Milli: A Celebration of Style, on at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until February 2020, is like taking a quick stroll through the last five decades of fashion history.
I’m standing in front of a mirror wearing a bright pink silk Rochas top with a bow the approximate size of a giant corpse flower blooming from the right shoulder over sleek Akris trousers. It’s a far cry from my typical uniform of thrift store dresses paired with chunky boots. The woman responsible for the uncharacteristic outfit, clad in a stone grey puffer jacket with fitted black slacks, is Milli Gould. “I think you’re quite dramatic for such a tiny girl,” she explains.
Gould expertly removes the belt from the pants and arranges it on top, adding a second Dries Van Noten rope belt for an effect that’s not unlike Ikebana. Then she tops the outfit with a jacket-cape hybrid by Dice Kayek (it looks like something a sexy vampire might wear to the opera) and the effect is jaw-dropping. I look authoritative and powerful, artfully arranged but not fussy. Everyone in the room oohs and aahs at the transformation. I’m shocked that she’s managed to channel my entire essence through an outfit, having met me less than an hour before. “This is how I’d get you hooked. We’d start with the pants, and then the next time you would come and buy something else until you get an outfit. Then you come and want to buy the whole store,” she says.
This, right here, is the secret to her success. Fifty-five years ago, Milli Gould opened her eponymous retail shop in Hamilton, Ont., with a unique edit of hard-to-find European designers. (A Toronto location opened in 2004.) At the time, a handful of independently owned Canadian boutiques, such as Creeds and Ira Berg, dotted the Southern Ontario retail landscape. Today, Milli is one of the last remaining holdouts. As such, she’s the subject of a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton titled Milli: A Celebration of Style, which honours Milli’s contribution to the Canadian fashion industry as well as her undeniable impact on many of her customer’s lives.
Walking through the exhibition is like taking a quick stroll through the last five decades of fashion history; a blaring sequin pantsuit from the ‘70s is juxtaposed nearby an austere grey skirt suit from the ‘90s. (Many of the garments on display are accompanied by delightful anecdotes about their provenance.) Curator Nolan Bryant hopes the exhibition will inspire people to realize that “fashion is something more than just what we cover our bodies with.”
Milli: A Celebration of Style is unique in that it’s the first museum fashion retrospective dedicated to a retailer rather than a specific designer. Bryant says that’s because, “Once an item leaves a store, its kind of just out there. What sets Milli apart is she is in constant dialogue with all of her clients.” He’s not wrong. According to her son Ben, Gould would sometimes would attend weddings or Bar Mitzvahs with her clients in order to make sure the outfit looked just right.
At age 86, Gould is the very picture of understated elegance, her still-chestnut hair pulled back in a dignified chignon, her long fingernails painted a tasteful shade of ballet pink and ears bedecked with diamond studs so large one wonders whether they’re costume jewellery or actual carats. Up until the very last moment before we sit down for an interview in the plush bohemian interior of her Yorkville store, Gould nimbly flits around the store, picking out items for a longtime customer. It’s clear that she’s in her element communicating through clothing as opposed to answering questions from a pesky journalist. Gould’s adult son Ben, who runs the day-to-day operations of the store, as well as Jane Apor, Milli’s director of retail strategy, are on hand to to help the famously reticent Milli answer questions.
Gould started her store in the wake of tragedy; she was pregnant when her husband and infant daughter perished in a house fire. Soon after, she opened her shop more or less out of desperation. “I needed money. My children were babies, we needed to have an income,” she said. She later remarried, to the business savvy Allen Gould, who was instrumental in the store’s success.
“In the early days I waited on almost everyone. So we would have a conversation, ‘how many children do you have? What do you do with your life?’ By the time they left for home, I knew which one cheated, which one didn’t.” Gould quickly amassed a dedicated client base who couldn’t get enough of her sharp, forward-thinking edit, not to mention her legendary restraint. “She’d come home from time to time saying, ‘I can’t tell you what happened today but I know more about everybody than you would actually want to know.’ She’s like a psychiatrist,” Ben adds.
Many of her customers made the trek to Hamilton from Toronto just to shop at Milli. Shopping was often a full-day affair for her white-gloved customers, so she served lunch on delicate Fornasetti plates, which are included in the exhibition. Over time, some of Gould’s customers became her closest friends. Sandy Waldman, a lithe, well-dressed older woman (who ran the Sandylion sticker company from 1982-2010 with husband Lionel) who happened to be shopping at the store when I arrived to meet Milli says, “Not only was Milli somebody I bought beautiful clothes from, she became a very dear friend.”
Coincidentally, the first dress Waldman ever purchased from Milli is one of the hallmark pieces in the exhibition: a gloriously ‘80s dalmation-dotted Peter Keppler number she wore to her son’s wedding in 1987. Milli used extra fabric from the alterations to cover a pair of shoes so Waldman would have matching pumps to compliment the dress. “The alteration charge was a lot of money, and I wasn’t happy about that. However, after I wore it, I realized: you can buy a dress anywhere, but it’s not everywhere they tweak the style of it so its perfect for you,” she says. “This afternoon, I’ve had the best time. Its not just the clothes, it’s the cameraderie. Milli is one in a million.”
Perhaps another element that may have contributed to Milli’s success were her rather unique marketing tactics. “When I would go out socially, a lady would say, ‘I love that suit you’re wearing.’ So I said, ‘Come on into the washroom, I’ll take it off, and you can have it.’” Gould says she spent many an evening dressed in her overcoat and nothing else.
Almost everyone I speak to, from the PR who arranged the interview to her son Ben, suggests that Milli is far less comfortable holding court in interviews than she is working in the store, which is why I’d asked her to pick me out an outfit. The Rochas and Akris outfit she’d first put me in comes off, and the next item she picks out is a lacy pink lacy babydoll dress that’s very Sharon Tate, which I have on for less than 10 seconds before for Milli commands her assistant to remove it. The offending pink dress, which I kind of liked but defer to Milli’s judgment, is swapped out for a long white Grecian sheath dress paired with an elephant printed cocoon jacket; it’s gorgeous, but doesn’t feel quite right. The third piece she brings out is an Antonio Marras dress that mixes three different floral prints and a plume of leopard print fabric protruding from the hip. It’s completely hideous on the hanger, but the transformative effect is instantaneous. Suddenly, I’m no longer a frumpy journalist prone to wearing baggy sack dresses; I’m a quirky artistic genius on her way to pick up a check from her high-profile gallerist.
To use a phrase from Sandy Waldman, I feel like ten million dollars.