by BB Bishop

At Mil-Figure Clothing Co. on North Holton Street, Milwaukee sportswear takes the form of graphic tees with elevated production value and locally informed design. Taking a look around the full service print shop, you can feel the influence of the aesthetic of the nineties. There’s a hand-painted jean jacket that calls to mind Slick Jeans from early in the decade, along with racks of original fashions by owner Tony Mills.

From the hangers to the walls, everything in the store has been printed by Mills, save a black and white street scene of nearby Bronzeville with the Regal Theatre in the foreground. The Regal, formerly at 704 W. Walnut, was Milwaukee’s Apollo.

Nestled in the frame is a snapshot, also in black and white, of a beautiful woman with that impossibly perfect, high 70’s hair under the same marquee, Tony’s grandmother Mildred. Lined up are more recent keepsakes, several entrepreneur awards that make you wish they gave trophies for grinding back in the day.

“Today, we actually live in a world, where you can pretty much be anything you want to be,” Mills explains. But 25 years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Growing up, Mills excelled in school at North Division and took advantage of skills training in auto repair, as a teen peer educator, and in INROADS. He received several college offers.

(INROADS is a non-profit that provides avenues for underrepresented youth to succeed in business and the corporate world.)

But what was being offered wasn’t quite enough to overcome the poverty cycle. Mills recalls that the narrative for young black men at that time was limited to a few options.

“I didn’t really know my dad,” Mills confides as he shares about his past, which he does frequently. “My mother wouldn’t have wanted me to tell the ‘street’ side of my story, but that’s what got me here.”

After over a decade in the streets, Tony decided to honor his young daughter by keeping focused on the kind of hard work that wouldn’t run the risk of going away.

Besides disparities in generational wealth, the dearth of cultural capital is pervasive in segregated cities like Milwaukee. Compared to opportunity cost measured in dollars, sociologists have a harder time measuring cultural capital. The value of life lessons and trades passed down between father and son is a prime example. So many experienced this phenomena, which helps explain the prevalence of hustle culture today.

Looking back, finding success in this business came naturally. “I always liked art. I always dressed outside the box,” Mills reflects about his youth. Those factors, combined with the palpable reward of seeing hard work pay off, allowed him to keep grinding and building upon each accomplishment.

While he started out silkscreening tees and hoodies, Mills soon discovered the margin of error was slimmer in transfer prints, meaning healthier profits. His focus expanded into heat transfer vinyl (HTV), as well as the newest technology, direct to film (DTF) transfers, sometimes combining technologies in designs.

Mills bittersweetly recalls his first memorial order, for a family member. It’s now a meaningful portion of the business. A graphic created recently for Sade Robinson lies nearby, bright with the shade of pink that now honors her memory.

Getting into the business 13 years ago was good timing, as evolving technology has meant many newer entrants into the industry. The head start allowed him to hone in on what was specifically profitable for Mil-Figure.

“When COVID hit, it seemed like everybody got into the T-shirt game.” Many picked up Cricut machines. Early on, Mills had became a subject-matter expert on Cricut when the technology was still new, working a part-time job at Michael’s while steadily building his own print shop business.

Mills got to the stage where he was operating a full print shop out of his home, and laughs “I used to tell people I was the only house in Milwaukee with an OPEN sign.” With hard work, he scaled to opening his current retail location on North Holton Street three years ago.

Mil-Figure has acquired a few dealer licenses and wholesales several brands of heat-transfer vinyl at the store. The retail business accommodates orders of any size and stays consistent with reunions, graduations, Juneteenth, and other events during what Mills calls “tee-shirt season.” Specialty items include standees, socks and even customized top-shelf bottles.

At the same time he spotlights his own Mil-Figure brand. “If you look around the store, you’ll notice that among my own pieces, every item is one-of-a-kind.” He admits it can be hard to work on his brand when he’s also helping others get started, but there’s no shortage of crafty originals at the shop.

As far as the wholesale side, while he sees many people give up after six months, there are plenty of success stories, too. He is friends with several other designers around town that have also made it. Historically much of his work came from up-and-coming musicians, such as C Mill$ (no relation).

The next generation keeps pushing on. While Mills would like to pass on the business to his daughter, she is now one of the “grinding-est people I know.” Having already launched her own lip gloss line, he predicts she will eclipse her father.  The intangibles of personal history and life skills are now proving to be invaluable means of capital, passed on from father to child.

Mil-Figure Clothing Co. & Vinyl Vault, at 2578 North Holton Street, designs and fills print orders of any size. Call (414)748-1999 or check out @mil_figure_clothing.