At age 2 and a half, Linen Michael Lewis knows what style she likes. She wants all her clothes to be bedazzled and hot pink and prefers to wear her pajamas and bathing suit to school at the Cohn Early Learning Center over the other clothing in her closet. She also likes to change clothes about 10 times a day.
And she’s exactly the audience for her mom Angel’s clothing line. “I ask her which (pieces) she likes better, and I trust her opinion,” Angel says. As much as Linen herself helps shape the clothing line, Angel still bears the title, and work load, of its chief creative officer though.
Angel has always been more drawn to more of a minimalist European aesthetic than a traditional Southern one, and when Linen was born, she found it was hard to find clothing she liked for her red headed little girl. Little did she know that not too many months later she’d start her own line, and name it after her daughter—whose name “Linen” came from her one day while she was driving into work for Bruno Event Team. In keeping with Jewish tradition her husband, Jared, was raised in, Angel paired it with his middle name, Michael.
It was on a date night at Bottega in the fall of 2018 that Angel decided to finally speak her dreams aloud. “I have this silly idea to start a kids clothing line,” she told her husband, and he responded with a chuckle.
But she wasn’t joking. Every night after work she’d get on her laptop and brainstorm and research just what she had in mind. Then she considered it a hobby, but three months later, she showed Jared her plans. This time his response was different. “You have a business,” he told her. “You have to either pursue it or nip it in the bud.” And she trusted his judgement since he’s seen success with the audio-visual business AVX Inc. he started 20 years ago. “I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do, but I went for it,” Angel says.
At the University of Alabama Angel had majored in journalism and political science, and she had no background in clothing design. “When I say I am as untrained as it gets, I am as untrained as it gets,” she says. But armed with grit and determination, that didn’t mean she wasn’t ready to turn her hobby into a business. In March 2019, she quit her full-time job in marketing and public relations, and the second Linen Michael in her life was born with the light and airy aesthetic Angel has always espoused herself.
On any given day you’ll find Angel working in jeans and white shirt—her closet is full of them. “I never felt comfortable in colors,” she says. “It’s just not my thing.” Case in point: when her parents surprised her by painting her room as a child. “It was bright yellow, and I almost had a heart attack,” she recalls. That carries over into the aesthetic of she and Jared’s Crestline house too, a modern renovation architect Paul Bates designed with inspiration from the 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami. The white oak woodwork by another Michael, Michael Morrow of MDM Designs, throughout their living spaces has doubled as backdrops for photos Angel takes of her Linen Michael pieces with her friends’ kids as models for the line’s website she designed herself.
Linen Michael is not smocked. It’s not embroidered. It’s simple. It’s classic. And subtle flair in ties, pockets and ruffles make it what it is. Quickly, the brand has picked up a following in places like Hawaii, California and Canada, and it’s growing in popularity all over the country too.
Most of the designs bear warm neutral colors, many of them unisex pieces that can be passed down to siblings and friends male or female. But because Linen loves pink and Angel knows a lot of moms out there do too, there are now Linen Michael designs in a light pink too.
While the line features some more traditional special occasion pieces, its heart is designs that “play cute.” “Every household has a play clothes drawer, and I want to see Linen Michael in that drawer,” Angel says. The line will always evolve, but she wants it to be known for its staples, like OshKosh B’gosh was known for its overalls. Time and demand will tell what those pieces are, and Angel keeps up with sales analytics to help put her finger on what exactly it’s becoming.
Are there any existing kids clothing designers out there with a Linen Michael style? The closest Angel can think of is Zara Kids, a Spanish-based retailer available worldwide. And then there’s designers like Fin & Vince, but many of their pieces come with graphics and animals on them. ”I don’t think you’ll ever see a graphic on anything of mine, except if it’s a hand stitched embroider,” she says.
Angel even hears dads compliment Linen Michael styles, maybe because they are less feminine she guesses. “It makes me a little happy dance because dads don’t usually care,” Angel says.
Much of Angel’s inspiration for design comes from her own closet demarcated into two sections, whites and blacks, with a few natural colors sprinkled in, all from designers like Lacausa Clothing, James Perse, Xirena and Felicite. She sees what her own eye is drawn toward in women’s clothing designs and then adapts it to be a for a child. For example, she pulls a wrap with cap sleeves perfect for the beach—in white of course—out of her closet and explains how it inspired her Rosemary gauze dress for girls, which has long sleeves and gathers at the wrist. Holding up jogger pants, T-shirts and other pieces of her own, she points out elements she’s incorporating into a baby onesie or a girl’s top. “It’s transforming what I personally like into kids clothes,” she explains.
And both her closet and internet shopping stay at her fingertips during the workday. Angel’s weekday (when not in quarantine) starts in a coffee shop after Linen goes to school. From there she returns to her home office, with her warehouse space at the bottom of her basement stairs, with each age group separated, and her shipping supplies all hidden behind modern cabinetry faces on the main floor.
Once she has a design idea in her head, Angel opens a black sketch book and puts pen to paper. She then scans the design and pulls colors and fabrics together into a PDF to send her manufacturer, often with references to details in images of other clothing pieces she has drawn inspiration from. From there she and the manufacturer go back and forth on until she tells them to press play in bringing it to life. Not too much later the finished product arrives in her driveway in Mountain Brook.
In five years Angel says she’d love to have a full in-house team based in Birmingham, and she already has her eye on properties. Ahead of her she’d also love to see her clothes in Target and dreams of launching a sister line of women’s clothes since a lot of her mom customers remark that they like the styles for themselves, and maybe a kids’ athletic line too.
Now just over a year into the business, Angel feels like she is “rounding a corner,” but the journey isn’t always seamless. In the beginning she had a lot of confidence to run off of, but six months in the new had worn off and she started feeling “shaky.” Then came a second wind before she got shaky again just as she hit the one-year mark of the business.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if this is the direction I want to go,’” she recalls. But that’s when Jared—two decades into running his own business—came back with just the words she needed to hear. “Angel, most businesses take three to five years to get off their feet,” he told her. “Stay focused and consistent because you have done a phenomenal job of getting where you are now.”
Not long after that low point a sales rep emailed her on a Monday saying she was captivated by the Linen Michael line and asking if she could get clothes to her the next day to showcase in a Dallas kids market on Thursday, so that’s just what Angel did. Not even two days later, the Atlanta kids market—the third largest after New York and Dallas—accepted her line for its 2020 event, and all that after industry contacts had told her she wouldn’t get accepted into Atlanta since there wasn’t a brand like it there and the South is known for its traditional style. “And then it all made sense,” Angel says today. “Those are the biggest things that have happened.”
Today Angel is busy pouring her heart and soul into her Spring 2021 line to bring to Atlanta this fall. “I will be my best yet because I have put so much time and thought and detail into it,” she says. Plus, she’s learned a lot in the first year of Linen Michael to build off of.
Of course, Linen continues to inspire her designs too. Since her daughter likes wearing her dance leotard to school so much, Angel is designing a pretty ballerina-style dress that is her own style.
“Is this Mommy’s work?” Linen asks as she puts on clothes each morning. Yes, Angel tells her, yes it is. Linen doesn’t yet know that “Mommy’s work” bears her name as well, but one day soon she will and no doubt take pride in that fact just like her mommy does.
Where to Find Linen Michael Designs
- Swaddle, Homewood
- ALKMY, Mountain Brook
- @shoplinenmichael on social media