BY SARAH C. LANGE | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
At the West Allis headquarters for Reliable of Milwaukee, Muk Luks designers Kathleen Caylor and Melissa Ebel, both in dresses appropriate for the mid-July heat, hover over sandal samples for next year’s spring/summer line. They’re back at the office after a meeting last week in New York City with Doneger, one of two trend-forecasting services the company uses. (The other is Pantone.) Energized by that discussion as well as the street fashion and people watching on their jaunt in the East Village, the women are beginning to work on concepts for the fall/winter 2018 collections.
No wonder they have to pause before considering how the brand’s signature cozy slippers and outdoor boots tapped into this fall’s trends. But the 2017 collections do resonate with the new season’s clothes and outerwear, particularly the collections with soft, pastel faux furs; red, white and blue Americana elements; and Fair Isles embellished with sequins and metallic yarns.
“There are still a lot of knits trending in fashion,” says Caylor, executive vice president of design. “When we went to Doneger, they were showing a lot of Fair Isle sweaters and patterns mixed in with the knits and textures.” Fortunately for Muk Luks, Fair Isles represent one of its trademark looks and overall knit aesthetic, explains Ebel, the senior designer who develops knits for the brand’s footwear and accessories for women, men and children.
“We design all our own knits,” Caylor adds. “People don’t know that about us. They think we go to the market and pick out patterns or fabrics, but we do that in-house.”
In fact, when Muk Luks was first introduced in 1972, Reliable was a longstanding knitting mill based in the (now Historic) Third Ward. Years later, during Caylor’s senior year at Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School, which is now Bradley Tech High School, she apprenticed at nearby Eagle Knitting Mills.
“There were several knitting mills in the valley. I started there as a design assistant, and I stayed there for seven years,” she says of Eagle, which closed in the ’90s. “That’s pretty much where I got my education.”
Afterward, she worked in apparel in Kansas City and later at Spalding with textiles before joining Reliable 13 years ago. At that time, Reliable wasn’t making Muk Luks any longer, but Caylor would change that. “I was looking through some old catalogs and saw that the company used to make Muk Luks in the ’70s,” she says. “I had a pair when I was a little girl, and I got really excited. I thought, ‘Oh, let’s reinvent them and bring them back.’”
As Caylor’s designs for the slipper socks connected with a new audience, the way the company did business was changing. “When I started,” she says, “everything was drawn by hand.” Then she and the other designer — there were just two — began making computer-aided designs, or CADs.
The technology enabled them to work more efficiently with colleagues and clients anywhere. In 2006, President and CEO Mark Blutstein, of the fourth generation in the family business, made the difficult decision to stop production in Milwaukee, but that saved the company. “We wouldn’t still be here,” he says matter-of-factly, acknowledging the costs of manufacturing goods overseas versus in the U.S. While some workers lost their jobs, the company has since hired for other positions — now Caylor and her team make seven designers plus a photographer in the creative department — with the total number of employees at around 150 today.
“We had to take our production to China, but we’re still able to design our own knits and choose our own colors and work directly with the knitting mills over there,” Caylor says.
It’s fitting that Ebel, Caylor’s protégé, landed at Reliable. “My parents owned an embroidery business growing up, so I was around threads and textiles since I was a baby,” Ebel says, adding that Reliable was one of her family’s customers.
Caylor hired Ebel for an internship while the latter was studying fashion design and development at Mount Mary University, and the two clicked. After graduation, Ebel worked for the family business and a tailor shop as well as taking on projects as a seamstress.
“Then Kathleen called me back one day,” she says with a smile, recalling the job offer that came in 2008. “I started helping out wherever. Then I started focusing on socks, and that morphed into working on other cool accessories, and I helped on footwear. That morphed into designing all the knits.”
In the first step of the design process, Caylor and Ebel sort through trends highlighted by Doneger and Pantone and identify those that will work for Muk Luks. They brainstorm with the rest of the design team, and thenCaylor shapes the ideas into a series of collections with color palettes and mood boards that establish the look and feel of each. For example, this season’s “Winter Solstice” group includes winter whites, soft plums, furs and pom-poms that convey romance and femininity.
“From there, we send the colors to the factory for lab dips to dye the yarns, and then Melissa will start working on patterns that we feel speak to the trend and the color stories,” Caylor says. Ebel begins in Pointcarre, a knit-design program, brings the designs into Photoshop and Illustrator to alter them, and then she sends the files to the factory.
“Then they submit knit-downs — swatches — back to us,” Caylor says. The designers determine the silhouettes or shapes for each knit and send the factory CADs of the shapes, which change every year. The design team then sprinkles on their finishing touches: tassels, trims and pom-poms.
They get samples, tweak designs and finalize them before receiving samples of their stock line for the sales team. Ebel also works with some of the bigger clients, including Bon-Ton, Kohl’s and JCPenney, to come up with exclusive designs for the retailers. The whole process takes about a year.
A Peek Ahead at Spring/Summer 2018
“Our whole spring line has a bohemian vibe to it,” says Executive Vice President of Design Kathleen Caylor. “We do a lot of beading and textures and try to incorporate things that have a knit aesthetic to them.”
“I’m pretty eclectic. I like anything out of the ordinary,” Caylor says of her personal style. “I’m somebody new every day. … I like to mix and match. It shows in the brand.”
As a matter of fact, Muk Luks’ tagline is “Lets you wear your way of life.” That, along with the design team’s themed collections, has turned the variety within the brand into a strength. “We’re really dialing up our tagline,” says Tanya Thorson, vice president of marketing, social and licensing. “It plays into this whole freedom of self-expression, individuality and being you.”
Sitting with Caylor and Ebel, you can see how this approach grew organically from the spirit of the designers themselves. Ebel loves vintage clothes and hunts for treasures on the racks at thrift stores and Goodwill. “Experimenting is fun too,” she says. “Putting different things together that you wouldn’t always think to put together.”
The Waukesha resident seeks out adventures, like hiking into the Grand Canyon four years ago. Now that she’s a mom to a 10-month-old, she says she’s more likely to stick closer to home. “I like new experiences, trying new food, trying different things — going to downtown Milwaukee and going on a boat tour or exploring a different neighborhood,” she says.
Caylor, who lives in Oconomowoc, finds inspiration in runway fashion and graffiti, in contemporary celebrity fashion and Old Hollywood — particularly the dresses in “Gone With the Wind” and the costumes from “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby. She also loves to camp and fish with her three teenage boys. “They have a lot of ideas too for fashion and what they think is cool,” she says.
Both Caylor and Ebel enjoy new design challenges, such as creating a sleepwear line that plays off the slipper collections and will likely debut next year. They’re also interested in designing for the home, perhaps pillows and bedding, and they desperately want Muk Luks to segue into sweaters. “What’s more natural than taking our knits and putting them into a sweater?” Caylor asks.
Whether that happens or not, they seem happy where they are. “Our brand emulates the Midwest — it’s laid-back and comfortable,” Ebel says.
“Cozy and warm,” Caylor chimes in. “It’s cool that we’re designed here, because we have that wintery, warm feel about us. We’re on QVC, and that’s one of the things the hosts always talk about: ‘(Muk Luks are) designed in Milwaukee, where it’s cold and they know how to stay warm.’”