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The Self-Made Man: James Lillis

This week’s Self Made Man?Black Milk Clothing founder James Lillis?is a young self-starter who differs from many of the other young self-starters we’ve featured here. For one thing, he isn’t a tech or social media professional, and he didn’t attend (or drop out of) an Ivy League school. James Lillis is a clothing designer, which is worlds away from writing code in a refurbished-warehouse office full of ?collaborative space.?


Second, Lillis wasn’t set up for a successful career in business right away. Not to detract from the hard work of guys like Sean Parker and Kevin Rose, but I don’t think they’ve ever had to dig change out of the couch to buy cigarettes, ya know? They’ve always had the connections to point them where they needed to go. Lillis, on the other hand, started Black Milk when he was broke as a convict, and almost by accident.

The way he tells it, Lillis bought a sewing machine on a whim and made himself a shirt out of nylon lining because he couldn’t afford any other fabric at the time. By his own admission, the shirt was hideous, but he loved it, so he kept making clothes for himself whenever he had the money. He eventually made a pair of leggings out of a tribal African print and the girl who’d agreed to model them for him ended up buying them.

Seeing opportunity, Lillis started making more leggings, and even took sewing classes for the sake of improving his product. The whole thing sounds (and was) a little femme for my tastes, but hey, sometimes success requires stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Once he had enough pieces to shop around, Lillis tried putting them in clothing shops and selling them himself at craft markets. Neither approach worked.

But Lillis was, to his surprise, selling leggings through his blog. Once the online orders reached a point where pursuing in-person sales was a waste of time, Lillis officially made Black Milk (named after the Massive Attack song, I’m guessing) an online fashion label.

As it turns out, the community that supports Black Milk clothes is an extremely passionate one, and they rep the brand hard on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They even gave themselves a name (?Sharkies?). What’s more, they organize fan/volunteer meet-ups all over the place to bond over how much they love Lillis’ designs. And to be fair, Black Milk does churn out some cool-looking stuff, but Lillis had no PR budget when all this started happening. It was as organic as crowdsourced marketing gets.

Lillis, in response to this, keeps fans up to date on his design and manufacturing processes (he proudly keeps his operation based in his native Australia) via regular behind-the-scenes videos, and he manages restocks by offering limited-edition prints and items to his fans through Facebook. At this point, Black Milk customers are creating all of the company’s promotional content, and doing so happily. It’s like American Apparel without all the borderline sexual harassment.

I guess the lesson here is that, when all else fails, do what you love and dedicate yourself to it, and treat the community you build around yourself with respect.

Here’s one of Black Milk’s video updates, just to give you an idea of the company vibe.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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