On paper Nancy Gibson and Jennifer Murray might come across as totally different. They’re two decades apart in age, come from opposite coasts and have totally different career credentials. Gibson grew up in Ohio and began her career on Wall Street working at Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, while California-native Murray is a former designer rep at The News showroom in New York who moonlights as a DJ. But, don’t be fooled. The two ladies behind ultra-cool line Edith A. Miller have much more in common than a love for striped T-shirts. They share the same fiercely independent, entrepreneurial spirit that translates into their subtly baddass signature tees.
It all started in 2009, when Nancy and Jennifer ran into each other at a party in Fire Island wearing the same vintage, striped Robert P. Miller T-shirt. They immediately bonded, and the seed for their line was planted right then and there. Research lead them to discover that the shirts they so loved were made at an old knitting mill in eastern Pennsylvania that has been around over 100 years. Obsessed with the idea of American heritage, they chose the very same factory to produce a line of basic tees made from 100% American cotton, which they called Edith A. Miller—a nod to it’s stripey, homegrown forbearer.
A few years after launching, Edith A. Miller stays true to its vintage-inspired, heritage-minded roots and includes a range of super-soft separates in mixed stripes, camo and solids. Though still without its own e-commerce site (it’s in the works), the line is carried at hip e-boutiques like Bona Drag and Need Supply, as well as bigger retailers like Barneys and J. Crew. I caught up with the super-busy, highly-spirited designers to learn just how obsessed they are with stripes and mills, as well as how diverse ladies like Jane Birkin, Gloria Steinem and even Sharon Stone have influenced their designs.
Did you both always love fashion?
Nancy Gibson: My parents were immigrants and we grew up among other immigrant families and so there was an old-world style of showing respect by dressing up to attend things. My mom went to “uniform school,” so we wore kilts and berets and gloves, and my dad believed in polished shoes, so it was all very ladylike-military. When I got to high-school my inner le garcon emerged, and I didn’t want to wear hosiery or make-up or do all the frilly stuff my two older sisters were obsessed with, so I became a student activist and we won the right to wear jeans!
Jennifer Murray: I started dressing myself at three-years-old and wouldn’t let my parents pick out a thing for me after that. They thought it was fun so they let me do my thing. In high school I begged for a sewing machine to make my own clothes and take what I had found at garage sales and transform them. I started a wallet company called Pick Pocket made of old denim. Each wallet had a pocket for a guitar pick. Overall, I loved clothes and fashion and making things my own. I always had fun with it!
Jennifer, what brought you to NYC from California? What were you doing prior to launching the line?
J: After graduating from FIDM, I was working at Maxfield in LA–really soaking in the best designers and learning a lot about the history of fashion and design. In 2006 my boyfriend at the time–soon to be my husband–was offered a job designing at Earnest Sewn in NYC, and I decided to come with him. While working at Maxfield I met Stella Ishii, owner of The News Showroom, and she had said that if I ended up in New York, to give her a call. That led to a job doing sales at her showroom for about three and half years and then moving on to run the Maryam Nassir Zadeh showroom for another two years. That’s when Nancy and I met and the Edith journey began.
How did the two of you meet and how did you end up deciding to partner up on the line?
N: I ran into Jenn at Wool and The Gang and we just started talking about a million topics and inspirations at once. We just had an easy and supportive communication from the start of our friendship.
J: It was at an event on Fire Island in early August 2010; we both had on different versions of beachy Robert P. Miller shirts, and we started talking about how much we each loved these ‘new-vintage’ tees, and we just kept on talking about it, and we’re still talking about it! And then the line was born.
Who is Edith A. Miller?
N: We conjured up a tomboy younger sister to Robert P. Miller as our muse and wanted a name reminiscent of 1906. I said, what about Edith? And Jenn said, I like that. End of story. Actually, I was freely associating in my mind and thought of Daisy Miller, which made me think of Henry James, which made me think of Edith Wharton. So we had Edith and Miller from the start. We discovered a few days later that we both had the same middle name: Anne for Jenn and Ann for me, so we named her Edith A. Miller.
Tell us about the mill in Pennsylvania where it’s all produced.
N: The mill is a really special place for us. Jenn and I discovered it together so it’s part of our shared personal history. It’s a time capsule, with the vintage machines and the original building, as though a piece of American history is being preserved by the family that owns the mill. We try to get out there a couple times of year, but in between we talk to the fifth generation father and sixth generation son more than a couple times a day! Everything we can possibly make at the mill, we do. When we have more complex pieces that require a little more technique, we work with a producer in the Garment District, here in NYC, to keep everything 100% Made in the USA.
What is the ethos of the brand?
J: When designing we always ask ourselves: Is this true to the Edith girl? We always want to be on brand and create clothing we love and would wear. We also want to enjoy ourselves in the process, make the work fun and laugh a lot. We want to keep everything Made in the USA, because that’s what’s most important to us!
N: Have fun, get things done, be mindful, make a difference, pay the bills, and don’t take it too seriously.
What was the very first collection like?
J: Oh boy, the first collection was quite interesting. We created the idea of Edith A. Miller in mid August, with September fashion week only a couple weeks away. We had met with our mill just once and had done tons of drawings of how we imagined the line. As we started receiving samples, it was pretty funny. Some things were perfect and we were so excited, and other samples were a bit off. It was the first time the mill had really made a contemporary women’s collection, so there was a learning curve we had to adjust to. It turned out super cute though, and we hung it on an old vintage rack with hooks and chipped paint. The buyers were really drawn to it, and it was really cool to hear people’s comments and how pleased they were that it was made in Pennsylvania!
What were some of the early obstacles in starting your own label?
N: By the time we discovered the mill in rural Pennsylvania, it was 10 days to go before New York Fashion Week. Maybe another team might have decided to launch the following season to have the time to get everything started properly, but we decided to start immediately because we were both so into working with the mill. We didn’t want to put it off or miss the energy or the momentum we were feeling, so we never even stopped to think about obstacles. I only knew fashion from the standpoint of being a consumer, so I didn’t think it was anything but fun. We just thought about getting things done and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen!
J: There are always small obstacles, but I think that we were really blessed from early on. We had the amazing support of Maryam Nassir Zadeh, wanting to show the line in her showroom. I knew a lot of great buyers from my past sales experience and we had a great all American story to tell.
What’s the best career advice you ever received?
J: My dad always told me to just stay true to what I love, that if I have to fake it, I shouldn’t be doing it. That really has helped me in so many aspects of my life and career.
N: I think it was Sharon Stone who said, ‘you can only f#@k your way to the middle!’ I think that’s always good advice to pass along. But seriously, anyone who knows me well knows that I love to give career advice, not take it! So I have my own maxims that I go by. Here are a few: Only love is real. You can only win by winning! A strong finish starts at the beginning. A bad strategy is better than no strategy. Hmm, what else? If you’re interested in something and unsure, take one step, and then take another. Oh, and don’t listen to anyone unless I’m doing the talking!
Nancy, you have a Wall Street background and, Jennifer, you have a fashion background–tell us how those backgrounds come together.
N: With just the two of us, we each have to know how to do everything and back each other up on everything. We definitely have our individual strengths based on our experience, but like any good team we focus on doing our collective best. You would think that I do all the business stuff, and Jenn does all the design stuff, but who knew Jenn loves to make Excel spread sheets, and I can’t stand to! I love talking to the mill about yarns, and Jenn just wants to see the finished sample. In the end, we both like to be involved in everything.
J: Nancy and I are a great team. With our different backgrounds we can learn so much from each other. She teaches me about finance and nutrition and I can teach her about the wholesale world and DJing. Mostly we just talk about love and clothes though. It’s really cool that there is an age difference and a slightly different aesthetic, because when we design a new style, we know that if both of us will wear it then it has a broad reach and will probably do well with our customers.
What’s a typical day of work for you two?
N: Our typical way of working is to start by getting a green juice at Melvyn’s if we’re downtown. We work at a favorite cafe, and enjoy eating a little, catching up, and then we get into discussion, planning, designing. After a couple hours, when we’re really into it, we have to get a good treat or pastry or two to keep ourselves going, and that’s when we get the best ideas when we’re totally enjoying something super delicious and decadent!
How has the line evolved and grown?
J: Edith started as a super classic brand, and we always want to remain that way. It’s timeless. The tees really feel like they could be from any decade in the past century, but on trend at the same time. Trying to keep all of that in mind while evolving the collection has been a fun challenge. We have explored our mill to see what they are capable of and pushed their comfort zone sometimes, but always with really cool results. We have added in metallic colored yarns, experimented in over-dying and we stay inspired by Paris runways to try styles in our fabrics to make something unique and easy to wear.
Who are your constant muses?
N: For the coolness of just being able to wear a t-shirt well, we both love Jane Birkin and Patti Smith, and I’m a fan of Ali McGraw in a t-shirt too.
J: I am always inspired by my best friend Brie Welch. She has the best style and can pull anything off. She has a great eye and I love seeing the way she styles herself and others. From the past I love Romy Schneider, she is beautiful and always smiling. I also adore Jane Birkin and feel like she is effortlessly chic.
Do your inspirations change season to season? What are they now?
N: Even though we have our perennials, I have to say that right now I’m obsessed with images from the 1970′s of women talking into microphones in t-shirts or women speaking truth to power. My favorites are Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda and even Jackie Kennedy speaking out for landmarks preservation in a chic sweater tee.
J: I like to see who the latest model muses are, showing up on every catwalk, from Freja Beja Ericson a few years ago to Cara Delevingne now. The 90′s models like Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Kate Moss will always have a place in my heart. Especially Kate, she looks amazing at every age!
T-shirts are so iconic, what makes one special?
J: If it makes you feel confident, happy and cozy then it’s a good t-shirt! If you can’t find anything to wear, you always know you can put on a stripey tee and look chic. The fabric has to be soft, the colors need to be just right, and it has to get better with each wash and wear.