Nicole Miller’s longtime business partner Bud Konheim died Saturday, after injuries sustained from a bicycle accident in Connecticut.
Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller Inc, died at the age of 84 at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Conn., Saturday. The cause of death was not immediately known, Miller said.
Services will be held Friday at 1:30 p.m. at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in New York City.
Konheim and Miller have been one of the fashion industry’s longest-standing power couples, having worked together for more than 40 years. “He always said, ‘I’ve never had a bad day.’ He loved life and he loved his job.” Miller said. “He just always had this positive attitude. He just loved what he did. He loved the business.”
The irrepressible straight talker Konheim was a big picture thinker who examined the fashion industry from a mile-high perspective. Rather than talk up his own company’s success or most recent news, Konheim was more inclined to first discuss at great length why old-school retail models and other aging business practices weren’t working. Rather than bemoan the state of things, Konheim would fire off a litany of possible solutions. An early adopter of technology for a variety of elements of sales and design, Konheim also championed a Made in New York label and marketing initiative in 1994, lobbying city officials to get on board.
Anticipating that shopping malls were increasingly becoming places for teenagers to hang out, rather than shopping meccas, Konheim said in 1990, “I never wanted to be malls in the first place. Malls give me hives. They’re completely devoid of any personality.”
Succinct as he was in analyzing problems, Konheim — as anyone who knew him can attest — was never a man of few words. But his rapid-clip dialect was always laced with one-liners. Regardless of the topic, humor was in order with Konheim, but his verbosity was no laughing matter. What he wanted first and foremost was to try to help strengthen the industry.
Konheim said as much in a 2016 interview with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley: “Sorry my answer got overdone, but I got very interested in your question and it’s early in the a.m. We are very passionate about the industry. We have made decisions based on our common sense that has conspired to keep us from growing out of control.”
Konheim attended Exeter Academy, Dartmouth College and then served in the U.S. Marines — three institutions that he remained committed to throughout his life, Miller said.
Just as Konheim instinctively spoke gutturally from the heart, he and Miller shared a somewhat instinctive approach to business. He said in the 2016 WWD interview, “Nicole [Miller] and I have run our company since 1982 without manuals, bureaucratic boards or business school type organization. Most of our policies are formed by our own trial and error, occasionally adopting a business idea from an outside source that we think is worthy.”
Konheim and Miller were known to do things their way — taking risks and rarely conforming to the conventional wisdom or norms of Seventh Avenue. They opened their first store in the mid-Eighties when few other designers were doing so. They also refused to play along with the markdowns and chargeback mania that swept through department stores in the Nineties. In a 2007 interview with WWD, Konheim said, “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.”
A fourth-generation apparel producer, Konheim was among the first Seventh Avenue executives to bring back some off-shore production from Asia to New York.
Yeohlee Teng said Sunday, “Bud had an independent voice and perspective on our industry and his vision will be missed.”
More often than not, Konheim could be seen in his office on the telephone, maintaining relationships and staying on top of what was going on in the industry, Miller noted. Miller said Sunday, “He just loved the clothing business. He loved every minute of it.” Arriving at 8 a.m. every day and working until 7 p.m. in the company’s Seventh Avenue offices, Konheim “loved the business so much. He always said, ‘I’ve never had a bad day.’ He loved life and he loved his job.” Miller said. “He just had this positive attitude. He loved what he did and he loved the business.”
Beyond his phone habit, Konheim made a point of always staying connected with business associates and friends by making — and keeping — lunch dates and e-mailing company news and occasionally interesting non-fashion information. Literature was among his areas of interest, having studied that as an Ivy Leaguer.
Miller first met Konheim in the late Seventies, after answering an ad for a designer at his company P.J. Walsh in WWD. “It was part of a big corporation. It wasn’t an independent company. After seven years, we left and opened up our own business in ’82.” Miller said. “We just always got along. I’m more low-key and he had a big personality. When he entered the room, he always took over the whole room. If he was at a dinner party, he took over the whole dinner party. He was just larger than life and everybody loved him. He made every day exciting.”
In an interview with WWD, Konheim recalled, “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 clothes 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 also spoke of his own commitment early on and how he promised Miller to make the business profitable “no matter how small or big we become.”
The company’s core has grown from a staff of 12 to 15 in 1982 to about 40 today, but Miller and Konheim kept a familial environment. What started out as weekly homemade luncheons for the design team became more frequent employee-wide meals at Konheim’s suggestion. Miller said Sunday that Konheim was even brasher when the company was starting out. “Even though he was a big personality, he was a much more calmed-down version of his former self.”
After a dress made in a theater ticket print bombed, Miller considered using the material for scarves but Konheim suggested neckties instead. He wore one and sent the other 59 to the designer’s Madison Avenue store, where an enterprising security guard took one to his other job at the Metropolitan Opera gift shop. The manager there recognized a Met Opera ticket in the print and ordered the $90 ties, which sold out in three days. As for how a misstep turned into a multimillion dollar conversational print business, Konheim said, “It was lucky but you also have to give luck a chance to happen by being open and creative. Everybody in the company is encouraged to be creative from the production manager to the head of sales. Everybody here goes beyond their main function.”
Konheim also spoke candidly about the leaner years, telling WWD about how sales fell to nearly $8 million in 1986. Forecasting the end of long dresses, Miller designed what Konheim described as “a cheek-high” mini-dress that took some time to catch on with retailers. Konheim said of that time, “We would stay until 9 o’clock at night to call the West Coast to sell two pieces. The whole company was committed to staying alive. Then one night buyers from Neiman Marcus walked In [to make a significant order].”
A fourth-generation apparel producer, Konheim was among the first Seventh Avenue executives to bring back some off-shore production from Asia to New York. He was also an early champion of creating a Made in New York City label and marketing initiative, lobbying former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration to adopt the proposal at no cost to the city.
In advance of last fall’s midterm elections, Konheim explained why he and Miller weren’t doling out any pre-voting advice— as some brands chose to do. “We are making a conscious effort to not be part of the political conversation. Do you see what’s going on around the country?” he said. “We’re in the dress business. We like all the emphasis to be on taste and is this good design, good manufacturing — not politics. It’s a charged issue right now. People are finding a way to get hysterical about the right and left. It’s just really bad quicksand to try to walk across.”
Konheim continued, “There is no way we could give advice that would be taken universally as good advice — no way. The way the atmosphere is right now, someone would take offense either way. If there is nothing else to talk about, you’ve got a pretty empty life.”
For long weekends in the winter, Konheim flew to his house in Boca Grande, Fla., where he and his wife played a lot of golf, went out on their boat and loved to entertain, Miller said.
Recalling Konheim’s memorable personality, Miller described attending a magazine luncheon with Konheim where 24 guests were seated at one table: “He carried on during the whole luncheon. He talked to the whole table like he was conducting the whole luncheon. He had everybody howling. He had everyone in stitches.” Miller added: “I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this a little bit rude?’ You know how those luncheons are quiet and you talk to the person next to you and the person on the other side of you? But Bud had everybody laughing and they were so entertained. Afterwards, everybody just came up to talk to him.”
Miller added, “He was just one-of-a-kind. That’s for sure.”
The British designer Jeff Banks recalled meeting Konheim for the first time 50 years ago when he visited his London office to ask for a license for Jeff Banks for America. “We talked for hours and then went for dinner. After more deliberation, we concluded that most business arrangements end up, however well-intentioned, with a falling out. We decided, as we got on so well, to remain friends and help one another in business, whenever we could,” Banks said. “That resulted in Bud becoming my best friend and confidante. We have since laughed, cried, dined, holiday-ed and continuously enjoyed each other’s company around the world. I last saw him for dinner in November in New York and spoke on the phone last week. We both exchanged our ideas of plans for the future in this ever-changing world of design and retail. He was a dear friend, who will be sorely and sadly missed.”
After meeting Konheim in the mid-Nineties, The Daily Front Row’s editor-in-chief and ceo Brandusa Niro said he inspired her to do more, and to do better. “He gave me courage and support. He was a superb leader and an irreplaceable friend – funny, brilliant, passionate, immensely loyal, a veritable jewel in the fashion world and in his friends’ lives, a crown jewel. Maybe it’s a cliche, but it holds so true in his case: they don’t make them like this anymore.”
Fashion writer Teri Agins recalled how Konheim was a dear friend and a tipster through the years, confirming what she had heard about the price fixing with models’ fees. When she married Paul Hands wearing a Nicole Miller lace gown last fall, Konheim offered to host the reception at the company’s showroom. She said Sunday, “He was interested in the truth. If something was failing he admitted it. He refused to sugarcoat. Integrity for days! The industry has lost a stellar player.”
Konheim is survived by his wife Colleen, a son Alex and a stepson Christian Hoagland. Another one of Konheim’s sons, Eric, died in a kayaking accident in 1991.
Following the death of his athletic environmentalist son, Konheim and his family gave a cache of money that Eric Konheim had stowed away to the Rocky Mountain Institute. The elder Konheim later worked with the RMI to create the Eric Konheim Memorial Fund and he continued supporting the organization through the years. His other philanthropic work included supporting “Puppies Behind Bars,” a group that works with prison inmates, who learn to train service dogs for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.