The Creationists

Creating ethical fashion with Hilary MacMillan

March 02, 2020 Steve Waxman Season 1 Episode 6
The Creationists
Creating ethical fashion with Hilary MacMillan
Chapters
The Creationists
Creating ethical fashion with Hilary MacMillan
Mar 02, 2020 Season 1 Episode 6
Steve Waxman

When I first reached out to Toronto based designer Hillary MacMillan, my plan was to ask her how she went about creating a fashion line, which we eventually did talk about. But what impressed me even more was how important it was for Hillary to weave her own social consciousness into her work.

It's only taken Hillary MacMillan six short years from selling a few items in the corner of her sister's downtown jewelry store to finding her line in major department stores across Canada and boutiques throughout North America. We met at the multi storied 19th century row house that serves as her company's offices in design studio and began our conversation talking about her choice of using fabrics that are vegan based on cruelty free.

To see more materials related to each episode of The Creationists, follow @thecreationistspodcast on Instagram or "Like" The Creation podcast on Facebook. Let us know who you’d like to be featured on future episodes of The Creationists: [email protected] 

Show Notes Transcript

When I first reached out to Toronto based designer Hillary MacMillan, my plan was to ask her how she went about creating a fashion line, which we eventually did talk about. But what impressed me even more was how important it was for Hillary to weave her own social consciousness into her work.

It's only taken Hillary MacMillan six short years from selling a few items in the corner of her sister's downtown jewelry store to finding her line in major department stores across Canada and boutiques throughout North America. We met at the multi storied 19th century row house that serves as her company's offices in design studio and began our conversation talking about her choice of using fabrics that are vegan based on cruelty free.

To see more materials related to each episode of The Creationists, follow @thecreationistspodcast on Instagram or "Like" The Creation podcast on Facebook. Let us know who you’d like to be featured on future episodes of The Creationists: [email protected] 

Steve Waxman:   0:03
Welcome to the creationists, a podcast about people who create I'm your host, Steve Waxman. When I first reached out to Toronto based designer Hillary MacMillan, my plan was to ask her how she went about creating a fashion line, which we eventually did talk about. But what impressed me even more was how important it was for Hillary to weave her own social consciousness into her work.

Hilary MacMillan:   0:24
That's kind of been a goal of mind since the beginning is that I wanted to kind of have, you know, a stream of my business that also was able to give back to the community and give back to an organization that supports women and at risk women and to disadvantaged women. And so it's It's been always a goal, and I'm really happy I can finally do it.  And I think that fashion - people don't always understand that fashion isn't just a frivolous thing. It's so intertwined in kind of all political spectrums. And it has been intertwined with feminism since the dawning of feminism, since how women have been dressing and how they've been constricted by their clothing. And I think that, you know, it's a great way to kind of throw maybe a little FU to that kind of just, you know, wear it on your sleeve and on your back and show your beliefs.  

Steve Waxman:   1:07
It's only taken Hillary MacMillan six short years from selling a few items in the corner of her sister's downtown jewelry store to finding her line in major department stores across Canada and boutiques throughout North America. We met at the multi storied 19th century row house that serves as her company's offices and design studio and began our conversation talking about her choice of using fabrics that are vegan based on cruelty free.

Hilary MacMillan:   1:31
So, that basically means we don't use any fur, leather, feathers, any skins, so that kind of goes for everything. So we have puffer coats and they're all kind of cotton down. We have vegan alternatives for leather, and then we don't use any silk or any wool, either. So we transitioned over in 2016 and it was a big shift. So we cut out fur and leather right away because that kind of was an easy thing and then slowly trickled out silk and wool trying to find a proper alternatives. Today, in 2018 is a lot different than what it was in 2016. Even though it's only about three years, people are more interested sustainable fabrics. The faux leather is kind of blowing up right now, so there are more options and they're more, you know, equal friendly and there's just more out there. Same with silks. We're seeing a lot of like silk alternatives that have the same texture and feel like a coopro or, you know, stuff like that that kind of is a good substitute. Where as, you know, in the beginning, it wasn't so much availability like that. But it's just kind of about getting out there and trying to find the proper materials that suit your needs.

Steve Waxman:   2:27
Can we go right back to the beginning of, you know, where did you grow up with your background and have you got interested in fashion?

Hilary MacMillan:   2:33
I'm so I was born in the States and then we relocated when I was three years old. So I've lived in Canada most of my life and relocated to Richmond Hill and spent my formative years out there. And then I moved down to Toronto. When I went into a seven. We spent most of my time kind of in and around Toronto. And then I went to high school in Toronto and then I left todo UBC. So I went to Vancouver, lived there for about six years and then came back to Toronto.

Steve Waxman:   2:56
How did you get this interest in fashion and what was your path to get - to become a fashion designer?

Hilary MacMillan:   3:03
Mine is a little bit unconventional. I started going to UBC for poli-sci economics. I graduated with my B A and then kind of was to look around what I wanted to do if I was interested in law and interested in politics. But I didn't have, like, a passion for it. And my mom is an artist, and it kind of always grew up with, you know, kind of art around and be very creative. And I always was kind of tinkering in a sewing machine. And so I was just kind of trying to figure out post UBC what I was gonna do. And I was looking at fashion programs and I found one that was in Vancouver. It was only a year, and to me that was kind of like a perfect amount of commitment to have in case it wasn't something that I was interested.  And so it was intensive full year program. And I fell in love with it. Like instantly. I had to take some classes to, like, really beef up my sewing before I could start the program. But I love the pattern drafting, I love the math behind it. I kind of love how everything constructed together. I love learning about fashion history, and it was all kind of all encompassing kind of immersion into it. And I fell in love with it right there. And that's kind of where it propelled off.

Steve Waxman:   3:58
Was there am an epiphany moment with regards to, you know, falling in love with the idea.

Hilary MacMillan:   4:07
Not so much. I think that it was kind of like a slow grind, and it still kind of is. It just is kind of every year your kind of accelerating little bit further and  further. I don't think I fully realized that I was going to start a fashion line until I was back in Toronto. Um, after I finished the program and I moved back here and then, you know, being in the city and especially I was down in the West Queen West area, which is just such a art and culture hub. And I was feeling really inspired. And then I was - my sister at the time, owned a store. It was predominately a jewelry store, but so I had, like, a space to kind of put my stuff in right away. So I did a local manufactured, small run collection, my first one and was just kind of put in the store and see people's reactions, and it got such positive and people loved it. And so that kind of maybe was my epiphany moment. It's kind of seeing people's reactions to the designs that I put out there.  And I did that for a couple years just to kind of get my footing and kind of, you know, see what that production and manufacturing was like. And then I started to wholesale couple years later and get into other stores and do it more full time

Steve Waxman:   5:00
Going back to your sister's store and the first things that you were designing and selling, what kind of items were you designing at the time? 

Hilary MacMillan:   5:08
So currently we're completely cruelty free, so we're a vegan line. Back then, um, we transitioned in 2016 so back, it was 2012, we weren't a vegan line, so it was a lot of really high in cashmeres and wools and leathers. And it was a lot of kind of more an older aesthetic, maybe. So, it was a lot of coats and pants, but it was outfit based, so I wasn't kind of just doing pieces. I was trying to create outfits. So it was kind of a complete outfit. So there would be four in each collection whenever and then from that, there'd be three pieces per outfit.

Steve Waxman:   5:36
How do you go about designing a line? How does it start? What is the inspiration that begins it? And how do you realize it?

Hilary MacMillan:   5:46
How do you go from it? Every season's a little different. I would say that the steps each season is the same. So kind of every six months your mimicking the exact same steps from the other six months. A lot of my inspirations heavily influenced by what fabrics available on the market. So,  you know I will do a bunch of fabric buying trips, go to different distributors and kind of see what's out there and what kind of fall in love with. And then you can get everything like the lap died and dip died. So that's when you change the colour of the sample you have. And you could do that, make all you want. So then, from there I kind of pick my colour of tones of that season. So I'll go through Pantone Colours and choose what what I'm interested in and that kind of starts the inspiration process for me.  I'm heavily influenced by design decades. So a lot of my stuff is kind of reminiscent this season of the seventies and and then the sixties and then, like it'll script over. Last year was the nineties, so that kind of is always a jumping off point, just how I'm feeling and how what's you know in my head of the moment. It's a lot of just kind of me sitting down and kind of like seeing what's out there and looking around and just being cognoscente of what's going on the world? And then a lot of my inspiration comes with last season, so like every student's a little bit of a departure from the other one, but it stays more consistent. So you're not going totally black and white. It's more like, you know, in a continuation of the previous season, especially now that you know everything's readily available at everyone's fingertips at all times. So it really is kind of seasonality isn't so big anymore, especially in Canada, where our season's like - we ship spring in February and we ship fall in August. So you know anything every year it's not warm enough to our spring stuff. You have to kind of be cognoscente of that when you're designing and yeah and then from there you go on to drafting and doing tech packs and kind of sorting out what your actual designs gonna look like. And then you start to draft and drafting is when you put everything on actual hard patterns and you do sampling and then we have fittings and then we'll get all our samples put together. Then we edit everything down so overproduced sampling and edit down to make a kind of more of a tight collection and then then asserts sales and you're gonna hit the ground running. You're trying to get you know people, the wholesale accounts to see you, and you're going to trade shows and that kind of stuff and then productions. And then it goes into production based on what units you think you're gonna sell. And then what people have placed the pre booked, and once that goes in, it's kind of organizing all your fabric. So we get a fabric from a certain mill, then we have to get to a manufacturer. So it's like coordinating, you know, that comes going in, proving your size starts to multiple fittings, the you get production samples, approve production samples and then it goes in production comes here and then we ship it out.

Steve Waxman:   8:15
So now the fashion shows are obviously a big part of what it is you do. What goes into deciding which pieces are going be in the shows? And, does the show get developed? 

Hilary MacMillan:   8:30
So we've been doing Toronto Fashion Week, for now, I think it's been 10 seasons or something like that. I love it. It's a great way to kind of get feedback right away from a collection that isn't released yet, so it's kind of an instant, you know, vibe on what people are loving and what pieces air selling while or and then we pre sell them too. But it is really kind of like a marriage, but I think that you're only as good as your team is in the team you build on people around you and finding people that are kind of fitting into your vision or fitting into, you know, the idea of what you want your brand to be like. And so we work a lot with, like a stylist. We've been working with Xena, and I love her. She's been with us for a long time and she really comes in and she'll get a collection and I'll tell her the vibe of it and she'll really kind of put pieces together, and then we'll - everything that's in the collection we don't necessarily always make and everything that's not in a collection, like  everything we make is not always in the collection either, because we do a basic lines like that and she kind of plays around and we kind of sort out what's gonna be the most wow factor. The runway kind of is a little bit of a fantasy world. It's not - some things were over the top. Things are like your dressing kind of monochromatic. It's  a little bit more adventurous than the average person's going to wear the items, but we're trying to show, you know, the fantasy of it and, you know, the high fashion version of it. Um, so it really is kind of everyone coming in and seeing you know what plays well together and what looks well together and kind of making a lineup and seeing how it looks altogether on the runway.  And we get our models here and do fittings and things change and morph, and we add some pieces. We take some pieces away, and it really just kind of is, you know, a creative time to kind of play around a little bit.

Steve Waxman:   9:58
Did you work with any other designers like internships or anything like that? When you were school?

Hilary MacMillan:   10:05
I did a couple at UBC, I mean, I'm sorry, Blanche McDonnell's the school I went to. Aaron Templeton is who I worked for, but I didn't do a lot, which is something that I definitely regret. I always recommend to students that are in schools that go work for somebody the connections you'll get, kind of seeing the process. In school we learned a lot about, like construction and, like the fantasy behind fashion, but not so much the business side of it, which I think is a tough, a tough go for any, you know, emerging designer that's starting is they don't necessarily have the business head or anything like doing taxes or margins or import fees are all the like, nitty gritty that you don't think about running a small business. Um, so I definitely wish I did more and always recommended other people.

Steve Waxman:   10:41
But isn't it interesting that you have to actually get into the world, do the thing that you love to do and have the passion for, but then realize that halfway through the passion there's all this black and white that you just don't understand that you now have to learn that you wish you never had to learn.

Hilary MacMillan:   10:56
Yeah, it's definitely like I made a lot of stupid mistakes the beginning, and you do all these things that you wish you could have, you know, done differently or things you wish had more experience on that, you could have changed. And I think it would have gone faster and I would have lost less money in the beginning if that was if I had a head for it. I also think that if you have the ability, you know, play to your strengths. So if your strength isn't the business side of it, then hire someone who comes and manages that for you. Someone you have a close connection with. And I think that can help you, too.

Steve Waxman:   11:21
Could you talk a little bit about how you scaled your business from being in a corner of your your sister shop?

Hilary MacMillan:   12:56
So yeah, it's kind of in a big scale. So, it started out I worked at home, so that's the beginning of it. And I was doing all local manufacturing and just doing small runs. So, luckily, if you're a local manufacturer you can generally do less than 25 pieces per item, which definitely keeps your cost down, but it does raise the cost per item. So generally smaller emerging brands have more expensive items. Just because of that, you can offset it with more units. And then 2014 is when I started to try and seek out whole selling to other stores that was really getting boots on the ground and trying to just get out there. And that allowed me to scale up a little more because I wasn't holding any stock. I was able to - people would pre order and then you can make based on what they're ordering and then 2018 we started doing our own e-commerce, and that kind of was born out of the fact that we had more brand recognition  in Toronto. We're doing Toronto Fashion Week. We're getting more people were knowing us. People wanted to buy directly from us and didn't want to go to a store for it. So we introduced that, and that was a whole different kind of ball game because that means you have to hold stock. And so there's other things that kind of come with that in terms of what happens the end of season. Some stuff doesn't sell so how to get rid of it. What do you do with it? All those kind of things popped up but luckily like e-commerce has been really big for us. And it allows us to kind of produce more styles and produce more units based on, like, bestseller sold to go - what happened last season and kind of like mimic what was the best seller and then we scaled up from there. And then it's just really been kind of managing. Inventory is kind of the biggest thing in terms of scale up.  

Steve Waxman:   12:56
At what point did you start bringing people into the team?

Hilary MacMillan:   12:56
Right before 2017. My sister works for me - she's currently  on mat leave, but she is the VP. And so she came on 2017 and kind of helped me with the business side of it. She has a very business head, and I do not. So she came on to manage kind of the accounts and just more of the wholesale stuff. And that may me focus more on the design aspect of it. And then I brought in a design assistant because I needed help to do patterns and kind of speed up what I was turning out. And then in 2018 with e-commerce is when we kind of started to scale up and hire more and more people on staff. Then we had our team of five . And then we hire contractors, so we contract out PR, we contract out all of our manufacturing. So you know we're a  tight team here, but everything's done mostly on off site.

Steve Waxman:   13:37
Something just came to mind. Do you ever have round tables with customers about what it is that they want?

Hilary MacMillan:   13:45
We constantly get feedback from customers. I love it. I Sometimes it's tough because not everyone's in love with everything. But it's a great way to kind of figure out what's working. We work really close with our wholesale accounts, too because they're mostly experiencing the customer.  So they'll tell us what's working and what didn't work and give us sales through sell run throughs. So whether we're developing the extended sizing up to 28 we wanted to talk to, you know, women that are that size to figure out what they need and what they want. We've had millions of fittings and we're just trying to really kind of figure out exactly what that customers looking for, but it is a learning curve, and we're always kind of learning. So always open to having more conversations.

Steve Waxman:   14:20
So you just brought up size, inclusive as a designer. How has that changed or influenced what's happened with you over the course of six years?

Hilary MacMillan:   14:32
I think it's turning into this $1,000,000,000 industry, especially in the United States. It is a driving force that a lot people manufacturer for now. So we've recently become size-inclusive. So our next spring collection goes up to size 28 and four X, and it really is to kind of mimic the changing market. We found when I was doing kind of research that  when before I started developing the line that there is  cheap versions of plus size clothing. And then there's also a really high-end versions of plus size clothing or custom. But there's nothing kind of in that contemporary sweet spot, and it's really hard to find anything kind of around the $200 - $300 price point. So we wanted to kind of fill that gap. So we're doing with capsule collection to see how it does try to get our fits down. But I think it really is coming out of the fact that women are maybe accepting their bodies more. Social media allows it to be out there more. You can find your own like-mind based community. They're supporting each other. And they're like, unafraid to say that like, I love my body and I'm not gonna feel ashamed of it based on what society has taught me to feel. That way the prevalence of plus sized models is getting better and better. It's still a slow grind. Plus size models - there's more access to them now. There are more available. But still not every agency has them. It's still not - they're not the same percentage like a size two model. So there's still a lot of work to be done. But I think it's going to get there and the conversations are happening and people are starting to recognize it. And what a lot of consumers don't really always get is like they can vote with their dollar and anything they do can be done with their dollar. And so if you want to support brands that are size inclusive, then go out and support them and then other people will become more size inclusive. And that's like a huge kind of way that these brands are trying to be more size inclusive. And there is still push back. I think a lot of people still, you know, Nike came out with a plus sized line, and they got a lot of backlash talking about how plus size don't work out. And this this whole conversation happened and it was just kind of ridiculous. So there is still, you know, negative things out there, that it comes out of. But I think it's starting to move and change in the right direction. And there's a lot of websites which I love that are doing see it in your size. So we're going to do that in terms of, so if you're a size 16 you'll have a model you can see it on her in size 16 or if your size eight you can see it. We're gonna start offering a more interactive experience in terms of you can actually see how it fits and feels. We'd love to eventually add videos, to see how  it moves because a lot of retail giants are closing and brick and mortar isn't so successfully. It's really shifting to online so we're kind of cognizant of that and really trying to make it the easiest experience for you and also the most acknowledgeable so you can get everything you want out of a photo and you can see exactly how it lays and sits. But we do have a campaign coming out that's got a more full figured woman in it so we're excited to release that.

Steve Waxman:   17:13
So what's the ultimate goal for you do you think? 

Hilary MacMillan:   17:17
Keep growing, keep expanding, acquire more wholesale accounts. Just kind of getting bigger and bigger as a business. Eventually, we want to start branching off into different things in terms of bringing in maybe accessories or shoes and kind of dabbling more in menswear. That would kind of be the expansion is just kind of to grow it from a woman's wear brand into kind of alternate prongs.

Steve Waxman:   17:40
I mean, it's just looking around and coming into I don't know. Well, I I do know exactly what I expected. When I was coming down here, I expected to be coming into the kind of industrial building that I would expect to see somebody manufacturing or a number of different companies manufacturing and then walking down the street here...okay, I'm passing houses. And then this house with the gate and your name out front, I mean, that must be mind blowing for you because it's pretty quick to this point.

Hilary MacMillan:   18:15
Yeah, it doesn't feel quick because it feels like longest six years of my life. But now it's been pretty, our growth is kind of accelerated too and every year kind of doubling, which is kind of amazing to be a part of. You haven't seen downstairs. That's kind of a where all of the nitty gritty is more. But we have this house because it's kind of...we hold stock here and we'll do...it's mostly for people to come visit. So showrooms and our offices are here and then our manufacturing is at off site and a whole other bargain

Steve Waxman:   18:42
Reading about you and reading about the line. I found it really admirable that it's not just the cruelty free and the vegan. You really are mindful of society and have woven that into the business here. Can you talk a little bit about that? When did it come to mind that this is what you wanted to do?

Hilary MacMillan:   19:03
So, in 2016 I went to the women's march in Washington, and I just was like loving what was going on and the Me Too movement and Time's Up and people creating this conversation. And it was, you know, kind of inspiring to me. And I like that. You know, it's kind of maybe third wave or fourth wave of feminism, and people are starting to speak up more. And, you know, men are allies to women, and it's not acceptable for the old ways to kind of be still existing in society. And so it was just kind of there and seeing this vibe I loved it And so that's kind of where our fashion activism started from there, and it was creating jackets with different things in the back. So it's like "Feminist", "Don't tell me to smile" kind of topical things that are applicable to women or men it at this moment in history. And we're fortunate that's been doing so well that we're now able to give a percentage of our stuff to charity in Toronto. It's called Up with Women, and that's kind of been a goal of mine since beginning.  I wanted to kind of have, you know, a stream of my business that also was able to give back to the community and give back to an organization that supports women and at risk women and, you know, disadvantaged women. And so it's It's been always a goal, and I'm really happy I can finally do it. And I think that fashion people always understand that fashion isn't just a frivolous thing, is so intertwined in kind of all political spectrums and it's been intertwined with feminism since the dawning of feminism. since how women dressed and how they were constricted by their clothing. And I think that, you know it's a great way to kind of throw maybe a little FU to that.  You know, wearing it on your sleeve and on your back and show your beliefs.

Steve Waxman:   20:32
I hope that you enjoyed this episode of The Creationists. If you'd like to find out more about Hillary and her fashion line, please go to HillaryMacmillan.com. And you can find out more information about up with women at upwithwomen.org. If you'd like to comment on this episode, offer suggestions for future episodes or just say "hi," please email [email protected] And please don't forget to rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you're listening on. And if I could ask one more little favour, please tell any of your friends that might be interested to check out The Creationists. I'm Steve Waxman, and I created this podcast.