The outspoken co-founder and chief executive officer of Nicole Miller Ltd. has stuck to the plan that he and designer Nicole Miller came up with 25 years ago when they started their firm: They did it their way — taking risks and rarely conforming to the conventional wisdom or norms of Seventh Avenue.
Konheim and Miller had worked together for seven years at dress firm P.J. Walsh — he was in sales and she was the designer — before they decided to go into business together.
Since 1982, they have frequently gone against the grain, mostly led by Konheim's often unorthodox way of running the firm, opening their own stores at a time when few designers were doing so, and refusing to play along with the markdown and chargeback mania that struck department stores during the Nineties.
"When I think about the last 25 years, it's not about how big we've become. It's whether there's anything the industry can learn about what we've done," said Konheim, who has spent his entire 50-year career in the apparel industry. "For instance, people have asked me over the years how we get away with not giving chargebacks. It goes back to the basic philosophy between Nicole and myself. I told her from Day One that we're going to run a business that's totally independent and rests on your ability to design clothes. I told her, ‘You design for yourself and we'll find enough people in the United States that share your aesthetic and your idea of clothes, and we'll make a business out of it.'"
Konheim said he told Miller it would be his job, "no matter how small or big we become," to make the business profitable.
In order to make a profit, Konheim has relied mostly on his instinct as a fourth-generation clothing entrepreneur, what he calls Miller's "incredible antenna" not just for figuring out and designing the next hot trend, but also turning something she simply found interesting into a viable commercial product, and, admittedly, "a little bit of luck."
Interviewed in his offices at 525 Seventh Avenue, which are filled with family photos, magazines and assorted mementos, he reflected on the first style that was a hit for spring 1982: a hip-smock dress. Everybody said that no woman was going to wear smocking at the hip because it's not flattering, but when the model put it on, it looked sexy in a dignified way, Konheim said.
A Stella McCartney sketch of a custom dress made from protein-based silk in partnership with biotech lab Bolt Threads. The dress will be displayed at The Museum of Modern Art's upcoming design exhibition, "Items: Is Fashion Modern?"