Wearing a long black shift dress accented with a statement necklace, Rachel Mielke mingles at the Grand Opening of the newest Hillberg & Berk retail location in Calgary. A customer—one who has braved the 100-person line of people wanting to check out the new store—pulls her aside, clearly with something to say.
Rachel is no stranger to admiration-filled exchanges with customers. As the founder and CEO of Hillberg & Berk, her level of visibility is such that brand-followers often recognize her in public. “Social media has really become the main source of people’s content consumption,” she says. Appearing regularly on Hillberg & Berk’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, Rachel is part of the CEO-turned-celebrity phenomenon unique to the digital age.
This particular customer has more to say than most. “I’ve followed the brand for 10 years,” she says, sporting a mix of new and vintage Hillberg & Berk pieces. “I love your brand and your story so much that I went with my husband for a special trip to Regina—just so I could go to the first Hillberg & Berk store.”
This is a first for Rachel. Her Regina-based jewellery company has seen her through some pretty fantastic milestones (a showcase at the Oscars, designing a brooch for Her Majesty the Queen, a partnership with Tessa Virtue—you get it, she’s made it) but to have someone visit the flagship store as if it were a museum is another level of wow. “It blew me away that there are people passionate enough about the brand that they would plan a trip around it.”
The thought of Regina as a fashion or jewellery destination would have been unthinkable to an 18-year-old Rachel Mielke. Lack of a “scene” in Saskatchewan was in part why she opted for a business degree instead of something more artistic. “I loved fashion but I was aware of the reality that there was very little fashion in Saskatchewan when I graduated in 1998, and so my main focus was to make a business for myself.”
Even if she didn’t think she would build a career in fashion, she maintained a desire to create, and to express herself through design, from a young age. She recalls spending hours in her parents’ basement, meticulously placing coloured pegs into her Lite-Brite board. “My mom would come downstairs and say, ‘why are you sitting in the dark?’ Turn the light on!’ And I’d say ‘noooo, it’s cooler with the lights off!’”
She was equally enamored with Rainbow Brite. “My whole room was Rainbow Brite. That character definitely influenced my brand and my fashion today,” she says, referencing the bold colours and gems now signature to Hillberg & Berk. The character was more than just an aesthetic inspiration for Rachel. Rachel’s goal to help women “sparkle”—through not only the jewellery she makes but also a variety of charitable initiatives—is a modern twist on Rainbow Brite’s mission to bring colour to the world.
“I remember buying $300 worth of supplies and thinking it was a fortune!” she recalls. From those materials she made herself a statement necklace. “I put it on and thought, wow, this is really special. I want to do more of this.”
Growing up in a financially-tight household, Rachel had to employ creativity, as opposed to a credit card, to realize her fashion goals early on. After digging out her mom’s 1970s sewing machine and teaching herself how to sew, she developed a knack for making second-hand look chic. “I started deconstructing my clothes and re-sewing them together. I was making fashion that I couldn’t afford to buy otherwise.” She also began making simple jewellery, but it wasn’t until after business school that she made her first luxury item. With money she’d saved from working multiple jobs, Rachel travelled to a specialty gem shop in Edmonton and bought a selection of Bali sterling silver, Swarovski crystals, and freshwater pearls. “I remember buying $300 worth of supplies and thinking it was a fortune!” she recalls. From those materials she made herself a statement necklace. “I put it on and thought, wow, this is really special. I want to do more of this.”
The requests for her designs began to pile up and, fueled by encouragement from friends, Rachel decided to put her business degree to use in a notoriously tough realm: the jewellery industry.
The first hurdle to overcome was a lack of market knowledge, which she overcame through travel. “I went to every single place I’d read was an incredible source of craftsmanship until I built my knowledge of the industry globally,” she says. But the male-dominated industry did not initially recognize Rachel as a force. “People didn’t want to work with me. I was a start-up, so that was an issue too, but they certainly didn’t look at me, a 25-year old woman, and take me seriously enough to say, ‘hey I’m gonna take a chance on you.’”
“I want everyone to feel what I felt when I put on that first piece of special jewellery.”
Rachel learned to market her ideas with confidence and strength. “The key was finding people who believed in me. It was also learning how to sell myself, my story, and convince people that I was going to make it.”
Over 15 years later and she has, most definitely, made it. Hillberg & Berk is a nationally-recognized brand with global ambitions. Their 31,000 square-foot office in Regina’s warehouse district features gorgeous chandeliers, plush furniture, and the bustling energy of a newsroom about to break an important story. Yet Rachel’s in-office presence is a far cry from boss-woman caricatures seen and mythologized in Hollywood. She’s no Miranda Priestly, in other words, and if you run into her in public, she’s more likely to gift you a piece of jewellery than demand a favour. “I want everyone to feel what I felt when I put on that first piece of special jewellery. But sometimes I only have what’s on my body, and so I give it away!”
Giving away jewellery is but one way Rachel is disrupting the pithy maxim that luxury is exclusive. “On a global stage, H&B is one of very few brands that is truly changing the narrative on how brands impact the community, but also how brands change what women think of themselves.”
Rachel is redefining what it means to be a brand leader through her personal style as well. Sometimes she shows up to the Hillberg & Berk headquarters in ripped jeans, sneakers, and a cool t-shirt. Other times, she elevates her style by pairing a simple dress with pops of Sparkle. “I have learned to dress my body type and just stick to what works. I found a great dress this season and I bought it in five colours.” Her clothes and accessories reflect her mission to feel confident, not necessarily cutting-edge, and she hopes this model will inspire women to view fashion as a source of self-expression as opposed to a set of stifling ideals. “I don’t think society should be so prescriptive in terms of telling us how to dress, especially in the work environment. I love that we’re coming into a time where, as women, we’re feeling more comfortable defining our own personal style.”
Rachel may be forward-thinking, but she still gleans wisdom from the past—specifically, from the kaleidoscope she had as a child. A large red tube with a textured baroque pattern, Rachel’s kaleidoscope was a source of wonder for her younger self but has since acquired a philosophical weight. In her keynotes, panels, and workshops (most of which focus on female empowerment and its links to social change) Rachel often references the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for our lives, hoping to inspire a deeper sense of gratitude within her audience. “So often we focus on the small, insignificant parts of our lives. We all have challenges, but the majority of life is amazing—if we just choose to focus on it.”
Writer: Mica Lemiski
At Hillberg & Berk, our dream is to empower women to see their own unique strengths, beauty and potential — what we call ‘sparkle’ — and inspire them to help other women see theirs, too.