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Knott puts Peter Millar on map with mint touch

They remember the mints.

When boxes of golf shirts and shorts and other high-end menswear are shipped from the Peter Millar office and warehouse, the packing list includes mints.

When customers unpack their orders, they are struck by three things: The quality of what they've ordered; each item comes out of the box in the order it's listed on the packing sheet; and, mints are included for the pleasure of it.

It's a little thing but this year when a few boxes arrived short of mints (they ran out briefly), phone calls started coming.

At Peter Millar, located in a low-profile office park on the southwest edge of Raleigh, the attention to detail, commitment to quality and a North Carolina-grown appreciation of classic menswear has helped catapult the company into one of the hottest brands on the market, particularly for golfers.

Classic styles. Vibrant colors. High quality.

The only thing missing is eastern North Carolina barbecue.

It's through golf that the brand has become almost instantly recognizable. It's what many of the Titleist touring pros wear at tournaments. It's what the NBC Sports golf team wears. And it's what's the U.S. Ryder Cup team will wear in Wales this fall.

The brand is the creation of Chris Knott, who grew up working at a Fuquay-Varina men's store and attended East Carolina. Intent on getting into the men's clothing business, Knott worked in New York and learned quality and style at Hugo Boss and Burberry among other labels before launching his own brand of cashmere sweaters during 2001.

Now, the Peter Millar brand is as familiar to golfers as Foot-Joy and TaylorMade, though it's much more than a golfwear company. Peter Millar golf shirts range from $78 to $98.

"I've been in the clothing business since I was 14 and I've seen everything come and go," Knott said. "Everything was going super high-end and I felt there was a need for a product like ours, something that's made well and it doesn't cost a telephone number to buy it."

Sitting inside his office, Knott is wearing khakis, a green golf shirt and flip-flop-style sandals. There are fabric samples scattered about, mannequins dressed in samples from the company's fall collection.

Work has begun on the Spring 2011 line.

Along with Scott Mahoney, who joined the company as president and CEO in 2005, Knott has nurtured Peter Millar into a dynamic player in the industry without surrendering its small company touches.

On Friday, the 55 employees eat hot dogs together at lunch.

The clothes are made around the world but they wind up at the office park in Cary where each order is hand packed. There's an embroidery shop on site where club logos are stitched.

"You can identify their merchandise from a million miles away," says Marty Hackel, fashion editor for Golf Digest magazine. "When you can identify clothes without looking at the label, you know they've done something significant."

Peter Millar, Knott and Mahoney will tell you, is not a golf brand but a lifestyle brand. Mahoney talks about capturing a "share of the closet," which means outfitting a man from shoes to a coat.

They have a simple philosophy: If it's something Knott or Mahoney - two middle-aged men - wouldn't wear, they won't make it.

"We are our customers," Knott says.

It's golf that has opened the door and accounts for approximately half of the company's thriving business.

"Golf buys the airwaves," Knott says. "Golf has television and that's awesome. You don't see clothing companies running national ads."

But golfers see Steve Stricker and others sporting Peter Millar logos. They see the shirts at better golf shops, at Nordstrom (the only big box retailer with access to the line) and at men's specialty shops.

Some clubs have gone so far as to provide Peter Millar clothing for special events, such as member-guests. Golfers can pick what they want on a Thursday and, by Saturday, the merchandise is there, specially embroidered for each person.

They even make boxer shorts, which are expensive - three pair for $90 - but are so popular there were none in the warehouse recently, forcing customers to wait.

Peter Millar's sales climbed steadily through 2008 before going flat during the economic downturn in 2009, when many similar companies saw precipitous drops. This year, Mahoney says, the increase in orders has been substantial.

And, you might ask, just who is Peter Millar?

Knott's mother was an antique dealer and years ago bought a collection that included an antique lawn ball. The ball had its owner's name - Peter Millar - printed on it.

When it came time to name his company, Knott settled on Peter Millar.

The ball is on display at the company office in Cary.

There's a dish of mints nearby.