#Milbornandraised is a campaign run by Milborn Advisors to reach out to the people that make Milwaukee great. This week, we interview Madalyn Manzeck - an entrepreneur with a beautiful sense of design, who took her experiences from working in Manhattan to shake up the fashion industry in Milwaukee.
Interview and photography by Amy Lancaster.
It’s not often I get to drive up north past Milwaukee, but when I do, it tends to freak me out a little bit. I find it to be vast and empty, with not much to offer.
Driving to Port Washington, however, is a different story. It reminds me of where I grew up, near Lake Geneva - a gorgeous, quaint city housed right on Lake Michigan with old-world charm. When I arrived here for my next interview, I felt right at home, despite only being here a handful of times. I wanted to stay and explore, but I had work to do.
Luckily, being with Madalyn does not feel like work. I met her a couple months ago after assisting a photoshoot for her latest lingerie collection, which premiered at this year’s Milwaukee Fashion Week to rave reviews. Talking with her felt like talking with an old friend, and I was so grateful to have someone so influencial in her industry be willing to sit down and chat with me.
Madalyn Manzeck: [I’ve lived in the Milwaukee area] my whole life – born and raised here. I’m from just north of Port Washington, from a little town called Belgium. I never say that because people think I’m from Europe (Amy and Madalyn both laugh) “Oh, you’re from Europe!?” “No, I’m just from Wisconsin, not as exciting as that.” I grew up on the lake – on Lake Michigan. My parents have a lake house just 10 minutes north of [Port Washington], but we’ve pretty much done everything, like, south. So, I went to grade school in Port Washington, middle school in Cedarburg, high school in Jackson. Did a lot of extracurricular things in Milwaukee. I’ll say I’m from Ozaukee County and Milwaukee – I’m kind of from all over. I did intern in New York for three months, and that made me appreciate Wisconsin so much more.
Amy Lancaster: Were you in the city?
MM: Yep! In Manhattan. I was interning for Global Brands Group, and they’re in the Empire State Building. So it was like a dream! It was amazing. But, by the end of it, I was like, “I need a Spotted Cow and cheese curds! I need to be able to get in my car and drive to Target!” So it made me really appreciate Wisconsin a lot more. You have to leave and come back.
AL: Yeah, that’s been the general consensus – you don’t know what you have until you’re out of it. “Grass is always greener”. So, is your family from Milwaukee originally?
MM: Mhm. My grandparents live in [the town of] Belgium…Yeah, they’re all from around here. Most of my dad’s side lives in the area, and then my mom’s family lives in northern Wisconsin.
AL: How did you pick Port Washington as your home base for your studio?
MM: It was nice and close – I’m still living at home with my parents so it’s a nice, short commute, which I liked. It’s definitely very affordable. But also Port [Washington] is home. I like being right on the lake. In summer I go out for walks around the marina…and the people here are so nice. My landlords are so sweet – it’s this cute little old man, Don, and Jim, and they’re so sweet. And then everyone up here does something different. There are guys in IT, there are Mary Kay consultants, there’s a yacht designer, there’s a guy who started a business about Bloody Mary mix…literally anything and everything you can think of! So it’s always fun to pop into someone’s place and say, “What are you working on?” There’s a recording studio up here for audiobooks.
AL: Wow – I would have never guessed!
MM: I know! So when I found this I was like, “Oh my gosh! This is so fun!” Because it’s a whole group of creatives and it’s a very eclectic mix.
AL: Nice! So, when you’re not up here working, how often do you get down to Milwaukee for your design work? Do you find yourself down there a lot?
MM: Since starting my own business, I’ve had to keep a mile log and track all my miles. It ended up being about once a week I’d get down to Milwaukee - whether that be meeting with someone, meeting with a client or other business owners for collaboration, or a fashion show or an event. Once I really started getting into it, it was about once a week.
AL: Do you get down to Milwaukee for any leisure time at all?
MM: Yes! I love the Third Ward. That’s my favorite. I love the Journeyman Hotel.
AL: Yes! Have you been on the roof? It’s so beautiful.
MM: Yes! The Outsider. Love that in summer. And then Tre Rivali, the restaurant, is my favorite. But I also love their café. I book all my meetings there.
MM: I’m like, “Do you mind meeting me at the café at the Journeyman?” I just love it there!
AL: Is that where we would have ended up if we didn’t meet here? (both laugh) That’s fine with me, it’s a cute café, I love it. My office is right down the street from there, so I walk by it a lot on my lunch breaks.
MM: So we probably would have ended up there. Anything in the Third Ward is fun. Public Market, Anthropologie’s there. The Dry Bar is fun…all the good restaurants, Screaming Tuna. All of it.
AL: Do you have any other favorite restaurants, or businesses, or nature spots in Milwaukee? Anything like that?
MM: I really do like the Blu Lounge at the Pfister for drinks. That’s very fun – it’s very swanky up there. One time I was there, there was a live band playing there. It was the middle of winter and it was cozy and packed and it was fun, so definitely there for drinks. I do like Lake Park – walking around on the trails there is very scenic. I will be biased – I love Kevin – Milwaukee Candle Company for candles! (shows off the Milwaukee Candle Company candle on her desk) Whenever I need candles I always hit him up. I’m like, “Hey, Kevin! Can I stop by and pick up some candles?”
AL: So I kind of want to bring it back to what your business is about. How did you decide to start your design business in Milwaukee? When did you start?
MM: The idea came that I would officially start at the beginning of 2017. I founded my LLC in April of that year. I graduated [from school] in May 2016 and for a whole year I was working on all of this stuff but it wasn’t official. I was applying for jobs; I was doing alterations and side projects just to make some money on the side and keep up with design work. And then it got to the point where I was having enough orders to turn this to full-time. So it was a very slow snowball effect. It’s catching on by word-of-mouth – “Oh, Madalyn did my wedding alterations or made me a robe for my wedding to get ready in.” So officially in April 2017 was when I started my business – about a year and a half ago.
AL: And you’ve done so much already – you were just in Milwaukee Fashion Week [in September]. How did that go?
MM: It was good! This year – I must have just started a little bit later, so I was literally sewing up until the day before I showed. That was a little stressful, but that’s typical of the fashion industry. It felt really good to put in all that hard work and then see it come to life on the runway.
AL: Was that the first year you were in [Milwaukee] Fashion Week?
AL: How did the first year go?
MM: First year I think was a bit of beginner’s luck because I had won Milwaukee Fashion Week’s Designer of the Year. That was fun because I had no clue what I was doing – I was going into it like, “I’m gonna make this crazy collection with these big, tulle skirts and these flower crowns!” Ornaments and decorative lingerie – and clearly it was very well-received, so I’m thankful of that. The second year was just as fun.
AL: So, despite only being in it for less than two years, have you seen a difference in growth in fashion in Milwaukee?
AL: What is your opinion of the industry here?
MM: I think I attended Milwaukee Fashion Week for the first time in its second year. So, I wasn’t a part of it at all the first year, I went to watch the second year because one of my friends was in it. I was able to participate the next two years. So, it’s grown a lot. I know they keep having to get bigger venues because more and more people are participating and attending – so that’s great. Again, it is kind of the ripple effect – once someone sees it, they tell someone else, and then they get involved and then it slowly keeps growing. That’s what we want.
AL: And, as a part of a creative industry, too – have you seen growth in that aspect?
MM: Definitely. I would say so. Again, I’m rather new to the whole Milwaukee scene – I was more invested in the Madison creative scene just because I went there for school. I was there for four years, so I was kind of removed from the Milwaukee scene for a little bit. But, once I moved back, I really got involved. There are a lot of creatives here – you just have to look for them!
AL: Instagram seems to help. (laughs)
MM: Absolutely! I’ve found so many people through Instagram, and then – you just send them a message. “Hey, I love your work! I’d love to talk about what you’re doing.” And they’re always so open and willing to meet for coffee. That’s what I love about the Midwest – people are so nice and welcoming and eager to talk. When I was first starting in lingerie design, I reached out to other lingerie designers and some of them were from, you know – England, or New York, or California – and I did get some responses like, “Yes, our owner is very successful and very busy. She doesn’t have any time to talk to you.” I just want to learn! I’m not trying to get your trade secrets or anything! I’m just trying to hear about your experiences. I found that’s the opposite here. Everyone’s very willing to share, and talk and help each other.
AL: Would you say Milwaukee is one of your favorite cities?
MM: Yes, because it’s home. At the end of the day, it’s just fun to come home. It’s great to go other places, and learn about different cultures, and how other people live, and different ways of life, and experience all that. But after a week or so, you’re like, “I just wanna go home!” Whenever I come to Milwaukee, that’s how I feel. Even if I go to Madison for the day. When I come back on highway 94 and I can see the skyline. It’s still fun to see that.
AL: I get that, even when I’m driving home from Madison, I’m thinking, “Okay, I’m in New Berlin now, which means I’ll soon be in the city, and then home.” So I get that. It’s nice – it has a lot of culture and potential to be a larger city but it also so small enough where you can get around pretty easily. So, kind of in the same vein – why would you say you feel at home in Milwaukee?
MM: So I probably am kind of biased because I have been raised here my whole life, but I do think it goes back to the people and how welcoming and warm everyone is. Even with my experience of starting my new position at Foley & Lardner [Law Firm]. I was expecting people to be mean, just because I do watch some TV shows like “Suits” (laughs) - and the lawyers there – granted it’s in New York – they can be pretty mean and harsh, so I was expecting that going into it. I’ve only met nice people. I haven’t met any people that are super grouchy and nasty. Everyone is so helpful and warm and welcoming. And that makes it so much easier – I want to come to work and I enjoy the people I work with. I found that to be kind of a common thread through everything else. And the Milwaukee Fashion Week family – everyone is so nice and warm and welcoming and helpful and you just want to support each other. I think it ultimately comes down to the people.
AL: Absolutely. So, my last question – what advice would you give advice to those who are either looking to move to Milwaukee, or, if they already live here, get the most out of their city?
MM: If you’re looking to move here…I think you just have to understand that it’s a growing city. If you move to Chicago, let’s say – pretty much everything is already there. I think it’s already established. Milwaukee has a lot of potential for growth and room for growth, especially if you're a creative. You’re going to be noticed more here than if you’re in Chicago, or L.A., or New York. I would say start somewhere smaller and really grow, and figure out who you are and what your vision is, and your style – and then once you have that support system, then you’re able to go where ever you want. That’s a positive for creatives. To be honest, social media has been so helpful for me to be able to connect with people that way all from your phone. So, again, I’ve met people from all across the state just through social media. I’ve been able to design dance costumes for contestants competing at Miss Wisconsin and for Miss Wisconsin, who went to compete at Miss America. I’ve done it for a couple of them now, and they’ve lived anywhere from Wisconsin Rapids, to Green Bay, to Madison, so literally they just see my work on Instagram. I would never have had that opportunity if I wasn’t on social media. As annoying as it is to be on your phone all the time, it helps to make those connections and then meet in person.
AL: Anything else you wanted to add?
MM: Hmmm…I like it here. (both laugh) I’m biased, but I did have to leave and come back to appreciate it. I know when I was in high school I was like, “I gotta get out of here, this sucks. I’m going to New York, and I’m never coming back.” And then I did it – and I still love New York – I get the itch to go there every six months. I need my “New York Fix”. But then I’m always happy to come home. People take it for granted how nice it is here, and – again, warm and welcoming, and clean. We have all the necessities here, and a very comfortable way of living.
After taking a few photos and oohing-and-aweing at her immaculately-decorated office, we wrapped up the interview. She was meeting with a client for a fitting, so I didn’t want to get in her hair. It was hard to leave, however, because the studio, mixed with Madalyn’s cheery and optimistic demeanor, felt so cozy against the sudden drop in temperature outside. This impromptu visit to her space and Port Washington made me eager to come back and experience the city again for myself - all while making sure to stop by to see what progressive, amazing design she will be working on next.
Would you or someone you know like to be interviewed next, brag about your favorite city, and gush about how you’re Milborn-and-raised? Fill out our contact form with the subject #milbornandraised to be considered!