Leland Gal: Better by Design
A graphic design class she didn’t want to teach evolved into a business she never expected.
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 17, 2019
Maggie Mielczarek had an idea. Take what she loved about northern Michigan, combine that with her love of painting and art, and create a brand that reflected it all: clothing, accessories, even the fabric she cuts from.
That’s how Leland Gal became a thing. And it was all part of a grand plan.
Umm, not exactly. “It was completely by accident,” said Mielczarek. The longtime art teacher had moved to Grand Rapids to take a new position, which included a graphic design component. Not only had she never taught graphic design before, she didn’t even know how to use the computer programs.
After panicking, she discovered something unexpected. As she learned more about graphic design, she found she loved it. She began using the software herself, creating one-of-a-kind patterned designs and then translating them to fabrics. Pillows. Clothing. All derived from her painted works. She began selling her wares online under her new brand name.
Those were Leland Gal’s baby steps. Next up was doing some shows out of her parents’ home in Leland.
Along the way, her full-time teaching job had evolved — er, make that devolved, as she found she was teaching less art and more keyboarding skills. “It was half typing, not art,” she said. “It was no longer fulfilling. And I was pregnant.”
That’s when a friend suggested she open a store of her own. “Malcom Chatfield’s wife [Chatfield is an artist who, at the time, owned Leland’s Main Street Gallery] suggested we get a Fishtown shanty,” said Mielczarek. So she put her name on a waiting list alongside numerous others for the coveted little shops, despite being told there was often a five-year wait for a vacancy. Two months later, in November 2012, there was suddenly an opening, and she found herself interviewing against other businesses that wanted the space.
In January 2013, while still teaching, she got the news: She had been awarded the shanty, and Leland Gal would have a shop. And yes, she was still teaching at the time. “Everybody in the family helped. I [spent] my maternity leave [building] inventory,” said Mielczarek.
Since then, she’s been on a mission to create a diverse collection of clothing, housewares, textiles, and accessories that feed the connection to the water she loves. Her website — LelandGal.com — boasts a dizzying array of products. Wallpaper. Pillows. Dog beds. Ottomans. Greeting cards. Hats, headbands, and sunglasses. Platters and drinkware.
Her designs are often whimsical in nature, but she shies away from pushing a nautical theme. And while the fabrics and textiles remain popular, she’s found herself branching out in directions she never envisioned.
“Bags are 40 percent of my business,” she said. “Our section of acrylic jewelry started last summer. It has become a pivotal part of our brand, and also coincides with our ‘Make light of it’ concept. The pieces are also inspired by the lifestyle of Leland Gal, and many derived specifically from the hand-painted artwork.”
Eventually something had to give. First was her teaching job, then eventually the home in Grand Rapids. “For six years, I’d commute. I’d stay up here with my family.” Now she and her husband, Greg, have moved here permanently, and they’ve purchased a home in Leland.
Like others, Mielczarek been affected by Lake Michigan’s high water levels, noting that one day she came into her shop to find three inches of water on the floor. Fortunately none of her products were impacted. She’s hopeful some means will be found to address it.
“That’s been disheartening,” she said, but not enough to turn her off Fishtown, though her plans extend beyond it. Mielczarek is invested in wholesaling, noting that it’s about half her business. She’s also interested in expanding to other locations and selling her products through other boutiques.
She’s also interested in working with other local entrepreneurs. “I want to expand collaborations with local companies,” Mielczarek said. She’s already been doing so with charcuterie boards she’s created with local furniture maker Matt Voight; straps with Great Lakes Leather, and even vegan nail polish as a result of working with Northern Nail Polish.
“I thought there was no way to get small batch nail polish made. KC [Northern Nail Polish owner, KC Springberg] created a custom-made line [for me],” Mielczaerk said — one that doesn’t include any carmine, a deep red dye made from crushed cochinealbeetles.
While like the rest of Fishtown, her shanty is only open in the summer, she keeps her business going year-round through her website, Facebook and Instagram. “When the shanty closes, I hit the studio to start painting designs for the studio. I’m glad I don’t have a year-round store. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have time for rejuvenation.”