This article was originally published in The Edge Singapore on 25 September, 2020 written by Pauline Wong.
Monica Millington was only 14 years old when she met the boy who would eventually be her husband. Her journey in life then led to her creating a labour of love: Menswear brand Tropick, whose boardroom-to-beach concept is making waves. Options sits down for a chat with this Texan lass to discover a love story that transcended time and space.
Monica Millington, founder and creative director of Singapore-based menswear brand Tropick, was only 14 when she met the boy who would eventually become her husband. It is this same boy, who — one decade and two continents later — inspired the creation of Tropick, whose ‘No Sweat’ men’s classic work shirt is creating waves in the industry.
Slender, gorgeous with blonde hair and blessed with a smile that lights up a room, Millington — who hails from Texas in the US — had initially conceived the idea for a shirt which would suit her heat-averse British husband, who struggled with the humidity and heat of the tropics.
What emerged was the Tropick “No Sweat Shirt”, which is made from a hybrid blend of nylon and elastane to recreate the cooling, moisture-wicking, wrinkle-resistant and sweat-resistant features of athletic wear but with the comfort, style and luxe feel of a classic men’s shirt.
“It started as a joke between me and my husband, when I first moved to Singapore back in 2017. He is very hygienic, but he is also very sweaty,” she says, laughing. “It became a running joke that we should get his tailor to make him a shirt out of Nike Dri-FIT material.”
That joke later seeded an idea which took shape when she wanted to leave her corporate job to focus on more creative work. “The conversation became less of a joke, and more of a [realisation] that no one else was doing it out here,” she adds.
Millington’s thoughts soon turned towards fashioning a men’s work shirt which would not only serve as classic office wear but would also be cool, comfortable and suitable to take from “boardroom to beach”, as it were. “I began doing my research, and there’s really nothing like that here at that time. You have plenty of cool streetwear, but to find this really polished and simple essential is really quite difficult.”
Her search led her to look towards American brands doing something similar but they felt wrong for the Singapore market. “I started researching what I was liking about those brands, and thinking how I apply that into Southeast Asia, researching my target market here and how I can speak and relate to them.”
After about a year of research and hunting down the perfect material that would serve this specific purpose in mind, the No Sweat Shirt is now available online at the Tropick site for $198. It has also been garnering a lot of buzz and has found favour with Singaporean influencers like Paul Foster and designer Adrian Furstenberg.
Tropick is also one of the brands chosen for the second cohort of the Singapore Textiles & Fashion Federation (TaFF)’s The Bridge Fashion Incubator (TBFI) programme. The TBFI programme is a 16-week programme that aims to bridge the gap between fashion, technology and sustainability. Supported by the Singapore government, the programme identifies and grooms early stage fashion and beauty brands to refine and validate their products, services or solutions, and commercialisation strategies.
Millington says she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. “My grandfather was a poor farm boy who arrived in the big city in Dallas, and he was a typewriter salesman. He literally was just your typical schmoozy salesman,” she says with a chuckle. “He took that typewriter money and started his own real estate company. He started buying up derelict old warehouses in the area near the exclusive downtown area; all the tyre shops there and started telling everyone it was a cool new design district; he’d house artists there, build showrooms, restaurants and even had residential properties there,” she recalls.
Her grandfather eventually transitioned the company into a fullfledged real estate developer, today known as Jim Lake Companies. “After my grandfather passed away, my dad took over and he’s not corporate at all. He’s very creative and entrepreneurial and he’s always fostered that in me. Growing up, I was never told that I needed to graduate from university and get a job and work my way up the ladder. I was always asked: What do you want to do?”
That led Millington to working for a lifestyle magazine after she graduated university, where she was placed in the weddings section. A romantic at heart, she loved the job and over time, grew her network and contacts within the weddings industry. Then came conversations with close friends and family about how difficult and expensive it was to hire wedding planners.
“And I said to them, well, I’ll plan your wedding for you if you’ll let me use the photos for my portfolio. And I got these beautiful pictures and figured out how to plan weddings. So I started doing that, and that turned into a full-time business,” she remembers. It was a hectic but amazing job, she says, and she looks back at the time she did it with a lot of fondness.
“Weddings are one hundred percent working nights and weekends. You’re meeting your clients after their work hours and you’re working events on weekends; it just wouldn’t work for my lifestyle going forward as I got older and had different priorities,” she adds. “But it never soured, it never got too much. I loved it.”
However, her own love story was about to come a-knocking and that would set her on the path to Singapore, and to Tropick.
In 2005, when she was 14, Millington’s family went on a trip to a resort in Mexico — the same holiday they would take pretty much every year. “So every summer we went to this same resort in Mexico with my family for a week. Me and my sister, we would always kind of look out for cute guys. We definitely fancied ourselves a bit like Mary Kate and Ashley (Olsen), in a movie, having a holiday boyfriend,” she says, laughing. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen were child stars.
At the height of their fame in the late 1990s, the twins were teen icons who starred in a number of romantic comedies. “On one of the last of these trips we went on, when we were checking in, there was a cute guy in the lobby. And we were kind of like, “Hey, check him out”,” Millington recalls. Later that day, as they were at the pool, they saw him there as well.
“I went up and bumped into him ‘accidentally’,” she adds. She introduced herself, found out his name (Tom), and this sparked a lovely summer romance between them. “I didn’t see my family for the rest of the trip because I was off with Tom, the cute guy from England. And we had a super romantic, super innocent relationship at 14, and we spent the whole week together. When we were saying goodbye, I was crying and we had this huge tear-filled goodbye.”
When she left, Tom even asked his dad if he could buy a flight ticket out to Texas to meet her. “His dad was all, “You’ll forget about her, you’ll move on.” And he got mad, he said, “No dad, I’m going to marry her one day”.” At the time, social media had not yet taken off and Facebook was a nascent website that launched just a year before in 2004. However, they became friends on Facebook, and they kept in touch there — constantly at first, but as years went on, less and less.
“I had always jokingly told all my friends about him; I would joke about my British ‘boyfriend’. For years I would say that he was the one that got away. Little did I know, he was doing the exact same thing to his friends,” she says. “He always followed me on Facebook and showed my picture to his friends and told them, this is that girl from Texas I told you about.”
They never told each other they did that, because, well, as they got older it was one thing to have a summer romance at 14, but to still think about the same person in your twenties? “I thought, “This is a bit creepy. I’m being stupid.” And he thought the exact same thing. He’s like, “This is creepy. I’m being stupid”. Especially when on Facebook, it always looks like the other person is having so much fun,” she adds.
“Everyone posts the highlight reel of their life, and we both had serious relationships with other people. But something always felt missing, and I always thought it was odd that I would still be thinking about him.”
They had always sent each other birthday messages, every year, but on her 26th birthday, he messaged her again to ask how she was, and how she was doing. “He started getting sentimental, and said he’d found the gifts I sent him some years ago, and we started talking again.”
But at the time, she was in a relationship and did not pursue the conversation. That relationship however ended, and Tom reached out again during the 2016 US presidential elections, when Donald Trump was getting elected.
From there, they started messaging constantly and finally they agreed to have a video call. It was like no time had passed at all.
“It was as if he was my best friend again, and he said “I’m still in love with you” and I was too.”
Things moved quickly from there. He had just moved to Singapore from London for a job he loved. So she took the leap to sell her business and then went on her bucket list trip across Asia in early 2017. Once the trip was done, she moved to Singapore to be with him.
Three weeks after she landed, they eloped. “He never proposed. We just went straight to talking about marriage and babies. There were no questions at all about our relationship,” she says. Trying to organise a wedding with families on either side of the globe was going to be too complex, and so they decided they would just get married. “We told our closest family members and that was it. And the interesting thing is, it should have been the most complicated thing ever. It should have been: Okay, wait, I’m leaving my company. I’m moving across the world. I’m meeting up with this guy whom I haven’t seen properly since I was 14. My family is going to think I’m crazy,” she says, with a laugh. “But it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
She just knew it was right, and that she had met her soulmate.
With Tropick, Millington is trying to buck the trend. With the recent news exposing broken supply chains and wasteful business practices throughout the fashion industry, she does not want sustainability to be a gimmick for the brand.
Instead, Tropick will drop new designs one at a time in limited quantities to preserve resources and avoid waste by creating a staple, essential piece that would last a long time. This, she hopes, would encourage buying more responsibly and wearing more consciously.
As an effort to give back, the label is also a member of 1% For the Planet, with proceeds benefiting beach and ocean conservation, a mission close to her heart. 1% Percent for the Planet is an international organisation whose members contribute at least 1% of their annual sales to environmental causes.
All Tropick products use waste-free packaging, by packing their shirts in a reusable micro-mesh bag. “We have no pins, no plastic — even our tags are FSC-certified, uncoated recyclable paper,” adds Millington.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is considered the “gold standard” designation for wood harvested from forests that are responsibly managed, environmentally conscious and economically viable. Meanwhile, Millington believes that Tropick perfectly fits into the modern man’s wardrobe, especially when there is growing awareness of the consequences of fast, disposable fashion and the shift towards a preference for minimalist essentials.
“We believe we have [a space among] those aged 25 to 35, they’re less traditional than the older generation and how things have been done before. They’re more open to change and doing things differently. People around [this] age are not necessarily fussed about wearing a full suit to the office,” she says. “The younger generation are much more open to doing things differently and much more excited about new things and innovation. And so we’re creating this shirt for them.”
It is a bold statement to make but Tropick says the shirt is aimed at being that one shirt you wear constantly, for any occasion. Currently, there are several other products in the pipeline for Tropick, including a more casual men’s shirt and loungewear. These are all still in the testing and prototyping phase, as Millington puts it, but she is excited to explore new products and materials which would fit with the brand’s principles.
She concludes: “I call it bedroom, to boardroom, to beach — you can still wear it around the house, then you can go out to a bar with friends. You can wear it at the beach, but you can also still wear it to the office. It’s one of those key transitional items and a very dynamic piece for your wardrobe.” And realistically, living in our urban surroundings, space is a luxury. “Especially here where closet space is limited, you’re constantly analysing what’s in your wardrobe and paring things down. People now want something that can do a lot more for them.”