latter
was studying fashion design and development at Mount Mary
University, and the two clicked. After graduation, Ebel worked for
the family business and a tailor shop as well as taking on projects
as a seamstress.
“Then Kathleen called me back one day,” she says with
a smile, recalling the job offer that came in 2008. “I started
helping out wherever. Then I started focusing on socks, and that
morphed into working on other cool accessories, and I helped on
footwear. That morphed into designing all the knits.”
In the first step of the design process, Caylor and
Ebel sort through trends highlighted by Doneger and Pantone and
identify those that will work for Muk Luks. They brainstorm with the
rest of the design team, and then Caylor shapes the ideas into a
series of collections with color
palettes and mood boards that establish the look and
feel of each. For example, this season’s “Winter Solstice” group
includes winter whites, soft plums, furs and pom-poms that convey
romance and femininity.
“From there, we send the colors to the factory for
lab dips to dye the yarns, and then Melissa will start working on
patterns that we feel speak to the trend and the color stories,”
Caylor says. Ebel begins in Pointcarre, a knit-design program,
brings the designs into Photoshop and Illustrator to alter them, and
then she sends the files to the factory.
“Then they submit knit-downs — swatches — back to
us,” Caylor says. The designers determine the silhouettes or shapes
for each knit and send the factory CADs of the shapes, which change
every year. The design team then sprinkles on their finishing
touches: tassels, trims and pom-poms.
They get samples, tweak designs and finalize them
before receiving samples of their stock line for the sales team.
Ebel also works with some of the bigger clients, including Bon-Ton,
Kohl’s and JCPenney, to come up with exclusive designs for the
retailers. The whole process takes about a year.
“I’m pretty eclectic. I like anything out of the
ordinary,” Caylor says of her personal style. “I’m somebody new
every day. … I like to mix and match. It shows in the brand.”
As a matter of fact, Muk Luks’ tagline is “Lets you
wear your way of life.” That, along with the design team’s themed
collections, has turned the variety within the brand
into a strength. “We’re really dialing up our
tagline,” says Tanya Thorson, vice president of marketing, social
and licensing. “It plays into this whole freedom of self-expression,
individuality and being you.”
Sitting with Caylor and Ebel, you can see how this
approach grew organically from the spirit of the designers
themselves. Ebel loves vintage clothes and hunts for treasures on
the racks at thrift stores and Goodwill. “Experimenting is fun too,”
she says. “Putting different things together that you wouldn’t
always think to put together.”
The Waukesha resident seeks out adventures, like
hiking into the Grand Canyon four years ago. Now that she’s a mom to
a 10-month-old, she says she’s more likely to stick closer to home.
“I like new experiences, trying new food, trying different things —
going to downtown Milwaukee and going on a boat tour or exploring a
different neighborhood,” she says.
Caylor, who lives in Oconomowoc, finds inspiration in
runway fashion and graffiti, in contemporary celebrity fashion and
Old Hollywood — particularly the dresses in “Gone With the Wind” and
the costumes from “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby. She also loves to
camp and fish with her three teenage boys. “They have a lot of ideas
too for fashion and what they think is cool,” she says.
Both Caylor and Ebel enjoy new design challenges,
such as creating a sleepwear line that plays off the slipper
collections and will likely debut next year. They’re also interested
in designing for the home, perhaps pillows and bedding, and they
desperately want Muk Luks to segue into sweaters. “What’s more
natural than taking our knits and putting them into a sweater?”
Whether that happens or not, they seem happy where
they are. “Our brand emulates the Midwest — it’s laid-back and
comfortable,” Ebel says.
“Cozy and warm,” Caylor chimes in. “It’s cool that
we’re designed here, because we have that wintery, warm feel about
us. We’re on QVC, and that’s one of the things the hosts always talk
about: ‘(Muk Luks are) designed in Milwaukee, where it’s cold and
they know how to stay warm.’”
Footwear in MKE
“There’s a culture here of creativity,” says Kathleen
Caylor, executive vice president of design for Muk Luks. “You have
Kohl’s and Bon-Ton, and Mount Mary, the fashion school, and MIAD,
the art school, which we’ve pulled a lot of people from over the
years.” Muk Luks isn’t the only company to employ shoe designers in
the area. Here are others:
» Allen Edmonds
Founded in 1922 in Belgium, Wis., the company makes
men’s shoes in more than 100 sizes in nearby Port Washington. In
2016, it was bought by Caleres, which owns Famous Footwear,
Naturalizer, Via Spiga, George Brown Bilt and other brands.
» Weyco Group
Run by the Florsheims, the Glendale-based business
includes shoes for men, women and children and brands such as Stacy
Adams, Brass Boot, Rafters and Bogs. The company acquired Florsheim
welcoming it back to the family business.
» WDM (Well
Dressed Men) Footwear and Accessories
Former Allen Edmonds employees Mark Kohlenberg and
Laura Engerman announced earlier this year that they plan to create
a brand of men’s shoes and leather products catered to millennials.
Kohlenberg also worked at Weyco Group Inc.
A Peek Ahead at
While Muk Luks may be known for its cold-weather
items, its sandals are doing well, and the company hopes to build on
that success. “We have a lot of fun fabrics this year,” says Senior
Designer Melissa Ebel. “This whole embroidered brocade look — we saw
a lot of that trending for 2018.” Other trends the design team is
integrating into the collections include velvet, metallics, glitter,
macramé, and fruit and floral patterns.
“Our whole spring line has a bohemian vibe to it,”
says Executive Vice President of Design Kathleen Caylor. “We do a
lot of beading and textures and try to incorporate things that have
a knit aesthetic to them.”
They also plan to dip their toes into the athleisure
market next season by introducing Muk Luk Sport, featuring
lightweight knits, bright colors and insoles embossed with Fair Isle