Milan Harris the designer for the popular Philadelphia-based luxe street wear brand Milano di Rouge received a call Tuesday night while on a plane flying home to Philly that her homeboy, Meek Mill, had just been released from jail.
“My dawg is free,” Harris wrote on Instagram alerting her 227,000 followers. Along with the post — that received almost 50,000 likes — Harris put up a picture of her and Meek looking cozy on what appears to be a night out.
“ … bout time, the rest of the caption reads, “God is Good.”
A post shared by Milano Di Rouge (@iammilanrouge) on
Milano di Rouge’s close proximity to celebrity — the brand has been spotted on rappers Cardi B., Rick Ross, Moneybagg Yo, Blac Chyna, Lil’ Kim and countless reality TV stars including Ceaser Emmanuel, from the popular VH1 reality series The Black Ink Crew — is one reason why on any given day Philly day, the urban chic make their way down Chestnut Street, through high school corridors and, of course, the annual Powerhouse concert, zipped up in baggy monotone Milano di Rouge tracksuits. Those same trendsetters are arguing about Harris’ work, as well.
Harris’ clothes — most emblazoned with her name in all caps — err on the side of sexy athletic. Sure, you can wear them to the gym, but they are better suited for the club.
Milano di Rouge has also made a fashion splash thanks in large part to Harris’ advocacy. Harris’ “Safe sex saves lives” logo is as recognizable on the collection’s red, black, silver and olive-hued, skintight, bodysuits, leggings, T-shirts and sweatshirts as is its signature white piping that Harris proudly refers to as lines of dignity. Black foil-covered Milano di Rouge condoms are one of the line’s must-have accessories.
“My brand is bigger than the clothes,” Harris says with unwavering confidence. “My clothes are just the platform. I really just want to reach our people, inspire them. I want them to dream and think bigger than what’s on the surface.”
To celebrate the brand’s fifth and Harris’ 29th birthday, Harris will host a sold-out fashion show Sunday at Liberty Place. About 1,500 are expected to attend the event dubbed “Year of 5: Making Dreams Reality Fashion Show.” Singer Paloma Ford will perform and TMZ’s Lauren La Rosa and Boom 103.9’s Paris Nicole will host the red carpet. Harris will debut her 43-piece spring collection and most items will be available to purchase at the venue, as well as on her website, www.milanodirouge.com, during the show.
But the big question is: Will Meek be in the house? Nobody is saying.
While Harris’ celebrity connection definitely helps her move clothing, what’s most fascinating about her brand’s retail success to date is that she’s one of Philadelphia’s best examples of how to run a modern-day direct-to-consumer fashion company.
Harris, a 2016 designer in residence with the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, controls every aspect of the brand. She designs the Milano Di Rouge logos that appear on basic T-shirts and button-ups that she buys wholesale. She designs the formfitting jumpsuits and minidresses and works with local pattern makers and manufacturers to get them made. And, most importantly, she controls her distribution.
So instead of relying on specialty and department stores like Barneys or Boyds to tell her unique story, like she would have had to do as little as five years ago, she is the master of her fashion fate. Through straight hustle and grind, what started one day as an outing selling half a dozen sweatshirts for $40 from her car today is a full-fledged business with more than 15 employees that produces thousands of pieces of clothing each year.
“She’s a marketing machine,” says Philadelphia Fashion Incubator Executive Director Elissa Bloom, who added that Harris, without a doubt, is the most successful of the program’s 29 graduates. “During the year she was with us, she opened her own brick and mortar [in the Fairmount neighborhood on Spring Garden Street] and launched her own app. She knows how to speak to her customer, and just like Michael Kors does, she created a community that can see her lifestyle.”
But instead of models, Harris — who can pass for the late R&B singer Aaliyah’s twin — models many of the pieces herself on social. As with another Philadelphia fashion success story, Tory Burch, Harris’ lifestyle is key to the brand.
Most of Harris’ social-media-based brand building has been chocked with highs. But there have been been some lows: Like the time her fans dragged her through social for selling a $500 sweatsuit. Generally Harris’ price points range from $40 for a sweatshirt to about $250 for a bodysuit, so folks felt like some kind of way about the high price tag. Harris’ answer to the criticism: “You will buy a Gucci suit for $1,600, why won’t you buy mine?” Good point. And then there was the time earlier this year when a eagle-eyed shopper discovered his Milano di Rouge white button-down shirt was actually a $12 one from H&M that Harris bought in bulk and put her logo on, charging more than six times the original price.
Instagram lost its mind.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Harris said.
This kind of extreme social media response is why Harris’ online life is heavily curated. Growing up in Philly’s Mantua neighborhood has made her hyper-aware that oversharing can be dangerous. When you put your business out there, people will get jealous and wouldn’t hesitate to hurt you. There are very few pictures of her family on social. She will only say that she lives in Philadelphia. And sales numbers — although she says they are growing — are off limits.
She’s even hesitant to give her real name only saying that growing up, she was known as Jon Harris. She grew up with her mom and a sister. After graduating from Upper Darby High School, Harris went to Delaware County Community College and studied microeconomics before going to cosmetology school and becoming a hairdresser. While her clients loved dishing with her, she wasn’t all that good at styling. In 2012, she started a blog where she gave fashion and sex advice along with other lifestyle tips.
“Within three months, I had about 100,000 followers,” Harris said.
In 2013, she decided to try her hand at clothing as an extension of the blog. She made six sweatshirts screen-printed with the name Milano di Rouge — Harris’ alter ego, like Sasha Fierce is to Beyoncé. They sold. She put the money back into the company and made another batch of sweatshirts. Those sold, too. She began posting where she’d be on Instagram, like at a food truck. Each time, she’d sell out. Then came the hashtags #spottedinMilano and #MilanodiRouge.
The next year, Mill contacted Harris through her cousin and asked Harris to gift him some shirts.
“I didn’t want to give him anything for free,” Harris says with a laugh. “I was hustling.”
Still she sent Meek the gear and he became the first celebrity to wear her pieces. Since then, he’s been a top ambassador, often wearing her clothes and even mentioning the brand in a freestyle for New York hip-hop station Hot 97: “Mixing that Louis, that Gucci that Yves Saint Laurent with that Milano.”
But is Meek an investor?
“I have no investors,” Harris said. “I’ve built this brand by myself. Hustling. Grinding. I’m all about making dreams a reality.”