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Meet Milwaukee's Brass Lady: A Collector, Author and Businesswoman – Milwaukee Magazine

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The owner of this Milwaukee vintage clothing shop is also working on a book.
Being raised by her grandparents, Noelie Ronczka has always sort of romanticized old television shows and photographs.
She can specifically remember a time when, opening her grandmother’s large dresser in the attic, a drawer was knocked loose and old pictures spilled onto the floor. They were photographs of a great-great uncle’s farm out in the Driftless Area region of Wisconsin. Ronczka found herself immediately drawn to the patchy, beat-up workwear worn by the farmers.
“My mom always told me, ‘Noelie, you can express yourself in any way you want,’” Ronczka says. “I really liked men’s wear and have always preferred the tomboy look.”
What she noticed about old photographs like the ones she fell in love with in her grandparents’ attic was that none of the women were wearing overalls. Instead, they wore dresses, and the workwear seemed to be reserved only for the men.
So, when Ronczka’s interest in vintage clothing deepened and she began seriously collecting vintage clothing in high school, she found herself preferring men’s fashion. Now, years later, she operates her own business that specializes in selling pre-1950’s workwear.
 

 

The business, called The Brass Lady, operates by appointment out of Meltwater Studios LLC located at 1911 S. Allis St. in Bay View. It started simply as a necessity to slim down the collection of clothing she amassed, selling items on eBay and Depop.
“You kind of just fall into being a vintage dealer or seller,” Ronczka says. “At one point I had like a hundred pairs of jeans.”
Since then, Ronczka has built a following of over 11,000 followers on Instagram, where she teases clothing that will eventually be sold at her shop. And that number is likely to grow, considering the fact that vintage is hot right now, and Gen Z consumers have created a demand for more inclusive and gender neutral fashion offerings. There’s also a push to abandon fast fashion and adopt a more sustainable approach to clothing – and what could be more sustainable in the world of fashion than restoring and preserving old clothing?
Ronczka and her partner Chris quickly found that they shared a mutual love for driving across the country and hitting every estate sale, antique shop and farmhouse along the way. There have been times when the couple swings by an old farm house, tracks down the owner on their tractor, and asks if the family has any old denim or work clothing. The cold-call door-salesman process is a gamble – they’re often shooed away.
“But sometimes you’ll come across an estate and they’ll literally have boxes in their attic full of their grandfather’s clothing, and we’ll pay them,” Ronczka says.
For Ronczka, sifting through these old boxes of clothing is like paging through someone’s autobiography – every box of clothing that she finds this way has a story to tell, and its a major driving force behind The Brass Lady.
“The reason I started collecting and selling vintage clothing is to make these connections,” Ronczka says. “I love knowing the history of something that I’m holding or wearing.”
Now, Ronczka is preparing to share her fascination with the early 1900’s in another way. She’s currently putting together a book that compiles old photographs of women in workwear titled Makers of Good. If all goes according to plan, she’ll self-publish the book by the end of the year or sometime in early 2022.
“I thought it would be cool as a female menswear dealer to put together a collection of the forgotten laborers and workers in America, which were women,” Ronczka says. “When you think of the working person, you think of some white man in overalls and a railroad cap. These photographs of women are hard to find.”
But Ronczka, who has gotten quite good at retrieving the forgotten, pushes through and continues to add new photos to the collection – so much so that she’s forced herself to put a cap on the book’s length to 200 pages.
The title of the book draws inspiration from an earlier time in Ronczka’s life. She recalls roaming around Milwaukee and noticing an old factory building with a ghost sign that read “Makers of Good Millwork.”
“It really resonated with me and I was always so curious about it,” Ronczka says. “It makes me think about the people who worked there and how they were proud of what they were manufacturing. It ties in deeply with my love and appreciation of the working person and the era of clothing I sell.”
She hopes that people interested in vintage will find the book as a handy reference, as well as an insight into what life was like in the early 1900’s. But for Ronczka, its not only an insight into a distant past, but a look into a mirror as well.
“I see it as a reflection of myself – I’m a young businesswoman, working hard and proud of what I’m creating,” Ronczka says. “I’d like to think that I am also a ‘maker of good.’”
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