Local businesses mean so much to us. We love getting to know the familiar faces in our neighborhood as we go about our day, and we appreciate the energy and inspiration that they can provide to us. "Local Guide" is a new initiative where we seek to shine a light on some of our favorite small businesses in NY and LA that we patronize week in and week out. Every few months, we'll launch a new feature consisting of a photoshoot and Q&A to help you get to know the business better, coupled with a t-shirt that we'll produce in limited quantities.
Mildred New York is pretty closely tied into 3sixteen. I've been getting cut by Eric and Rob for over 7 years now, with the exception of that one year Eric moved to LA which I commonly refer to as the dark ages because my hair was a disaster until he came back. Rob was also kind enough to model our SS14 and SS15 lookbooks. When the two of them decided to forge ahead and open their own barbershop two years ago, there was no doubt about it - I followed along.
Barbershops, to me, are a special place. They're a form of forced downtime in the middle of a hectic workday. They're a place to unwind and catch up with your barber. They're also a place to meet new people waiting for their appointments or getting cut next to you. Recommendations are made there and connections are built. I can't think of a barbershop with a more interesting clientele than the people who pass through Mildred - which says a lot about the skill of the barbers, but also about the way they treat their customers. Sometimes the chats are surface level, and sometimes they get pretty deep. You're not just getting a cut at Mildred; it's borderline therapeutic if you want it to be. One of the things I love most about Mildred is its gender-neutral presentation. The term "barbershop" usually elicits certain images and ideas, but Mildred is a place where guys and girls can get cut and be comfortable with themselves.
I took some time to chat with Rob McMillen, co-founder of Mildred New York, about their journey thus far and what they've learned along the way. We also produced 50 Mildred New York shop tees using our heavyweight tees garment-dyed to a faded rose color inspired by their business cards. 10% of of the sales of this t-shirt will be donated to the PS140 PTA to support the elementary school students there. More on that below.
You’re on a super quiet residential block in the Lower East Side. What’s it like here?
We came across Ridge Street years ago when my wife lived over on Clinton. The building was here but the retail portion was nowhere to be seen at that time. I always loved how this particular block felt insulated from the rest of the LES. Years later after a trip to my tailor at 55 Clinton, I decided to walk down Ridge and noticed that 124 was for rent. I dreamt about it and in 2017 Eric and I signed a lease on the space and got to work.
What was the impetus to open up your own shop with Eric and Paul?
I think most service industry professionals always think about going out on their own. Blind Barber gave us all a wonderful foundation but we are all now 40+ and it felt like it was time to move on. Of course it wasn’t that cut and dry; I met Eric in 2011 when he was wrapping up barber school. We worked together for years with the BB team and they were some of the best of our lives.
I was planning a move to Denver and it didn’t work out, so I felt the need to open a shop. Eric and I founded Mildred two years ago, and Paul came over about 6 months in. He really was the missing piece and we really are fortunate to have all grown together over the years. Not to mention my wife and brother in law are now a part of the space as well, which helps it to feel like a true family business.
What are some important parts of the Mildred experience?
First and foremost, we want everyone to feel welcome. We’ve been so lucky to have a diverse client base and that truly helps shape the experience for everyone in the shop.
I’m not sure we can say we’re doing anything all that special. I can say that we care about each other a great deal, clients included of course. Having a relationship with our staff as well as our customers allows us to be vested in each other’s lives, which extends far beyond a haircut.
As you look back on these past two years, what are some important lessons you guys have learned?
We’ve gone through a great deal of change, which I believe has taught us how to handle mistakes and be okay with making them. In 2018, my wife opened a small salon in the back of our shop called “Love, Dunette.” We did a second renovation to account for that and cut clients for free in our basement until we could open back up; it was a blast. Now we are facing another expansion which means more change, more mistakes - but most importantly, more opportunities to learn and grow.
From a business standpoint, I think it comes down to us being present and engaged everyday. We are so fortunate to work in a profession that pulls us away from digital and social media for a bit. We get the opportunity to have conversations with our clients and staff that come without interruptions that most traditional work environments may experience.
Left to right: Hattie, Vinny, Greg, Rob, Eric and Paul
You made a shop tee last year to support the elementary school across the street from the shop (PS140). We’re donating a portion of the proceeds of this shirt to the PTA as well. How did you build a relationship with them?
As much as we would like to avoid it, we are gentrifiers in a sense, and we don’t want to be tone deaf to the community around us. Luckily we have some roots in the neighborhood and one of our clients and friends went to PS140, Victor Roman. He was kind enough to design a t-shirt for us off of a mock-up Eric made that had a tie to the PS140 court where we all like to shoot around and occasionally run an old man game.
The PTA tie-in was important because we didn’t just want to make something, but instead create something that had some meaning and to make our clients aware of the community around the shop. We cut local folks but we also have a great deal of clients from all over the city, so it felt important to include PS140. I believe the Times just references that over 100,000 New York City Public School students are homeless, which is staggering. The wonderful folks at PS140, including their PTA President William Bray, work very hard to try and close the gap - which is an uphill battle to say the least.
Anything exciting you’re looking forward to in 2020?
We’re expanding into the space next door which should be ready by 2020. Hopefully with more space we’ll have more opportunity to collaborate with great friends like you!