Millhouse: saga boy style

Lisa Allen-Agostini measures up Millhouse, one of Trinidad & Tobago’s leading menswear designers

Menswear designer Gregory Mills of Millhouse tailors a jacket in his Belmont studio and store. Photograph by Sean DrakesModel Dion Baptiste in an outfit from Millhouse Clothing`s Southern Comfort holiday collection. Photograph courtesy Kerron Rile

When you see it, you know it. Millhouse, the only designer in Trinidad devoted strictly to men’s apparel, has a distinctive approach to line, fabric and fit. The label, founded in 1997 by tailor Gregory Mills and his wife Coline Baptiste-Mills, won the Caribbean Fashion Designer (Male) award in 2009. It’s the most recent plaudit for the consistent performance of this small but far-reaching design house. Millhouse has shown at Caribbean Fashion Week and Fashion Week Trinidad & Tobago, and was chosen to show its dashing designs to the spouses of the dignitaries attending the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain last year.

Silk, linen, and cotton tunics and shirts hang in The Avenue Shop, Millhouse’s base, in Belmont, a suburb of Port of Spain. A tailor’s dummy in the shop sports a jacket under construction, paired with tailored shorts to match. It’s a look from the Tee Marie collection Millhouse showed at Fashion Week T&T in May 2009. Prominent in the collection were vintage silhouettes reminiscent of early 20th-century chic: slim four-button jackets with single vents, worn with waistcoats in complementary colours, and pastel shirts with bow ties. Cuffed short trousers completed the look for a distinctive statement.

“I think we are inspired by a ‘saga boy’ era; that is part of us in Trinidad,” says Baptiste-Mills, Millhouse’s managing director, referring to the impeccably dressed men of Trinidad’s past, embodied in such figures as the calypsonian the Roaring Lion, who was never without his suit and fedora.

As Coline brings their two young sons in after school, they meet Mills, head designer, at the cutting table, working on vivid cotton shirts for the next collection.

“Our philosophy is that we can’t be ordinary,” says Baptiste-Mills.

“Ordinary is boring,” her husband agrees.

Baptiste-Mills promises their next collection, Day of the Jackal, will be a celebration of the mysterious anti-hero assassin of the movie of the same name. It will evoke espionage, a bad boy – but clean, Mills adds. “He was a master of disguise,” Baptiste-Mills says.

Millhouse has reached as far as the UK via faithful clients, and they have a presence in Grenada and Tortola, where their resort wear is sold. Those lines are cool, loose and more free-spirited than the precision of their suits, though made with the same attention to detail, for which the brand is known. (Disclosure: I graduated from university in 1996 in a white linen bush jacket and trousers from Millhouse, and I still wear the trousers today. Their tailoring is bulletproof.)

Despite Millhouse’s solid reputation, their clientele is still smaller than they’d like. “Eleven years after we started, the success that we’ve had – I didn’t think it would look or feel like this,” Baptiste-Mills admits. “It is not what I would have expected. We are in the limelight, and endorsed by other designers, but I thought it would have gotten easier, that we would have been less concerned about the management of it. We might have taken a different direction if we knew.” The direction they have taken is a middle road between bespoke tailoring and ready-to-wear. Banks and financiers somehow don’t see their regional success as something worth backing, Baptiste-Mills laments.

Yet Millhouse has outfitted “every major artiste in the country,” she adds. Machel Montano has performed in their clothes, and they boast of collaborations to outfit US artistes Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Jill Scott and Musiq. Despite that, banks “look at fashion as a pastime, not serious, not something tangible and viable.”

The frustration has not kept them from bringing out new collections twice a year and consistently being one of the designers to note on the catwalks of the Caribbean. In 2002 they copped an award for Best Showing of the Day at the Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica, and their designs have been featured in Shabeau, She and 411 Caribbean Music magazine. “We don’t do too much overt advertising,” said Baptiste-Mills as Mills cut orange, pink-striped, and blue fabric for the shirts. “Once you see the garment you can identify it. Clean, well tailored – ”

“Well-fitted clothes,” Mills puts in.

Though in the past they would dress any artiste who approached them – including soca diva Denise Belfon, urban rapso group 3Suns, and DJ-turned-soca singer Dawg E Slaughter – they now take a more conservative approach. Millhouse dressed gospel soul singer Russell Leonce for a recent show and the pairing was a perfect fit, Mills said. Leonce, a trim guy with a clean-cut image, picked his clothes right off the rack. “It was in line with what we’re doing,” Baptiste-Mills says. They’ll dress “any artiste who meshes with our regional and global aspirations. And we don’t mind waiting.”