Rather than use the past 25 years to cash in or to distance herself from the day-in, day-out demands of designing multiple collections and simply finessing — as many of her competitors have — Nicole Miller prefers to be waist-deep in work.
"I feel like I'm really a designer. I'm still very hands-on and always have been. I'm still sketching and draping a lot of the clothes. I come up with all the colors and prints and sweat about what goes where," Miller said. "After all this time, I still get involved with every step of the process."
That was evident from mere observation during a visit earlier this month to her office, which looks more lived-in than most. Sketches and notes cascade across her desk, and the office's shelves are lined with books — an essential part of her design research. Midway through a recent visit, an assistant interrupted to show Miller swatches of a lightweight jersey that was not quite right. Despite being hampered by a skiing tumble and trying to fend off a virus, the designer was on the case.
At one point, another staffer popped her head in to ask what would be a good side dish. "Mashed potatoes, or maybe rice," said Miller, explaining, "Beverly makes lunch for everyone on Wednesdays and Fridays."
Just the notion of rounding up employees to get together for a sit-down meal would make many fashion insiders roll their eyes, and that's probably one reason such skeptics work for other companies. The mood at Miller's 525 Seventh Avenue showroom is seemingly familial, free from any overshadowing brand image. Like chairman and chief executive officer Bud Konheim's office, Miller's office is covered with photos of family and friends. While there's no question Miller and Konheim have struggled at times, their unruffled approach to business seems to have served them well.
Starting out on their own in 1981, they got the business running with $100,000 and remain the sole owners today. "We have never had an influx of cash or outside investors. It's been owned privately by Bud and I. Even though we had some tough years now and then, we managed to get through on our own," Miller said.Honorable as their servitude might seem in today's investor-happy climate, Miller said it was more reflective of the times than anything else. "Money wasn't around like it is today. Back then, it was much tougher to get investors. We just scraped together what cash we could get."
Early on, even before her designer days, she learned to line up whatever she needed. While at Rhode Island School of Design, Miller said she rigged her own one-year exchange program in Paris through the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and wound up completing two degrees in four years.
Flipping from RISD's individualist spirit to France's highly disciplined ways was a 180-degree turn for Miller, but the experience taught her "great lessons in technicality and aesthetics." It was, after all, created by the governing body for French couture houses with the emphasis on painstaking tasks and handwork that haute couture calls for.
It was a different world. Miller and her contemporaries were into Mary Quant; Pierre Cardin was the big hero and Kenzo, Claude Montana and Thierry Muegler were just starting out. "To go from RISD, which had that avant-garde, abstract mentality where everything had to be kind of weird or whatever, to this old French fashion school that teaches everything to be done laboriously by hand [was a major adjustment]," Miller reminisced.
Even so, Miller, born in Fort Worth, Tex., and raised in New England by a mother from Paris and a father from Philadelphia, said she was at ease in France. In fact, she said, there are a few places where she has the uncanny feeling that she is home when she visits, she said. A descendent of two former Philadelphia mayors, Miller said she was just as comfortable there as she was in Texas, "which has been such a yarn throughout her life."
After graduating from RISD with Dale Chihuly, "Talking Heads" front man David Byrne and other classmates, Miller left Providence for New York, taking a job with Clovis Ruffan, "one of the major stars in the Seventies." For a year or so, she worked out of his "great loft with blaring music" at 33 Park Avenue, where, Miller said, going to clubs was the primary post-work pastime.Unfortunately, like a lot of people she knew in the Seventies, Ruffan has since passed away, she said. But just this month, Miller bought one of his dresses on eBay — a printed black polyester gown with a giant-circle back.
From Cloves Ruffan, she moved on to Raincheetahs, a rainwear business known for its Bonnie Cassin-inspired turn buckles and animal-print trims. As much as Miller enjoyed learning the ins and outs of outerwear, she was eager to try her hand at contemporary sportswear, so she applied for a position at P.J. Walsh. Once the job was hers, she kept mum, not wanting to offend one of her best friends who had also applied for the job. Eventually, Konheim broke the news to the rejected candidate and Miller went to work designing dresses in the company's 1400 Broadway showroom.
Compared with the soup-to-nuts design portfolio she manages today, P.J. Walsh was a breeze.
"I just made the dresses," she said. "Now, with global sourcing, we can do vintage treatments and antique treatments. Back then, we weren't allowed to make anything creative or anything biased-cut. Everything was made in the states. Clothing wasn't as complicated. Now, the caliber of American clothes is light years ahead."
Seven years into her design job at P.J. Walsh, the company closed and Miller and Konheim started her signature brand. One of her first hits was a blouse dress with hip smocking. Newcomer to the "Today Show" and girl-about-town Jane Pauley helped spur on the trend by wearing one on the air. The company sold hundreds of thousands, partially because they were sold on hanger straps, piquing shoppers' curiosity, according to Konheim.
The designer caused another frenzy with her men's ties in whimsical prints, such as Absolut bottles, candy, lipsticks, sporting gear and martini glasses. A few were made to round out the product assortment when her first freestanding store opened in 1986 on Madison Avenue — and millions were sold. "We didn't know what hit us," she laughed. "People were sending us cases of alcohol and candy. Things were not so logo-proprietary then. Usually, people called us up to say thank you."There were other perks, too, like tickets to the Yankees' opening-day game, jaunts to Grand Marnier-sponsored ski races and a trip to Russia for one of Veuve Clicquot's anniversaries. "We were going to all these crazy events," she said. "It was one of those things you couldn't have created. It was something that just built with momentum."
Eventually, knockoffs and Casual Fridays killed her printed tie business. "It really was a fun space in time, but then they started making such cheesy, horrible copies. Once this man came up to me wearing this garish tie and he said, 'I love your ties.' And I said, 'Then why are you wearing a knockoff?'"
Nor is Miller flattered by the prevalence of conversational prints in women's accessories — something she did years ago. "It's annoying," she said. "Even though we had such tremendous success with men's ties, we never were as successful with women's [conversational bags.]"
She is more enthusiastic about working with J.C. Penney, for which she designs an exclusive collection of dressy casual clothes. "I have been very fortunate. They have been very receptive to my ideas. I'm a real stickler about print coloration and layout, and it's all come out amazingly well," she said. "It is so much better than I ever thought it would be. I really thought everything was going to be polyester and nasty."
Miller is equally devoted when it comes to the design of her retail stores. She has been busy renovating freestanding locations in Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. "I don't like all my stores to look the same," Miller said. "I want the customer to have a different shopping experience in each city, so I deliberately put a different architect on each one. It's more interesting for the customer as long as the clothes are consistent. They don't need to look at the same floors and same light fixtures. That is too clean, too sterile. I think that came from Japan."
Along with bucking the cookie-cutter designer store trend, she is not eager to roll out stores in as many cities as possible, as others have. With the exception of a store in Boston, she is not looking to open many new units. The company owns nine stores and there are another 30 "Nicole Miller" stores operated under license and owned by the licensees.Miller also seeks to stand out with her runway presentations. Her first runway show in 1991 was a show-stopper, with Christy Turlington leading the charge at the Midtown club Laura Belle, followed by Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and others. A few other shows were memorable for less glamorous reasons, such as a power failure in September 2001. On another occasion, Nadja Auermann was excited about the prospect of walking on the runway to Prince's "Purple Rain," but those expectations were dashed when the tape — an indication of the time frame — "got stuck on this awful refrain," Miller said. Then there was the time Miller choreographed a show consisting of six vignettes. At one point, she told model Yasmeen Ghauri to get her dress on because it was almost time for her to hit the catwalk. One hang-up — she'd already come and gone in the Elvis-inspired dress during the middle of an ethnic story. Regular attendees at her shows include Cyndi Lauper, Mary Boone, Candace Bushnell and Debbie Bancroft.
While the Eighties and Nineties had their share of star-studded moments, the same might be said of the past few years. Just last year, Angelina Jolie unknowingly gave Miller a major boost when she showed up in one of the designer's dresses for her first public appearance with Brad Pitt following his split from Jennifer Aniston. The As Seen On section of Miller's Web site shows other bold-face names like Halle Berry, Emily Blunt, Felicity Huffman, Joss Stone and Shaun Robinson wearing her dresses.
Making sure that her core collection business is strong remains a priority even as Miller broadens her design portfolio with girls' dresses, more high-end furniture and more bedding and linens through Bed Bath & Beyond. "This year's business has been great and last year's was phenomenal, she said. "I can't complain because my business is so successful right now."
Even when that was not the case, she still managed to be resourceful. When a trend fell flat and inventory overflowed, she suggested "pleating it" and the glut problem was resolved. Miller is nothing if not adaptable. When a four-day skiing sojourn to Iceland fell through at the last minute due to poor flying conditions, Miller and her friends quickly decided to soldier on to Belize for a night or two, before moving on to Costa Rica and winding up in Cabo San Lucas. Several customs agents were stumped by the shearling coats, parkas and ski equipment the travelers dragged along. But all that wintery gear was eventually put to use when they circled back to ski the double black diamonds in Aspen, via a stop in Las Vegas. While some might have been unnerved by the spontaneity, Miller said she was thankful for the two-week vacation — the first she had ever taken.Though her version of time away from the office is far more active than most — aside from skiing, she is a regular at the gym and in Pilates classes, and in the summer she likes to go wakeboarding, waterskiing and biking in the Hamptons — Miller does it for fun and a sense of accomplishment.
"Skiing and waterskiing do the most for me," Miller said. "I always feel so rejuvenated. I skied really hard this year and felt so much better for really pushing myself."
Her ski workouts include occasional charity ski races featuring Olympians and celebrities. James Blunt was her most recent opponent at one event run by Robert Kennedy Jr. "They are fun events to do. You raise money for
charity, you feel good because you competed and you feel like you accomplished something," she said.
Off the slopes, one of the more rewarding aspects of her work has been having lots of young designers coming through and helping them as they get started in their careers. "And they have added so much to me," Miller said. "We have always kept a lot of younger people around. That keeps all of us young."
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