I felt a strange exhilaration when I heard the news. While enjoying a moment with Milli, Mark and Ben Gould at the recent YWCA Women of Distinction gala, I watched as Ben Gould reached into his pocket and handed me a postcard. Beneath a photograph of a rack of elegant women’s clothing, I read that the Art Gallery of Hamilton was hosting an upcoming exhibition titled, "Milli, A Celebration of Style." Looking back to see all three of them smiling at me in confirmation, memories of my mother's, grandmother's, and my own special occasion visits to Milli's iconic boutique on Main St. West flooded back to me. What more fitting tribute could there be, I thought to myself, to see a museum exhibit honouring Hamilton's most famous fashion legend?
Long before customer service became a standard in the fashion industry, Milli had perfected the art: Toronto clients who had booked off entire days to spend at her store knew they could expect an elegant lunch served in one of its spacious dressing rooms, a wide range of outfits specifically set aside for them and expert tailoring services by in-house seamstresses. Milli’s Hamilton clients, arriving unannounced or by appointment, knew they could expect no less. For many members of my own generation, it was a rite of passage following an engagement announcement to be taken by our mothers to Milli's to buy the wedding dress and be outfitted for a trousseau.
In 2004, Milli fulfilled a lifetime dream by opening a second location of her store in Yorkville. Ben Gould, who works at the Toronto location, said his mother's longtime customers would often stop in and wax nostalgic about the good old days of driving into Hamilton.
"You could see the joy when they talked about it. There was a lot of emotion to it,” he said. Quite a number of them would add that they still had a particular dress or outfit that they just couldn't part with.
That got the family thinking about what their store had come to mean to their customers after 55 years in business, said Gould. With many of their clients downsizing, the idea of starting a kind of clothing archive began formulating in their minds.
"We thought maybe we’ll just hold them until we knew what to do with them. Otherwise they would just end up in a vintage store and not mean anything," said Gould.
Those were the beginnings of an archive that would grow to 100 pieces, some of which go back to the early 1960s. As many of the outfits were purchased for special occasions, the Goulds also asked if donors could include a photographs of themselves wearing the outfit, complete with all its accessories, and tell the story of that special day.
Art Gallery of Hamilton CEO Shelley Falconer was invited by the Goulds to see the Milli archive when they put up a small exhibit at the Hamilton store in 2017. "What is all this," Gould remembers her asking in amazement, before saying in the next breath, "This would make a great exhibit."
The AGH hired Globe and Mail journalist Nolan Bryant to curate the show. Bryant has put together a collection of nearly 50 significant Milli ensembles and artifacts that he's matched with 25 works, including painting, photography, prints and sculpture from the AGH collection. The exhibition also includes the photographs of the previous owners wearing their favourite Milli garments.
From Shelley Falconer's perspective, it was clear from her first viewing of the archive that the AGH would be the perfect venue to host it. "The breadth and depth of the Milli Archive was evident with my first visit," Falconer wrote in an email to the HJN. ""From the luxurious fabrics and skilled craftsmanship to the numerous stories throughout the past five decades, Milli’s oeuvre tells the shifting story of women’s needs and roles and fashion’s connection to the Hamilton community."
The family, said Gould, is "pretty excited about the whole thing," not least because the opening takes place the day before Milli's 86th birthday.
"I don’t know if there’s ever been an exhibit that captures the role that my mother played," said Gould. "Hers isn’t the typical retail role. For her it was all personal. She wanted everyone to look great, she hunted for products, she tweaked every garment that came in. The value that she added to the experience is why she existed for so long."
Taking the archive into a new venue essentially takes the focus away from the commercial aspect of Milli's contribution to Canadian fashion to what Gould says is "the right place for us."
"Any woman that I ask about what they were wearing at any important time in their life, they can tell you, from the shoes to the bag to the jewellery and the dress ... so these items are critical in people’s lives. They’re not just clothing. These are time capsules of an event and a very emotional time in peoples’ lives."
Milli: A Celebration of Style will be on view at the AGH from April 13, 2019 through Feb. 9, 2020. Admission is free. A curator’s talk given by Nolan Bryant and book signing with Milli Gould is planned for Thursday, May 2. More details and tickets can be found at artgalleryofhamilton.com.
As for Milli herself, Gould says his mother still comes to work every day and her boys are "always happy to have her."
"She corrects us all the time. She’s lost a little bit of strength but she hasn’t lost her eye or her determination, that’s for sure."