Meet our Friday Muse, designer Rachel Mills

27 April 2023
By Fashion Quarterly

Meet Rachel Mills, the industry veteran turned designer offering timeless made-to-order essentials.

Portrait of Rachel Mills
Portrait of Rachel Mills. Image: Supplied.

Here in Aotearoa, designer Rachel Mills has grown a dedicated following of customers through her eponymous label of elevated essentials. Growing up, Mills’ mother was a sewing teacher and her grandmother was multi-disciplined in crafts – a skillset that Mills herself would later adopt. As she recalls early memories of begging her mother to let her sew, the designer shares a particular memory from her childhood that has stayed with her. “I still remember being told off for trying to make a pair of bike shorts on my own when [my mum] had gone out. I had cut into a piece of baby pink lycra in the most uneconomic way possible, and I now think of it every time I cut into a piece of fabric,” she explains.

Having grown up in Oratia in West Auckland, the designer had little access to the fashion world and had to work hard to get her foot in the door and gain industry connections. “I worked my way up and around. I interned a lot, particularly for the brand Jaimie, who had a small boutique on Ponsonby Road at the time,” says Mills. “Through this I managed to get a good understanding of how the industry worked; what suppliers there were and where to go for cutting and manufacturing services.” Mills then went on to work as a pattern-maker for Karen Walker – a brand she wanted to work for from the age of fourteen. There, she gained valuable insight into the industry, working amongst a team of passionate and supportive fellow creatives. “I got to see a little bit of everything. As a pattern maker, you work quite closely with both design and production on either side of you, and also get a little window into dispatch, PR and retail. It helped a lot that I was naturally inquisitive and keen to learn,” she explains. Mills eventually left the brand to become a freelance pattern-maker, and it was at this time that she began slowly working on creating her own label on a small scale.

Model in Rachel Mills
Rachel Mills Swimwear shot by Nicole Brannen.
Rachel Mills campaign shot by Nicole Brannen.

When the opportunity arose in 2019 for her to purchase a CMT factory, Mills and her mother made the leap and prioritised pattern-making for some of Mills’ freelance clients for the next year. It was this experience that made Mills realise the challenge and stressors faced by the skills side of the industry. “If I had known how much of a challenge it was going to be, I’m not sure I would have taken it on,” says Mills. “The first year was the hardest year I have ever had, and much harder than I could have imagined putting myself through. Then the next year, Covid hit. We have had some obstacles, but I think it is at times like this when businesses really have to adapt, so the thoughtful ones make their way through the other side.” Mills used this experience to help shape her label into what it is today – a brand that supports the local industry, trains and supports garment workers, and produces mindfully-made garments.

From the beginning, conscious production and consumption have been core values to Mills’ label. Using responsibly sourced materials, the designer utilises a made-to-order model to minimise waste, with everything made in house by her small team of machinists. Currently, the brand has four machinists in addition to Mills and her mother. “A lot of what we do is still reliant upon others around me to help, such as my partner shooting imagery before or after his day job and trying garments on friends to make sure the sizing is correct,” explains Mills. “We have definitely taken a non-traditional route by focusing solely on having a team of makers, which means everything else is pulled together mostly by my mum and myself.”

Model in Rachel Mills.
Rachel Mills Swimwear shot by Nicole Brannen.
Rachel Mills campaign. Image: Supplied.

The most recent step for the brand has been opening a retail space in Grey Lynn at the end of 2022. “It felt like a really natural time to do it as we had built up a really solid base of Auckland customers, who were asking how they could try items on before purchasing,” says Mills. “My only hesitation was whether customers would understand retail with a made-to-order model, as it is not yet very common.” Unlike regular retail, customers are able to visit the store to try on a range of samples and place an order in their size, which will be produced in accordance with the brand’s weekly order schedule. “Because the turnaround time is quick, most people are super happy with this. They get a brand new garment that hasn’t even been tried on by others, and we can make small adjustments so it fits just right.” 

Moving forward, Mills has some exciting projects on the horizon. Up first, a collaboration with fellow Kiwi designer Francesca Pecchenino. “We would love to encourage others to follow a similar model that we do, through collaborations,” says Mills. “We have a fun one coming up with Francesca Pecchenino, and invite others to get in touch with us to do the same.”

Rachel Mills campaign shot by Nicole Brannen.

Quickfire Questions:

Inside my handbag you will find… My wallet with only the essential cards, iPhone, Maryse Highlighting Dew, Charlotte Tilbury Pillowtalk Lip Liner, spare hair ties (always), LeLabo Liquid Balm, a tape measure!

I would describe my style as… Understated but considered.

Best place for a cocktail… Bar Martin.

The last item I bought for my wardrobe was… A secondhand Nanushka trench coat from a well-dressed friend of mine.

The most cherished item in my home is… Gata bedding set. My partner bought me this for Christmas one year, knowing full-well that my favourite place to be is in bed. This makes it that much harder to get up but that much nicer for the rare indulgence of a breakfast in bed or an afternoon nap.

My favourite place to travel to… Rarotonga for a week off. This happens very rarely now that I have a team of people to manage, but it is the best place to be able to check out of reality for a moment. Everything there is within walking distance, the beaches are so beautiful, and best of all, internet is very limited so you are forced to step away from work and social media, to just enjoy what’s there.

My dream concert lineup is… three bands/singers dead or alive… Solange, Miley Cyrus complete with Dolly Parton, Madonna.

Last TV show I binged… I don’t binge watch often. I have a horrible self-inflicted feeling of guilt when I am not doing something productive, which is a current work in progress. But at the moment we are working through one episode per week of ‘Beef’.



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