An interview with Katherine McMillan of Northern Grade, a pop-up men’s store that starts a run at MIA November 21st.
By Emily Weiss
Photos courtesy of Northern Grade
Borne out of a love of heritage brands and a disdain for the anonymity of “throwaway culture,” Northern Grade—a traveling pop-up menswear market that focuses on American-made goods—is like the sartorial counterpart to our local farm-to-table and craft brewing movements. Just like participating in community supported agriculture or championing small batch brewers, shopping at a Northern Grade event allows people to connect with the craftsmen who actually made the thing they are buying, drinking, or, in this case, wearing. They say clothes make the man, but Northern Grade co-founder Katherine McMillan is just as interested in the men (and women, of course) who make the clothes. The Growler got a chance to find out more about how Northern Grade came to be, the criteria they use to evaluate craft brands and vendors, and what you can expect to find at the market when they come to Minneapolis on November 10.
Katherine McMillan: We really set out to have a single event in Minneapolis in 2010. We saw so many heritage brands here that were having “a moment” in menswear, and we thought we would try to have a little market for people who appreciate these brands to get together and talk to the folks behind them, and of course, buy their stuff. We worked with J.W. Hulme, a St. Paul-based company that designs quality canvas and leather accessories, to launch the first market. I contacted Jen Guarino, who was then president of J.W. Hulme and is now with Shinola, and she saw the beauty of it right away. She was the only one who got it.
G: What defines a heritage brand? What are some examples of heritage brands?
KM: To put it simply, a heritage brand has a heritage. They are old. Brands like Red Wing, J.W. Hulme, Faribault Woolen Mill…those are all good Midwestern ones. Heritage is not just a way to define a brand that makes classic American-style goods. There should be an extensive history there. So I don’t know if heritage can be applied to young brands. I think instead those would be called “classic American” or sporting styles of goods.
G: That makes sense. So speaking of that Midwestern tradition, Northern Grade had its first event in Minneapolis. What’s your connection to our fair city and how do you know which other cities will be receptive to your concept?
KM: September 11, 2010 was our first event and now we are about to hold our tenth one in Richmond on September 21 and 22. My husband and partner, Mac, grew up here and we moved to Minneapolis together in 2006. We’ve been here ever since so it’s natural to do events here. As far as other cities, we don’t always know what cities will be more successful than others—that is always a risk, but the ones we have chosen have been pretty good to date.
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G: What are some of the advantages of being a pop-up shop versus a year-round brick-and-mortar type place? Is that a direction you want to head in eventually?
KM: We have found it is advantageous to be able to travel. We only pay “rent” for the weekend so that’s nice. Eventually we do want to have a permanent store, yes, but it’s a very intricate thing to launch…we have had people approach us about that in a few different cities.
G: Are the vendors different at each pop-up event? How do you determine who will be the right fit for Northern Grade?
KM: We do always have different brands in each market, with some overlap, and have approximately 25 brands available at each one. We have a core group who has been with us from the beginning, but at this rate we have folks contacting us pretty much every day. It is so tough to choose as there are so many wonderful brands out there. We try to pick products we like and then once we find the folks behind those brands also share a similar manufacturing philosophy—which for us means close to home, have attention to detail, be nice, etc.—then that seals the deal.
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