Harris, a WWII veteran (First Sergeant 69th Infantry) and a Cornell journalism school graduate (class of 1943) who counted novelist Kurt Vonnegut as a close friend, joined Eagle Shirtmakers in 1946. The company was founded by Jacob Miller, his great-grandfather, in 1867.
In 1962 he published a book called Dear Miss Afflerbach with Howard Gossage. It was inspired by the 11,342 replies Eagle Shirtmakers received after a 1961 contest advertised in the New Yorker.
In 1968 Harris inked a license with Pierre Cardin, a designer first in the business. A year later he introduced the first fitted average sleeve length shirts to the U.S. market. He ran Eagle until 1985.
“The happiest time of my life was working for Miller Harris when I was president of Eagle Shirtmakers,” remembers Henry Grethel. “I loved that man! I loved his integrity, his sincerity, his taste level, his work ethic, his dry sense of humor. I learned more from him than from anyone, ever.
“When I first took the job at Eagle, it was all about the Pierre Cardin license but in two years, we put the Eagle label on the map, getting it into the finest stores in the country. We were a close group but we were working so hard that we had no time for meetings or discussions. So at the end of a long day, when I’d go to take a shower in the apartment on 34th Street, Miller would barge in and sit there on a stool right outside the shower stall, asking me business questions and taking notes on a yellow legal pad… Then years later, when I asked him for a reference to get into a certain apartment building, he wrote: ‘I recommend Henry Grethel for the apartment but only if you have an adequate water supply because no one takes longer showers…’
He was so astute, so smart, so much fun to be with. I cannot say enough good things about Miller Harris: it’s a huge loss.”
After Eagle, Harris became CEO of Kellwood’s Smart Shirts division while starting Spinnerstown Shuttle, at the time a private label maker.
He brought Viyella to the U.S. in 1995 and grew it from a single account to more than 300. That relationship only ended in 2011, when the brand went to its Canadian licensee, Alphi Apparel Group. Later that year, Harris launched the Jacob Miller collection, named for the founder of Eagle Shirtmakers, with Don Hundley as its head of sales.
Hundley, Harris’s associate for more than 20 years, will be continuing business for the Jacob Miller Company. “Miller was all about tradition and heritage,” he said. “He had a great following of loyal customers who stayed with him through the years. I am hoping to carry on his legacy.”
Harris was a fixture at the menswear trade shows who never retired. “If only my grandfather had left me oil wells, rather than sewing machines,” he once joked with MR‘s Karen Alberg Grossman, adding that the industry and the people in it kept him young.
“Miller Harris was one of the most interesting, intelligent, intriguing men our industry has known,” said Alberg Grossman. “I had the pleasure of working with him on a series of industry anecdotes for a column in MR magazine. I truly loved working with him: he was funny, charming, witty and very much a perfectionist. But I always sensed that underneath a somewhat tough exterior was a sweetheart of a guy. The menswear industry without Miller Harris? It’s the end of an era.”
In “A life in rags,” which appeared in a few issues of MR last year, Harris told stories from his more than seven decades in the menswear business.
Billy Neville, industry consultant, former owner of The Rogue in Jackson, Miss., said, “Miller was a great marketer, a brilliant man and, I’m proud to say, my friend for more than 30 years. He once told me, ‘If you can’t make a customer, make a friend.’ That was great advice that I still hold onto. Miller was always there among us, making life better and richer, and extending his ever helpful hand to all in need.”
Diane Trauger, Harris’s longtime assistant, remembered, “After working with Miller for more than 25 years, I can honestly say that I never met anyone who worked as hard and diligently as he did.”
Mark Templeton, merchandiser at Orvis, said, “Miller was one of the smartest guys in this business, and certainly not your typical garmento. He had a great understanding of American culture and of brands. He continued inventing, working hard and running successful businesses even in his nineties. He was an amazing man.”
Bob Prenner of Ben Silver added, “Miller always delivered the goods! He was always well prepared and did what he said. He was a truly remarkable man.”
Miller Harris is survived by his wife Mary Louise; children Jill, Susan, Prue and Mickey; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial gathering for friends and relatives is scheduled for Sunday, June 16 at 2pm at the home of Rena and Mickey Harris in Flourtown Penn. They will also receive visitors on Saturday and Sunday evening from 5 to 8pm. Their phone number is 215-280-5302.
The family has asked that any contributions in his name be made to Cornell Univ., designated to The Class of 1943 Scholarship Fund #042022, Box 223623, Pittsburgh PA 15251-2623. They may also be given online at giving.cornell.edu.
More memories of Miller Harris
From Robert Stock, designer, Robert Graham:
My memories of my year at Eagle Shirtmakers under the tutelage of Miller Harris were one of a kind indeed.
Miller was a certified ‘shirtologist.’ By this I mean he was singlehandedly the most knowledgeable man in the industry when it came to making men’s shirts. Miller was also one of the funniest people I have ever met!
Although he was a Flyers fan and I am a die hard Rangers fan, we put our differences aside outside the hockey rink. I will always remember how awestruck I was at the age of 30 when Miller walked into a sales conference and personally greeted over sixty of us, individually, by name. He did not forget a single person in his opening remarks. Another memory of mine is when I was at the Interschtoff Fabric fair in Frankfurt. I was feeling very comfy and chic in my uniform of white painter’s pants and a chambray work shirt. Before I knew it, I was tapped on the back and a voice said to me in English, “I think that light bulb over there needs to be replaced now.” When I turned around, it was Miller laughing his head off! Obviously, my attire was not up to snuff!
Lastly, I once stayed at the Eagle apartment after a long day. I came in around midnight. The apartment was totally dark. I opened the bathroom door thinking I was the only one there, and lo and behold sitting stark naked on the toilet was Miller, who reveled in scaring me to death!
To have known Miller was to have loved him. May he now rest in peace…My deepest condolences to Mary Louise and his family.
In sympathy, Bob Stock…as Miller called me!
From Billy Neville:
I received a random telephone call from Miller one day with a request. He needed (pronto) a brown double-breasted seersucker sport coat, in a size 42 regular. He was sure that I could get one for him. At that time I was purchasing lots of “plunder” from one of the Sewell Companies in Georgia, and over the years I had seen a gathering of brown double-breasted seersucker sport coats, that just always seemed to be there. And sure enough, they were samples, and all were 42 regulars. So I immediately purchased one for him, and he had it in hand, in 48 hours; even had it on at several of markets, through the years.
When I spoke with his wife Mary Louise, (after a good cry and laugh), I told her that I wanted my coat back…but then I had to recant my request, now that his son Mickey is wearing it!
Anyone with stories of remembrances of Miller Harris is welcome to comment below.