With the influx of new beauty brands on the market, it’s hard for an up-and-comer to stand out. However, it seems like overnight Mila became a must-have for the high-end conscious consumer. Maybe it’s the beautiful black and gold packaging, or the luscious floral imagery captured on the brand’s Instagram page. I interviewed founders Kelly and Hamilton to learn more about Mila, their commitment to sourcing and sustainability, and how they launched one of the hottest new beauty brands during a pandemic.
Tell us about the brains behind Mila – how did you and your partner get into farming and herbalism?
Over the years I’ve (Kelly) increasingly become more appreciative of general wellness and caring for my body. After moving to Alabama 12 years ago and finally having the space, I started dabbling in growing food. Year after year my love for growing renews and the gardens on our farm have expanded considerably.
After having a bout with cancer about 8 years ago, Hamilton began studying herbalism with a prominent clinical herbalist in the south and finding ways to apply this new knowledge to mending his health. He had tremendous benefits and has been cancer free since.
Over the years we’ve become increasingly interested in the plants we have growing around us and finding applications for them. I’ve spent the last 5 years researching, testing, and refining methods for growing and extracting our herbs.
He also worked at a wonderful community garden in Baltimore and helped establish other small farms along the way.
Once you start growing it’s hard to want to do anything else.
Our common love for sustainability, plants and growing is part of what drew us together and eventually drove us to founding Mila.
Where did the idea for Mila come from? How did you make the leap into launching a skincare brand?
Part of being interested in wellness was the element of caring for our skin. As many skin care enthusiasts know it can so easily turn into an obsession which is what happened to me. We always liked the idea of being creators and experimenters and it made sense to utilize our farm and plants for this application.
Once we made the decision to go for it, it was a very long and arduous process. We almost considered giving up a couple times when we just couldn’t get the formula right after spending so much time with it. At that time we decided to partner with a lab in Europe and they took what we had worked on and refined and perfected it.
It is such a joy to do what we love everyday and to be able to share a little of our farm with our customers.
What is it like working with your partner? What do each of you bring to the table?
We love getting to work together. Mila is so dynamic with so many different facets so we get the opportunity to work together and also time to work separately.
I consider myself to be very resourceful and I like to do more of the technical and science related aspects…fine tuning our processes, working our equipment, sourcing and running the lab. I love a good spreadsheet haha.
Hamilton does more of the farming and creative parts of the business like design. He has such a great eye and aesthetic and is very intuitive.
We also really enjoy the marketing aspect and the process of building a company that is centered around transparency, freshness and the customer experience. We work as a team crafting the brand identity and shooting all our own product photography.
What was it like launching a brand during a pandemic?
I think DTC indie brands were in a unique position after the pandemic began. With people spending more time on social networks than ever, brands had more of customers attention and had more opportunity to engage.
Between self care being prioritized, having more free time and an increase in zoom calls, I think the importance of taking care of your skin really peaked. We saw many indie brands that grew their businesses profoundly in the last year.
It has caused supply chain issues and severe delays with some of our ingredients and testing which did delay our launch but overall we consider ourselves very lucky.
Your farm looks like absolute heaven on Earth! How have you crafted a space where you can develop your brand? What was it like creating a farm to sustain and supply a skincare brand?
Thank you! I was living in L.A. previously and came to visit this family farm 12 years ago, fell in absolute love with the land and never left. Hamilton joined me here 7 years ago. It’s been a work in progress…expanding the growing areas little by little, building and tending the soil and finding the right plants to suit our hot and humid climate. We spent years trialling different varieties and growing methods to maximize the nutrients and quality of the plants we grow. We are lucky to have a variety of different environments on our farm where our different plants can thrive.
We have a fair amount of land but the majority of it is covered by woods so we are very efficient with the open growing areas we have. We are mindful about how much we need to grow as we expand.
We also have our lab here which is so nice to have our growing operation and everything else here in one place.
Most people don’t associate the American South with high-end, luxury skincare. What is your connection to Alabama and what do you wish people knew about it?
We have been really excited about the response we’ve had when people find out we’re based in the South. It’s so nostalgic for a lot of people and unexpected.
Hamilton was raised here. My family has been visiting Alabama every year since the 70’s. At one point most of my family lived here which is how I ended up moving here. There has never been a place that I’ve been where I felt more at home. Alabama is beautiful. It’s actually one of the most biodiverse states in the country with endless woods and abundant wildlife.
We also feel very at home being apart of a lovely, tight knit-farming community that has really helped shape the creative food scene in Birmingham.
The Clarity Oil uses a really unique blend of herbs. What were the qualities of the ingredients that you sought when you were developing the formulation?
We wanted a gentle, nourishing, and calming formula while still being high-performing so we looked for herbs that we could grow that fit the bill. Out of a handful of options, our chemists selected the herbs we now grow Calendula, Violet Leaf, Spilanthes, and Nettle because they had qualities that fit the formula beautifully. Abundant with anti-inflammatory compounds, antioxidants, gentle antimicrobials and other beneficial compounds for skin.
You use a blend of natural and naturally-derived ingredients and more complex ingredients like ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate. How do you decide when to seek out an ingredient to give the natural base that extra boost of potency?
We honor the benefits of plants and their natural compounds but also have a great appreciation for more scientifically developed ingredients. For us, the effectiveness of the formula was the most important and our actives like Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate are a big part of what makes it work so well. We collaborated with chemists on our formula and they brought so much to the table in regards to our selection of actives.
You took some impressive steps to make Mila sustainable. What was the biggest challenge?
Sourcing the ingredients we do not grow ourselves was probably the most challenging. Finding the right suppliers and partners that have good practices but can also scale up with us was the biggest obstacle. Our cucumber seed was the most challenging. It’s a very expensive ingredient and one we have to contract ahead of growing. We had to do a lot of testing to find the right supplier and variety.
We had actually set out to grow cucumber seed ourselves and did 2 trial seasons. Our humid summers were just not ideal for cucumber plants that are prone to disease so we decided to partner with a supplier that grows them organically in more arid environments to ensure more sustainable growing practices.
A number of big packaging suppliers have recently said that they can’t keep up with demand for materials like recycled glass, and so they have very high minimum order quantities to lock in supply contracts which tends to push out smaller brands. What was the process in designing the unique Mila packaging? How were you able to create something that you were happy with and lived up to your values?
This was also a challenging and very lengthy part of the process. We knew we wanted to have a beautiful experience for The Clarity Oil from formula to packaging. We also wanted to balance that with sustainability in mind.
Most glass producers have prohibitively high minimums for small brands to get anything custom decorated. It took a lot of time and a lot of digging to find one that would work with us.
We would love to work with bioplastics or ocean plastic for the parts of our packaging where avoiding plastic is very difficult but minimums are so high that it isn’t feasible at the moment. We did our best to pick types of plastic that are recyclable (HDPE #2, PP #5).
In regards to our outer cartons and shipping packaging we were able to find some wonderful suppliers that are innovating with algae-based carbon-negative inks, wind-powered manufacturing, and using recycled materials.
I have to ask, who is that magnificent peacock that shows up on your feed?
Rocky is our beloved peacock and the mascot of our farm. We also have 2 peahens, Poppy and Baby. They’re such a joy for us. After having them for years, we still get so excited seeing them casually walk around the farm. They prefer to roost in the trees and go wherever they want whenever they want…they’re the most spoiled animals on the farm and have absolute freedom.
If you had a spirit herb, what would it be?
Kelly: Spilanthes, it’s a bright and sunny herb but also has a zing to it.
Hamilton: Sarsaparilla, because of its earthiness.
If you weren’t creating Mila, what would you be doing?
Honestly, we have no idea. We’ve poured so much of ourselves into Mila for so long that I couldn’t think of doing anything else.
Best non-routine for a lazy Sunday?
Kelly: With the farming aspects, work can be pretty physical so a lazy Sunday in bed, cuddling with our dogs, watching movies and snacking is ideal.
Hamilton: painting and listening to or playing music.
Book you always return back to?
Kelly: My guilty pleasure is the Outlander series. Haven’t been able to put them down for the last couple years.
Hamilton: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
Favorite way to treat yourself?
Kelly: A bath and a book before bed…otherwise snacks. I’m a major foodie.
Hamilton: Buying plants.