Milli Gould has faced triumph and tragedy in her life, but has always done so with a sense of style.
That style is being celebrated this year by the Art Gallery of Hamilton, in an exhibition that matches several of Gould’s classic fashions with artwork from the gallery’s permanent collection.
Titled Milli: A Celebration of Style, the show, which is on display until February, traces Gould’s half-century rise from the owner of a small dress shop in Hamilton, Ont., to a fashion icon who has dressed celebrities, such as actress Joan Collins, and draws customers from across the country.
Curator Nolan Bryant said many of the gowns and other clothing on display were borrowed from, or donated by, some of Gould’s long-time customers. The high-fashion mix includes pieces from Sonia Rykiel, Erdem and Donald Brooks. The dresses were matched with 25 pieces of the gallery’s permanent collection – some of which have never been displayed before. Included in the display are archival newspaper profiles and vintage Milli advertisements, most of which were written by Allen Gould, Milli’s second husband, with whom she built the business.
“Milli is not a nostalgic woman, she doesn’t keep things, she likes to move on,” Bryant said. “She has enjoyed an incredible history and stood the test a lot of retailers have not. She is a remarkable woman who has overcome a lot.… She used fashion to redefine herself.”
Gould’s need for redefinition started in 1957, when her first husband and daughter died in a devastating house fire. After drifting for several years, in 1964, she borrowed money from her father and a life insurance policy to open a fashion store, called Milli’s, which she stocked with the best clothing that Europe had to offer.
Milli’s made its debut just as the sexual revolution started to challenge old ideas about how women should dress and comport themselves.
“Milli became known for gowns and big bold clothes,” Bryant said. “She has a superpower for understanding women and their need for clothes.”
Over the years, Milli’s became Hamilton’s go-to store for b’nai mitzvah and wedding outfits. The store’s reputation spread to Toronto, drawing a steady flow of customers into town. The flow eventually became large enough that, in 2004, a second store was opened in Toronto’s trendy Yorkville area.
Ben Gould, one of Milli’s two sons and the chief financial officer of the company, credits his mother’s personality and drive with helping the business bridge the transition from a local shop to an icon.
“She has always been an ambitious and driven person,” he said. “My brother and I grew up in the business, but it has always been clear that she was the leader.
“There’s no question for me that part of this business is art.… When you’re asking yourself how is this going to make the customer feel, then what we are doing is art. The art is in the emotion you bring out, not just in the clothing.”
One key to Milli’s success, he added, is its focus on fitting clothing to people, rather than the other way around.
“We became successful by transforming things to people,” Gould said. “We have to make the person feel right in the dress, because not everyone is a runway model.”