Interview with Nicki Patel, Founder/Designer of milo+nicki.
Before my interview with Nicki Patel, I only knew milo+nicki: a vibrant, liberating, sustainable womenswear brand.
The woman, and her dog, behind the brand evoke the same sense of spirit, empowerment and humanitarianism as the brand does. Nicki wears her heart on her sleeve and designs her collections around her values.
In college Nicki majored in Accounting and Sports Management and dreamt of the day she would work in the front office for a major league team. That is until fate and divine intervention had other plans for her.
Nicki and I talk rescue pups, entrepreneurship, and sustainable fashion.
If you enjoy Nicki as much as I did, and I know you will, show your love and support by heading over to milo+nicki.com and follower her journey on Instagram @milonicki. And, please share the article! Our ethical entrepreneurs need your help to promote sustainable fashion.
Heidi: Milo, of milo+nicki, is your rescue lab. Has the success of company gone to his head?
Nicki: (Laughs) I don’t think so, but I can’t really tell. He is very possessive though! When I’m taking inventory out of the room, he looks at me, “like what are you doing!?”
Heidi: He wants to be involved in every step of the process.
Nicki: Most definitely!
Heidi: You launched milo+nicki after what you call “rock bottom”. Both you and Milo were experiencing some major health issues, which forced you to make significant lifestyle changes. This eventually led you to launching a cruelty-free and sustainable clothing brand. Did you always want to be a fashion designer?
Nicki: Actually, no. I never imaged myself in the fashion industry, much less a designer, but fashion has always found a way into my life. I was a tomboy in high school, but my first job was at Banana Republic. I don’t know how I got that job, because I went to the interview with cut-off distressed jeans, an old worn t-shirt, and Converse sneakers. I did not fit the Banana Republic vibe at all.
Heidi: (Laughs) Sounds like you should have been interviewing at Hot Topic.
Nicki: Or Gap or Old Navy! But fashion has always found its way back into my life. I actually have a background in Accounting and Sports Management. When I was in college, my dream was to work in the front office of the major leagues. Fashion design was not something I ever thought about or considered back then.
Heidi: That’s so cool! And, the accounting background must help with the business side of things. I think many times entrepreneurs, and especially designers, thrive on creative side but struggle when it comes to accounting or bookkeeping. Like me, I struggle! I have to remind myself to record my business expenses. I’m really bad at that. It probably helps to have the accounting education.
Nicki: It definitely does, but being out of the industry now, I still need to hire a professional when it comes to the business.
Heidi: You’ve been featured in some pretty impressive publications. I loved seeing milo+nicki in Vogue and Eluxe Magazine. Do you feel mainstream fashion is starting to embrace sustainability, and if so, do think it will help your grow your business?
Nicki: I feel like there has been a pretty dramatic shift in the industry, but it’s still a work in progress. For example, major designers are getting rid of fur in their coats and jackets. Then there is Stella McCartney and some big-name designers that are sustainable. Like, Mara Hoffman. She is making her whole supply chain sustainable. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on the designer and consumer side. It’s just such a deeply saturated industry that’s had the same process for centuries. It’s still a work in progress.
As far as seeing an impact in our business, I think we are still too small to notice a direct positive or negative effect, but when it comes to discussions and education for consumers it helps to have the larger brands be resources and show what can be done that is better for the people, better for the planet and better for the animals.
Heidi: Follow up and question, and it’s a bit lengthy:
Sustainable fashion is still widely unknown, and the average person is just starting to hear and understand “fast fashion”. I think the documentary, The True Cost, helped a little bit, and maybe it turned [consumers] off from shopping at Forever 21 or H&M, the obvious offenders, but that’s where it seems like the education stops.
It feels like bringing sustainable fashion forward falls on the shoulders of the start-up brands, like milo+nicki. Why do you think with all the resources the big brands have, they’re not doing more to embrace sustainability and bring it to the consumer?
Nicki: I feel like it’s a two-part answer. There are designers that are realizing the change they can make and the positive impact they can have. Not just in fashion, but overall in the environment, the way we live, the way people are treated. There are big-name designers who are seeing that. Mara Hoffman is a huge example of that. She’s starting to shift a huge supply chain to become sustainable and embrace the maker.
But there’s also the mindset that we forget, fashion is a business. So, a lot of designers aren’t in [the business] to make a positive impact. They are in it for the end game of making money.
Heidi: You’re absolutely right. I agree with you.
Nicki: Also, I think the change takes time and money, especially for the larger brands that have such big international supply chains.
Heidi: Good point. At the end of the day it’s still a business, and they have a bottom line they have to maintain.
Heidi: Your debut collection called, The Rocks Collection, inspired by the 5 “Rocks” in your life: Milo, your mom and dad and your two sisters. What was the inspiration behind The Bandhani Collection?
Nicki: Bandhani is a century old technique of tying and dyeing fabric. It’s a method that’s native to the state in India where my great-great grandparents are from, and it’s been one of my favorite designs since I was very little. I wanted to combine the traditional art of Bandhani with modern silhouettes and bring awareness of the art form to the modern-day consumer.
I work with an artisan woman-team in India, and they hand-tie every knot. For example, the pattern in the pants you have, each of those knots are hand tied before the fabric is hand dyed. Then once the fabric dries, they pull apart the threads that hold the knots together, and it reveals a white dot.
In Sanskrit, Banda means “to tie”. It’s a very common type of art in India, and I wanted to use something from my past to incorporate my designs.
Heidi: I had no idea there was so much history and art in the pants I just bought.
Nicki: A lot of our pieces have uneven coloring, and each dot is very unique because it’s a handmade process. It takes each woman 8 hours to tie 2.5 yards of fabric. It’s so labor intensive.
Heidi: This is a great lead in to my next question. We are both alumni of a Fashion Design Acceleration Program, Factory 45. I was trying to launch a vegan shoe line, so I know first-hand the challenge of finding quality vegan and sustainable materials.
In fact, I’m not currently pursuing the shoe line, because I didn’t feel like the quality and durability for shoes was there yet. I feared if I put out a product it would just become waste, and therefore not sustainable. What was your sourcing process and how did you decide on the fabrics that you did?
Nicki: Honestly, fabric sourcing is so tedious, just like you said. It’s a very intense process, especially when it comes to finding the right fabric for the perfect fit.
What made it even harder was I was looking for fabric that was cruelty-free, ethical, sustainable and fair-trade, which is a lot of buckets to fill.
It took me over a year to find the perfect match in fabric. And, the new collection launching later this year, is not with the same team, so things are constantly shifting and changing.
When I started searching for fabric, I knew I wanted to find something to tie my brand back to India, so that was another huge aspect of my sourcing. Knowing where I wanted to focus gave me a place to start, but it’s still a long process of finding the right weaver, testing it, feeling it, and keep on going with trial and error until you find it!
Heidi: I’m curious. Were you able to launch in the 6-month of Factory 45 program?
(Editor’s note: Factory 45 is 6-month fashion entrepreneur program. While members have access to the material and the community for life, the coaching and live mentorship is only available for 6-months with the intention to bring a designer from concept to production in that time.)
Nicki: No. I took me a little longer. I joined Factory 45 2016, and I didn’t end up launching my Kickstarter until April 2017, so I probably launched 6-7 months after finishing Factory 45.
Heidi: How was the Kickstarter process? That felt really intimidating to me. I didn’t get there, but it terrified me.
Nicki: It was a lot of work, and I think it is great for sharing your brand story. Honestly, it helped me develop what I wanted to create, what values I wanted to share with the world and what my mission was. It really helped me finalize the brand. I was so scattered when I started Factory 45.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a designer; I just knew I wanted to make a difference.
Heidi: That is so cool!
Nicki: Yeah, it was more about homing in on a centralized message. That was really cool about Kickstarter. Obviously now, looking back, I wish I would have done things a lot differently, but it was a good learning experience.
Heidi: I imagine a lot of people would say that. It’s one of those things that ends up being a blur in the end because it’s such an intense learning process. When you come out of the fog you kind of want a second chance at it, but that’s also part of the experience at the same time.
Nicki: Exactly! Everything. Every little thing you do. Especially in this industry! If you don’t have a background in it, it has a learning curve.
I learn something every single day, or make mistakes and learn from them, every single day.
Heidi: You might have already mentioned it, but what has been your greatest challenge in launching milo+nicki? Was it the sourcing fabric, the Kickstarter, or something we haven’t talked about yet?
Nicki: Honestly, there have been, and there are challenges almost daily. It’s a new aspect of the industry and our brand is still new. It’s just me at the moment, so I don’t have a team or a partner beside me. The biggest thing, currently, is trying to grow while remaining small. It’s finding that balance and being ok with that balance.
Every day is a chance to learn and grow, and I feel like that is pretty common with any entrepreneur’s journey.
Heidi: I think so too! And, I think as a business owner, I don’t know if that ever goes away. There are easier days and more challenging days, but you take on that added stress as an entrepreneur.
What has been your greatest joy so far?
Nicki: The opportunity to do something to make a difference. That was such a huge thing when I joined Factory 45, more than to make money or make a design, I really wanted to make a difference for other woman. I wanted to inspire them and empower them.
I had to leave my career, which I thought was going to be life-long, and it made me realize how much we are focused on what’s going on in that moment. So much that we tend to lose what we want long-term. It’s actually true for everyone, I think. We live in a world, a society, which is: do work, go home to your family, watch tv, got to sleep, repeat, and then you relax on the weekend.
So, for me, when I got sick, it was a reality check to figure out what I wanted, and then to share that with the world.
Also, it’s creating something one of a kind. Knowing I envisioned it and made it to share with the world is so exciting. And then, hearing people’s feedback, I think that’s the biggest thing. Whenever someone tells me, “I love that!” Or, “I can’t wait to wear that!” It’s just, wow!
Heidi: What about the day you see someone on the street wearing your designs?
Nicki: Oh, I can’t wait for that day!
Heidi: Where do you see milo+nicki in 5 or 10 years?
Nicki: I’m hoping we are able to grow and hire more people to support our international supply chain.
I also want to make a dent in this destructive consumer industry. More than make money I want to help educate and change the consumer’s mindset to the point where there is a thought process before someone buys something: Where is this from, who made it, what are the materials? Having a visible shift in our consumption would be huge for me.
Heidi: What advice do you have for people interested in sustainable or ethical fashion, but don’t know where to start?
Nicki: There’s an app. We are part of it, but it’s also international, called Good on You.
They are really good about doing a thorough investigation on which brands they rate on their app. They are Australian based, and they’ve expanded globally. Basically, they are an app that helps you find sustainable brands. It’s a great resource and good starting point.
Heidi: What do you say when people say shopping sustainable for shopping small brands is “too expensive”?
Nicki: I’ve had many customers tell me that. It’s more common when I have an event or pop-up [store] because a lot of people don’t know how things are made.
It’s not something [the industry] talks about openly.
I usually start with the process of how our pieces are made. Starting from the plant, to the artisan weavers to the small, family owned factory in New York to myself. I’ve learned that whenever I paint a complete picture to the consumer, they are usually more astounded than anything else and have to take a step back to think, so it comes down to education and making the consumer aware that the $20 top from Zara isn’t really $20. It’s an education barrier, but it shifts whenever I’m able to talk to people and get them to see that this is more than just a piece of clothing.
Heidi: I was thinking about this when I wrote the question, and it reminded me of a few years ago when Organic food was becoming more common in grocery stores. It was very hard to understand why that organic bell pepper was more expensive than the non-organic pepper, but when we started to understand why the organic produce costs more it was easier to spend the extra money.
Nicki: Totally! And, you’ve seen that across the board with other products, like baby products. Consumers are more conscious about what they are putting on their baby’s skin, or our own skin.
Heidi: Agreed. That’s my reason for launching this site: education, exposure and resources.
Nicki: That’s amazing! I’m really excited for you.
Heidi: This question might be akin to do you have a favorite kid? But for people checking out milo+nicki for the first time, do you have a favorite piece? Or, do you have a piece that is the most popular amongst your customers?
Nicki: I actually do love them all! Our best seller is the 6>1 maxi dress because it can be worn over 7 different ways. You can dress it up, you can dress it down, or you can wear it as a coverup. It’s so versatile.
Heidi: I also liked the siesta dress. I sent a picture of it to my best-friend and said, “This would look great on you!” She agreed!
Nicki: Yes! And it has the drawstrings, so you can make it tighter or looser to change the look.
Heidi: I love that. She would love that too.
Final questions are you still involved in fostering and/or rescuing dogs?
Nicki: Not at the moment. Milo is my only pup right now. Unfortunately, he’s developed fear anxiety and can’t be around other dogs. He’s been attacked a few times, which has turned into fear anxiety and aggression. I can’t have any more dogs at the moment, but I wouldn’t trade him for the world, so I don’t mind it.
Heidi: I have a very old rescue. He’s 14, and in his old age he’s gotten kind of anxious and formed some aggression too, but I feel like, “You’ve lived a good, long life, Boy. If you want to be old and cranky in your old age, so be it!”
Heidi: In the end, they [the pets] bring so much joy to my life.
Nicki: Yes. I feel the exact same way.
that’s Nicki and Milo –>
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Images provided Nicki Patel. Clothing photos by her photography team: Kestrel and Drew of Falcon.