Bridget Milligan holds up a leather coat she made last week that has dark green dyed pieces sewn into it. Milligan recently discovered her leather is dyeable. Milligan is moving her company to Seattle.
Bridget Milligan adjusts a hand-painted dress she made for a show. Designing dresses is something she's like to do more.
Story last updated at 7/24/2013 - 1:56 pm
Colorful coats - practical and trendy - sewn by Bridget Milligan and her designer apprentices has been a staple in Juneau for the past 15 years, and now Milligan is ready for a change of scenery. On July 31, Kodiak Coat Company will close.
Kodiak Coat Company started 25 years ago in Kodiak, when Milligan made coats for her children to wear while she worked as a commercial fisherman. It didn't take long before Kodiak's fishermen wanted the colorful, practical coats in their size. Then the schoolteachers approached her about making floor-length coats of the same style to ward off the cold during recess.
Fifteen years ago she left Kodiak, taking her company to Juneau, where the style changed with the environment. She still offers a version of that durable coat - but she's also evolved her coats to be trendy and added leather.
Milligan started sewing at a young age. Her grandmother bought her first sewing machine for her at 13.
"Because she was tired of seeing me sew by hand," Milligan said. "I started sewing clothes for my dolls. My mother was disgusted."
Her mother thought that by age 13 her daughter would be over dolls.
"At Christmas time I cared more about unwrapping the little packages for my dolls than going to the big tree with the family," she said. "I haven't changed."
She kept with her passion for sewing, even working as a seamstress for Sonny and Cher when they first started out - when Milligan was about 18, in 1967. Milligan and another woman are mentioned in the book, "The First Time" by Cher, in a chapter titled "My First Meeting of Fashion Victims Anonymous." The book tells about a pair of bell-bottoms Milligan made for Cher, and how proud she was to wear them because no one had been wearing them at the time.
Years later, when Milligan came to Juneau, she has spent time volunteering.
"I did a lot of volunteering for Perseverance (Theater)," Milligan said. "I made a lot of costumes. That was a lot of fun. One of the first things I did was make costumes for the Rocky Horror Picture Show."
She worked with Shoefly, selling coats out of the shoe store, donated and fundraised for a lot of different organizations - including the Canvas.
"I love the Canvas," she said, having worked with a lot of pottery there. "On Halloween I made ghosts with the clients. That was really fun."
Milligan will miss the changing view outside of the window of the store. She's watched the seasons change out of it - and how the view of the Marine Park constantly changes. Most of all, she will miss the people.
"It's a wonderful place," Milligan said of Juneau. "It's beautiful. The people have been great. They've totally supported me through the years. When you have a little business, the people you work with are also small businesses."
Milligan has a lot to look forward to in Seattle. She's going to be living in a small cottage on her son's property - having 10 acres to serve as one of her muses.
"I'll have a wonderful place to design," she said. "My son has all these plans for what we're going to do. Another thing about that area is so many of my friends have moved into that area. I'm having a show in September. I have shipwrights and potters, lots of really good, old friends down there."
Milligan will also have opportunities to grow, working with other ladies in the industry - and gentlemen too, but she doesn't know any offhand yet. She said in Juneau, there aren't many people who sew anymore. There are some alteration ladies and quilters, but beyond that the sewing scene is scarce. She's also looking forward to working with his son's girlfriend, Tammy, who's interested in working with Kodiak Coats.
"My goal is to make comfortable, affordable clothing for the working woman," Milligan said. "I've worked with local young people that like to paint. Anytime I can find someone with the interest, I bring them in and work together."
Dresses are an area she hopes to expand on. She wants to design more dresses, but her favorite thing to do is paint dresses.
"I love, love, love to paint dresses," she said. "Someday I'd love to go to Hawaii and market my dresses."
Milligan said there's not much of a market for them in Juneau because of the weather.
"I want to do a lot more of that - take time to design," she said. "If I do grow my business I'm going to have to get involved with other people because I can't do everything. I know some people down South - the lady I buy my fabrics from, Tammy, we could possibly make Kodiak Coat Company a bigger, more viable company. I'll be closer to resources to do that."
Although growth is a touchy thing, Milligan doesn't want to get so big that she doesn't get to design or get a wonderful variety. Ultimately, she still wants a personal experience.
How Kodiak Coat Company will evolve exactly is still to be determined, but those are some of the ideas she has.
After the store closes, Danielle Byers, a designer who has worked with Milligan for a few years, will take over the workshop. Byers intends to keep making coats, but also design her own dresses and bags. She'll sell individual pieces to Milligan back in Seattle, and probably sell more items out of some place in Juneau.
"The workshop is here, if people come down and want something, we won't turn them away," Byers said." "That's the most fun thing to sew. There's nothing more fun to sew than leather. Stuff that's stretchy, it's tough to get it to drape nice."
Another designer, Iris, will likely also continue to be involved. Byers has sewed with Milligan for at least two years.
"Bridget's really pushed me over the years to design," Byers said.
"I help people because I couldn't be where I'm at today without the help of other people," Milligan added. "(Dani's) really good."
Milligan learned everything she knows about sewing from a woman named Maria, who's originally from Columbia. Milligan said Maria's from an era where if you made one mistake in sewing, there were 13 people outside the door waiting to take your job.
Kodiak Coat Company, located above Samovars on Egan Drive in downtown Juneau, closes the storefront on July 31.
Sarah Day is the editor of Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.