Melissa Gilbert modeling the farmhouse apron sold on her site, Modern Prairie.
Melissa Gilbert in Modern Prairie’s Spring Splendor apron. — Modern Prairie

For Melissa Gilbert, portraying Laura Ingalls on the 1970’s TV series “Little House on the Prairie” was more than job. It was a way of life that she still embraces.

“No matter where I’ve gone, no matter what I’ve done, I always come back to the prairie,” Gilbert said in a recent interview with CO—. “It’s not just a role that I played. That’s really who I was as a little girl.”

Fifty years after the debut of the series, which was based on the autobiographical books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gilbert again finds herself blending two worlds into one with her social-media-driven e-commerce company, Modern Prairie. Seamlessly combining both old and new, Gilbert and her co-founder Nicole Haase have built a digital community of loyal customers by focusing on products and content that conjure a simpler, calmer time.

The startup, which launched in 2022, is not for everyone—and that is by design. Modern Prairie focuses particularly on serving women over 50 by selling both apparel and home products specifically designed for their demographic. The brand encourages women to accept and celebrate their authentic selves and embrace the “imperfectly perfect,” as Gilbert likes to say. That applies not only to cooking — which is a big focus of Modern Prairie — but also to aging, beauty, body image, and embracing the life changes women experience as they grow older.

Community first, products second

Modern Prairie was inspired, in large part, by the pandemic, a time when Gilbert and many others had time to reflect on their lives and values.

COVID inspired a “resurgence around being connected and coming back to the things that matter,” Haase said.

Together, Gilbert and Haase, whose background includes both fashion and time as the head of the tabletop category at retailer Williams Sonoma, developed a business plan built on content and community first. Getting to know their audience was the first step in developing a product assortment that not only met their community’s needs, but focused on experiences first. In fact, Modern Prairie did not debut its first product until six months after the startup launched.

“It’s a community-centric brand that happens to sell products. But the products are supplemental and based on the experiences and the connections that we make,” said Haase. “We wanted to be mindful about what we were putting our money into and what we were selling. We didn’t just want to sell more stuff.”

Today, the company’s assortment is 90% private-label products, including apparel from April Cornell, a woman-led company that specializes in vintage-inspired clothing. The majority of its other products are handmade by female artisans and makers selected for not only their aesthetic but also the sentiment behind their creations.

 Melissa Gilbert and Nicole Haase, Co-founders of Modern Prairie.
Melissa Gilbert (left) and Nicole Haase, Co-founders of Modern Prairie. — Modern Prairie

‘Get in the picture’

While Modern Prairie was built and powered by social media, its approach to a digital-first business plan is antithetical to how most brands leverage the medium.

“Our social media is a very cozy space, but also very modern,” Gilbert said.

Haase points out that it’s a showcase for women to embrace living their best lives without the need to curate and perfect every moment for public consumption. Posts and videos are often about the process and experience of creating and living, as opposed to highly curated photo shoots and perfectly completed recipes.

“Our social media is authentic, it’s raw, it’s unfiltered, it’s untouched,” Haase said. The goal is to encourage women to live their lives authentically, to “get in the picture,” as Haase put it. And if that process includes a product from Modern Prairie, all the better.

Gilbert herself is featured in many posts. She is often at home and her photos tend to be candid and natural. Her willingness to share her own life sets the tone for Modern Prairie’s approach to social media.

“There’s so much pressure in the outside world to not only have your table look perfect, but you have to look perfect while you’re making your table look perfect,” Gilbert said. “Not only is that a way to set yourself up for failure, it’s impossible. And it’s exhausting.”

There’s so much pressure in the outside world to not only have your table look perfect, but you have to look perfect while you’re making your table look perfect. Not only is that a way to set yourself up for failure, it’s impossible. And it’s exhausting.

Melissa Gilbert, actress and Co-founder of Modern Prairie

Relying on ‘Trusted Prairians’

Rather than take a traditional approach to brand ambassadors or paid influencers, Modern Prairie has built organic relationships with experts across a variety of industries, many of whom were members of the community first. It partners with them to not only promote the brand, but to provide content, advice, events, and workshops for its audience.

Called “Trusted Prairians,” they include crafters, chefs, life coaches, and guides on topics including healing, grieving, and spirituality. There’s even a fifth-generation chicken farmer in the mix. Connecting its community with these women is part of the bigger plan to redefine what an online community looks like.

“None of us is everything to everyone and it shows women that [they] don’t have to be everything to everyone. We can have our strengths and be celebrated for those strengths,” Gilbert said. “It brings back the word community to what it was originally supposed to be: A commune of people sharing their expertise, strength, hope, joys, and sorrows with one another.”

 Strawberry Fields mason jar and lid covers from Modern Prairie depicted with baked goods.
Modern Prairie encourages its community to embrace the “imperfectly perfect” in life and in the kitchen. — Modern Prairie

Returning to the Prairie

Much as Gilbert has returned to her famous character’s pastoral roots through this startup venture, she is also commemorating the golden anniversary of the show that started her career. LHOTP celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2024, and Gilbert and many of her fellow castmates will be celebrating at the Little House Festival in California hosted by the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce in March.

Modern Prairie will make its real-life retail debut at the event with two booths featuring its products. In the future, the brand will consider events, pop-ups, or even a full-time physical retail presence. When it does, it will still be focused on community and experience, Haase said.

“If Modern Prairie does show up in the physical form, you can be assured that it will be experiential,” said Haase. “It will be a place to connect, commune, learn, engage, discover‚ and then, shop.”

For Gilbert, who authored the book “Back to the Prairie” during the pandemic, it’s a time of all of her work coming together to reflect who she is today.

“I’ve gone full circle,” she said. “I, too, have come back to this cozy place of being who I really am on the inside.”

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