Rob McMillen didn't set out to be a barber, which is a little funny for the co-founder and owner of one of New York's best-loved barbershops. "I spent a number of years bouncing around,” he explains. “I met my father later in life. He’s been a barber for about 44 years, and he inspired me to become a barber. I started in New York City, roughly around 2010, and opened Mildred in 2017.”
Mildred—it's named for the grandmothers of McMillen and his business partner, Eric Holmes—has since become a sort of go-to spot for fashion-adjacent guys who want a great haircut in a spot that's as comfortable and accommodating as its proprietors. I first met Rob in 2014, when I was working at the now-shuttered men's store Carson Street Clothiers. We headed to the shop he worked at, another popular barbershop called Blind Barber, for a photo shoot. When a co-worker decided he could give me a fade, Rob watched on in what went from amusement to concern. “Let me clean that up,” I recall him saying warmly.
We never looked back. He’s one of my best friends. He’s also served as a therapist, but most importantly, as a mentor. If you know Rob, you know he’s one of the coolest people you’ve ever met. Most of the time you can find him in a vintage tee and jeans, but his personal style is off the charts because he really wears his clothes, and hunts for unique pieces you won’t see on anyone else.
Below, Rob and I discuss Mildred New York, why you need to build a relationship with your barber, how he molded his personal style, and plenty more.
Obviously there are a ton of barber shops in New York. Why did you open Mildred? What makes it a different experience from the other shops in the city?
I really love and respect barbering culture in general, especially in New York, because it feels more diverse than most places that I've visited or lived in. I'd spent a number of years working at a popular shop, Blind Barber, but wanted to put our own spin on it and create a comfortable place. It was a little against the grain of where barbering was going at the time. It felt almost like an unapproachable environment that was akin to a tattoo shop or a bike shop, or something where everyone felt super cool. We wanted to have a place that felt accessible and welcoming to a diverse set of individuals.
Outside of Mildred, what else are you working on?
Right now, it's mostly Mildred. My wife owns a wonderful salon next door called Love, Dunette. We try to do our best in managing those spaces. We also have a little vintage arm that our manager Greg mostly curates and runs out of our shop basement. We try to stay engaged with our community around us here in the city. I do also have a contract with L'Oreal Paris. I mostly do work in Europe and Asia for them, which has been a wonderful experience, consisting of some level of product development for some of their barbering brands, and I've also had the opportunity to travel a great deal with them. That's really enhanced my knowledge and understanding of barbering globally and I feel really lucky to work with them.
Do you have any secrets or tips about men's hair and grooming that you can share with Esquire readers?
When it comes to grooming tips, the internet is a great resource, but things also feel really saturated. The best thing is to try and find a barber or stylist that is willing to listen to some of your concerns or your insecurities. From there, hopefully you can build a strong enough relationship to share those things and work with them as opposed to fight against them. A lot of guys will say, “I hate when my hair does this.” But try to find a way to embrace some of those potential insecurities or intricacies. There’s so much to reference, but to feel as confident as you can and be able to reproduce that look that you get in a shop at home, a lot of that comes down to communication with your barber. When it comes to personal style, hair is an accessory and it's one of the most important ones that you can wear, but it also really matters to understand the why behind it. A lot of guys are looking for the best cut for this season and or things that are trending on different sites and so on, and that just feels fleeting. Find something that you feel comfortable reproducing that your barber or stylist can really walk you through and help you understand. Trend is normally something that we push against. We try to ask, “What's original to you, and how can you continue to embrace that?” That’s way better than any trend we can develop.
On that note, have you noticed any trends in men's hair of late that are mirroring trends in fashion, or even just ones that are in-style in New York?
Although we try to push against trend to a certain extent, at the end of the day, trend impacts and affects us all and it influences some of our decision-making and our choices when it comes to our personal style and the way that we represent ourselves. Sometimes trends and shifts are as quick as the wind. When it comes to hair in New York, we have seen and continue to see a lot of traditional barbering elements that have been broken down. From a fashion mullet to a French crop to experimenting with facial hair, all of these things have had their place. With fashion, it seems as if there's been an adoption of blending styles, whether it be folks that are wearing mixing a style with a workwear jacket or mixing a sneaker with some sort of capital F fashion brand. That's always happened, but it seems like there's a breakdown of some of those rules. The biggest thing that I've seen more than anything, guys are experimenting more and more with facial hair. We're seeing more mustaches, different sideburns lengths, and maybe even a deconstructed look of a traditional haircut where we're having someone who has a fade but is one away from the traditional hair part and they're wearing things a little bit messier to shove it on top, skipping a few haircuts and having a more lived-in look. That’s something that we appreciate and enjoy and try to work with that as well.
Where did you first find an interest for clothing and style?
Being barbers all these years has kept us adjacent to the fashion industry, especially since we have so many friends within it. Even as a really young kid, I was always intrigued by what people wore and why they made the decisions that they made. I’m in my mid-40s, so some of that was influenced by growing up in a pretty blue-collar town and seeing people dress according to their profession. I noticed that there were so many folks that would take that thing that they would wear to work and extend that throughout their personal life, which some could see as a faux pas, especially at a formal event or something you're supposed to dress up for. But I always admired those folks that were unwavering in their style. If they happened to have workwear be a cornerstone, it seemed like it was something that was consistent with them always, and I really love that.
What role does style currently play in both your personal and work life?
I think it's interesting when you live in a place like New York City and you're exposed to the elements nearly always. Personal style impacts and affects us so much when we're moving around this city because we see so many different people on our commutes. The impact of style and my viewpoint of it is that I'm always trying to be a sponge when I'm moving around because I find everyone in the city to be so inspiring. It's not like I'm necessarily going to change my style, but I really appreciate when you see folks doing things that would either be out of my comfort zone or things that are in my comfort zone that I feel they're doing way better than I could ever could.
How have you honed your personal style?
By trying to be honest and realizing that I may not have the best style. People think fashion and style are synonymous and I think that they are completely different. There is a lot of capital F fashion stuff and it's cool, I guess, but I've always appreciated style. Anytime that I've tried to focus on fashion, I failed. Anytime that I've tried to focus on my personal style, I feel like I'm at least putting the best person forward than I can. Honing it is just trying to pay attention to that dichotomy between fashion and style, and I hope that I always live within a style that's honest and true to me, and that I'm always paying attention to that and maybe refining it, but more so existing with it.
You mentioned it earlier. What is Mildred Vintage? What are you guys hoping to do with it?
I was bringing some stuff down to the shop that I laid on the bench one day in our seating area, and I was planning on maybe throwing some stuff on eBay. I wasn't sure. It was just a stack of old tees. A few clients were really interested in them and wanted to buy them. And then our shop manager, Greg, was there and was like, “Yeah, maybe we could try to do a little thing.” And he, to me, when it comes to style, has some of the best that I've ever seen, and I've always been inspired by him. He's quite a bit younger than me as well, but I've learned so much from him. The fact that we've been adjacent to some folks that actually do vintage clothing really well, while we just kind of do it for fun, has been great. The plan is to try and make our basement shoppable for some reference pieces. Just trying to have a little space where we can share stuff we'd like. And if it starts to feels too much like work, then we'll probably stop. But so far, it's been fun.
When shopping for vintage, do you shop intentionally or do you ever just wander into places? What are you looking for when you're shopping for yourself?
I've always felt a little more comfortable in used clothing. Part of the reason is not necessarily that I don't want to look like everyone else, but if I am at an event or I’m out doing something, I want to wear something that feels like the original version, or at least a take on that version. When I'm shopping, I like to take a loop anywhere that I go first before I focus in. I especially love vintage shopping because some of these stores mix different homeware pieces and other things. It gives me more joy now to see a space that's curated top to bottom as opposed to just clothing. Because my style's pretty basic, it's normally a pocket tee, a denim, and a boot. So, I'm kind of just picking those things up. Maybe a ring. I have a couple of watches, but I don't wear them much.
Do you have any vintage recommendations for New York?
Wooden Sleepers' online shop, and they have a place you can visit in Yonkers. Raggedy Threads is one of the best, which was the former Grand Street Bakery by Neal Mello, who's now in Pittsburgh at a shop called Mello & Sons, which is pound for pound, one of the best. I still think Stella Dallas and 10ft Single over in Williamsburg are fantastic. Rugged Road & Co. Stock Vintage has a beautiful collection. Fantasy Explosion, Leisure Centre.
If you had to wear one outfit for the rest of your life, what would it consist of?
I probably want to go with white pocket tee tucked into a great pair of jeans. Either a cowboy-cut pair of Wranglers or some Levi's shrink-to-fit 501s. Either a Lucchese Roper boot or a pair of Chuck '70s, a nice belt. I'm hoping it's spring or summer, so I'd have a light jacket, maybe a Harrington or something halfway zipped up. That's about it, man. Maybe my wedding ring and a couple others to show a little bit of personality and hopefully keeping it moving from there.
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