This fall, Barneys New York and J.Crew began selling a new women's fashion line called Edith A. Miller—and in doing so gave new life to a forgotten, 91-year-old Pennsylvania maker of white undershirts. That should sound like a typical American success story, but it's not: It's the product of a globalized economy, where no good idea is geographically bound.
//1920: The Shirt Begins
Pennsylvania businessman Robert P. Miller starts an eponymous clothing company that makes different styles of white undershirts. It grows large and successful, becoming a staple along the East Coast.
//1992: Leaving the Family
Miller's company is struggling, because it kept production in America while competitors went overseas. So in 1992, the Miller family sells to Mohnton Knitting Mills in Reading, Pennsylvania, which was making shirts for small-time retailers like Cabela's. The mill starts adding colors and stripes to Miller's shirts.
//2001: Go East, Old Shirt
A Japanese fashion distributor finds a Miller tank top at a second-tier trade show and brings it back to Japan, where it's picked up by a few trendy chains. "It's attractive because it's made in America, basic, and reasonably priced," explains buyer Gaku Tanaka of the store Ships (pictured).
//2008: Back in the U.S.A.
Humberto Leon, co-owner of fashion firm Opening Ceremony, spots the Miller clothing in Japan. "I loved its authenticity," he says. He calls Mohnton to acquire some shirts for his boutique—and ends up buying overstock from the Japanese orders.
//August 12, 2010: Party Foul
Former investment banker Nancy Gibson (left) and fashion designer Jennifer Murray are at a party on Fire Island, New York—and are both wearing Robert P. Miller shirts from Opening Ceremony. Awkward. Then, opportunity: They stay up all night envisioning a new brand. "When I worked on Wall Street, I specialized in distressed assets," says Gibson. "So I'm always trying to find overlooked value."
//August 24, 2010: A New Name
The women throw together an "inspiration book" for a line named after Robert P. Miller's imaginary kid sister (whom they name Edith because they like its antique sound). Then they road-trip down to Pennsylvania and get the Mohnton mill on board.
//September 5, 2010: Edith Debuts
Murray's boss, Maryam Nassirzadeh, runs a showroom for fashion buyers and tells Murray she can show the Edith A. Miller line during Fashion Week if she has samples ready. Furious scrambling ensues. After viewing the collection, 24 stores place orders.
//Fall 2011: Sell, Baby, Sell
Now in its second season, Edith A. Miller can be found in 70 stores, including all 27 Barneys and five J.Crew flagships. "The big stores wanted to see if we could evolve over time," Murray says. "Now they know we're a brand they can grow with."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.