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Milli Gould opened her first Hamilton boutique in 1964 and soon started travelling regularly to Europe to bring international fashions to the city. More than 50 years later, the retailer is still dressing her loyal customers with help from her two sons and a second location in Toronto.

With a retrospective opening at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in September, retailer Milli Gould and son Ben share insight into dressing women of the past – and the present

At a time when most bricks-and-mortar retailers are scrambling to keep their customers engaged and give them the rich experiences e-commerce can't offer, 84-year-old Milli Gould is reveling in her success. The enterprising fashionista who hails from Hamilton, Ont., opened her legendary eponymous boutique in 1964. When tragedy struck in 1957 and Gould lost her first husband and daughter in a house fire, she was a pregnant widow with a young son. Three years later, she married Allen Gould, a kind man with business savvy, who adopted her sons, believed in her talent and nurtured her dreams.

As a trailblazing entrepreneur, Gould managed to bring international luxury labels to her Ontario store, cultivating an appetite for high style. Toronto women often made the trek to Hamilton to shop at Milli's, and seek out Gould's advice. She still delights in going to the international runway shows and travels between her Hamilton shop and a second store in Toronto. Both her sons, Mark and Ben Gould, have grown up in the business, and the operation is now a family affair.

Starting Sept. 8, the Art Gallery of Hamilton will host an exhibit of Milli's archives. Cherished garments from customers over the past five decades will be displayed with personal stories of what the clothes meant to the women who own them. I dropped by Milli's Toronto location to speak with Gould and her son Ben about the key to her success, the changes in fashion over the past five decades, and her impending show.

Inside one of the Milli boutiques.

What's the biggest change you've seen in fashion in the last 50 years?

Milli: The biggest changes are lengths – long and short. You never know where they're deciding to go with it. Also, there's lots that's very young today.

Ben: But in terms of the bigger picture, lifestyles have really changed and the fashions have adapted to that. Having such diverse lifestyles means needing a wider range of styles. Sure, lengths used to be the dictates of the time, but none of that matters now, and neither does timing. And as for trends, they've become an evolution rather than a revolution.

Milli, you say that there's a lot out there that's very "young". Do you mean that the mode of dressing has become very spirited?

M: Yes. And I think it's very good. It's where it should be, because the young people are the thing of today.

But where does that leave the older gals?

M: Women have to shop at a store that understands them. They have to be in a store where they understand how to dress and what to do, because things are really changing rapidly.

B: And it's hard for many women to interpret what's going on in fashion. There's so much information being gleaned from all these visual cues they're getting, from magazines and from images online. But when it comes to dressing for their own body, it doesn't always work.

The archive project has revealed that some customers have kept gowns they bought from Milli Gould decades ago.

So at the end of the day, it's all about personal service. What's your idea of great personal service?

M: To understand the client, where she goes, what she does, what her activities are. My clients bring me a list of all the important things that they're going to do in the next 6 to 8 months, or the next season, and I get my head around what they're looking for and what they want.

B: The relationships my mother's built with her customers over the years have been dramatic. She builds trust and empowers them by knowing their lifestyles and really understanding fashion. So she knows how to connect those dots, and has been able to interpret international trends for her Canadian customers.

How easy was it setting up shop and really establishing yourself in a place like Hamilton?

M: It was very difficult. There were two shops in town and nobody wanted to sell to me, so I had a difficult time finding merchandise. I didn't go to Europe to start, but a year after we opened the store, I did go with my husband because he pushed me into buying and going to new places, because we couldn't find anything here. It was really difficult. But my husband pushed me to where I am today and I have to say thanks to him. He just believed in me. He would get into a showroom and he would talk to them while I would look at the collection. By the time I decided to place my order, it was all arranged.

So he schmoozed the designers and the sales reps for you, in a way.

M: He did. And that continued for a long time, until he passed away in 1999. He was the driving force behind everything.

He certainly taught you some important lessons – maybe not so much about style.

M: Yes he did. He did most of the business, and now my boys do it and I just float around.

B: That's how she sees it. But my mother is really involved every day. She's got her hand in all of it. She still does the buying and gives her approval to everything.

What did your mother teach you about style, Ben?

B: Great style is about what makes you feel better and improves your mental well-being. She taught me that it's always important to look good and be chic, and that being elegant is more important than being on trend.

What's been the greatest satisfaction in having this business for so many years?

M: My greatest satisfaction, especially now that we're doing this archives project, has been hearing about these people who have saved their gowns and garments for all these years. It's amazing what I've found out about, how much my things meant to their lives. These clothes that I sold to them 50 years ago that they still have – wedding gowns, cocktail outfits. It's really amazing, and that's been a wonderful thing for me.

B: Women will remember what they wearing at important events in their lives. When we realized how important Milli's role was in their lives, we decided to start collecting these old pieces and archive them. We have about 70 pieces now. The Art Gallery of Hamilton got inspired to host this upcoming exhibit because the point of view isn't about highlighting the designers. It's about highlighting the women who wore the clothes, and about how fashion interacts with our lives. For us, it's all very gratifying.

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