Nicki Patel shares the unpredictable journey that led her to create milo + nicki, an ethical and sustainable clothing line.
By Sarah Holcomb, Photos courtesy of Nicki Patel
A teen on the hunt for a summer job, Nicki Patel was sporting a gray crew-neck T-shirt, Gap jeans and worn-out Converse when she unwittingly entered the fashion world. The tomboy walked store to store until she came to Banana Republic. Five minutes later, she had a job.
By 24, Patel had become an accountant—with a much more professional wardrobe, of course—when fashion found her once again. She was searching for a side hustle and wound up as a personal style consultant.
“[Fashion] somehow always manages to come back into my life,” she says.
So, when Patel quit her accounting job, the Austinite turned again to fashion, this time, creating her own ethically focused and sustainable women’s wear line, milo + nicki.
Beyond her unintended intro to fashion, Patel is well acquainted with life’s brutal unpredictability. While working in accounting, she suddenly fell ill. Doctors struggled to identify the sources of Patel’s health problems, which were causing physical pain, severe dietary issues and hormonal imbalances. Some days, she couldn’t pull herself off the couch.
Meanwhile, Patel’s beloved lab-mutt named Milo also experienced unexplained health issues, complicated by past abuse and trauma.
Patel traces the pair’s lowest point back to her first day of work at a new accounting firm. That day, their house was burglarized, Milo still inside. Patel sat in traffic for two hours before she could reach Milo.
“My stomach was burning. I was bawling, not knowing what was going on with Milo,” she says.
Her health worsened.
“I would go to work and I’d be fine and then all of a sudden, I’d eat something and my stomach would react,” Patel remembers. “I was only eating yogurt during the day. I think at the end of 2014, I was pushing around 80 or 85 pounds.”
Patel’s boss, frustrated with her inability to be present in the workplace, issued her an ultimatum. Patel decided to leave and focus on her recovery.
“When my health went so far down I realized, ‘Why do we live on that grind every day without a purpose or without what makes us happy?’ ” she says.
Looking at endless possibilities, Patel pondered where she could find passion and purpose. Her answer: fashion.
Working as a personal stylist had convinced Patel of clothing’s ability to empower.
“I have clients in New York and they work big corporate jobs, and I also have women in Idaho who are stay-at-home moms. These clothes are part of their daily meaning. We clothe ourselves every day and it tells our story,” Patel explains, “how we’re feeling or we want to be perceived.”
Believing she could make a difference through design, Patel applied to an accelerated online program for sustainable-fashion startups. She cried tears of joy when she received the acceptance email in June 2016. Finally, she began to taste the fulfillment she missed in previous jobs.
Patel set to work on a line that would be produced ethically, ensuring fair wages and healthy work environments, and sustainably, minimizing harmful effects on the environment. Through milo + nicki, she hopes to draw attention to the “destructive fashion industry” and provide a cruelty-free alternative.
“Our clothing isn’t just made by a machine. It goes through so many hands, from the farmers that grow the crops to the people who process it at mills and turn it into fibers and fabric,” Patel says. “It goes through the supply chain of pattern makers, sample makers, sewers. … All of our clothing has a story in itself.”
The collection consists of six pieces crafted from sustainable silk and cotton, and hand-dyed with indigo. Patel’s Zambian and Indian roots inspired the vibrant collection, which has a beachy, vacation-to-every-day vibe. Pieces include a 1970s-inspired jumpsuit, a free-flowing maxi dress and a funky cropped blouse, each accented with bold coral and gold.
Patel orders fabric that’s hand-loomed by artisans in India in small batches to minimize waste. A friend in the U.S. then naturally dies the fabric, and a New York-based company produces the pieces.
Finding material and connecting with manufacturers proved difficult.
“Reaching out was very intimidating, not knowing if you’re saying the right things or asking the right questions,” Patel says.
Sourcing fabric took eight months, and multiple manufacturers backed out. At one point, Patel was emailing a supplier in China at 4 a.m. each morning for three or four hours, using Google translator to send emails in Mandarin.
Despite these challenges—and the difficulties of launching a line while Patel juggled multiple part-time jobs—milo + nicki doesn’t feel like work, Patel says. The 26-year-old, who has traded in her high-school crewnecks for an embroidered white dress and military jacket, sees herself as evidence that sometimes uncertainty can help us discover our dreams.
“We don’t know what can happen on a day-to-day [basis],” Patel explains. “I really didn’t predict that I would have to leave my accounting career and start over, or even have those road bumps of going to doctor’s appointments that many times, or getting that many tests.”
Yet, these hurdles ultimately helped Patel escape the grind to pursue her passion, she says. Now her brand’s mission is to empower other women to do the same.
“Life’s too short,” she says, “and we should all follow our dreams.”