By  on June 21, 1994

NEW YORK -- Designing Miss Piggy toaster covers was not how Steven Stolman planned to use his degree from Parsons School of Design, but that's how his career almost began.

Stolman was one of seven designers and executives who discussed starts and setbacks last Wednesday at the Fashion Roundtable. Nearly 200 people listened in at the National Arts Club here.

Stolman said that in 1980 he accepted a position with Omniform, a New York-based corporate apparel manufacturer, not knowing the firm had been licensed by Jim Henson to design Muppet kitchen accessories.

"My ambition of becoming the next Norman Norell flew out the window on Big Bird's back," Stolman said.

Fortunately, he continued, he found a job offer from Pearl Nipon, of Albert Nipon, in his mailbox when he came home from his first day of work.

Stolman offered this advice: "The important thing to do is leave your ego at home, pack your armor in your lunch box. And if you have a great idea, retool it so it sounds as though it came from the corporate mind."

Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, emphasized the importance of learning from failure. He said he had seen his father and mother face bankruptcy: "As a result, I did everything I could not to go bankrupt. I learned from their mistakes."

Konheim, whose firm scored a major success in the men's tie business, also underlined the importance of being an opportunist, noting how the fabric for Nicole Miller's first ties was originally bought for dresses. The designer's first tie was made because Konheim wanted one. The company easily could have rejected the idea of doing a man's product since Nicole Miller is recognized as a women's designer, he said.

Designing clothes was elementary for designer Bettina Riedel, she said, but business administration was far from routine. Advising her listeners to act fast whenever they suspect that their firm's funds are being misspent, she said her first accountant reaped most of her profits.

"If I hadn't had another accountant look at the books, I never would have known," she said. "I was making tons of money, and my accountant was keeping most of it."Eric Smith, president and designer of World Love Productions, said relinquishing responsibilities can be difficult. Smith, who entered into a partnership with Hanes Hosiery in January, said having a partner would have helped him earlier.

But partnership has its drawbacks, according to apparel designer Michael Leva, whose partner pulled out without warning about 2 1/2 years ago. "She was having financial problems and a difficult pregnancy. She called me and said, 'I don't want to do this anymore, as of today."'

Leva said he paid his bills, closed his doors and two years later acquired a license to design bridge sportswear for a Japanese manufacturer and retailer. Those royalties enabled him to design in the U.S., he said.

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