NICOLE MILLER AT 20
FILLING THE SHADOW
Byline: Julee Greenberg / Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — He’s become a sage of Seventh Avenue, while she’s built a reputation as one of New York’s quintessential designers.
But what makes Bud Konheim and Nicole Miller a special pair is not just how they’ve coexisted as business partners for 20 years, but how they’ve traveled their own route in building their business and brand.
When the retail world consolidated and markdown mania took hold, Konheim and Miller launched a chain of signatures stores that now counts 30 doors across the country. While others have aggressively licensed their names in an effort to achieve megabrand status, Nicole Miller has tread lightly, opting to do limited-distribution product extensions, all in the flavor of the core collection.
Konheim and Miller said they feel like they have just begun. They started their company in 1982 with $200,000 savings and have managed to grow into a $60 million company. They know that doesn’t make them the largest company in the business, but that’s OK with them. They have time to grow.
“Our shadow is bigger than our body,” Konheim said. “Over the next 20 years, our challenge is to fill up that shadow.”
As they celebrate the firm’s 20th anniversary, they also know that fashion must move forward to be successful. So they’ve just opened a new home line, fine jewelry will come in the spring, and have relaunched men’s wear through an exclusive agreement with Lord & Taylor.
Produced under license with House of Dreams, a manufacturer of men’s apparel, the Nicole Miller Men collection will touch on Miller’s use of whimsical and colorful patterns and prints, while still appealing to men with traditional tastes. The line will include a full range of options, from casual sweaters, pants and shirts to tailored looks in suits, dress shirts and ties.
The Nicole Miller Home Collection features products such as bedding, bath, storage and lighting. The Goodnight Kiss Collection, inspired by Miller’s signature animal and floral prints in bold colors, seeks the younger customer with an eye toward individuality and edginess.
The bedding collection consists of coordinating sheets, comforters, bed skirts and shams, as well as decorative pillows in various sizes and fabrics. The bath line is made up of coordinating embellished towels, shower curtains and bathroom accessories, including tissue-box covers, wastebaskets, lotion pumps, toothbrush holders, tumblers and soap dishes. The storage items offered are large hanging shelves, shoe shelves, over-the-door shoe organizers, garment bags, soft-sided sweater boxes, laundry totes and ironing board covers. Lighting products range from lamp shades designed to coordinate with the bedding collections to freestanding lamps and shades.
That’s a long way for the little dress firm Miller and Konheim started in 1982. Their relationship was built on and remains a simple concept: She designs the clothes and he takes care of the bottom line.
“It feels like two years,” Miller said in a joint interview at the firm’s showroom at 525 Seventh Avenue. “Some people think it’s easy, but it’s tough to stay in business and it never gets any easier.”
So what is the secret of their success? While Miller joked that she has to stay with Konheim because “no one else would be able to work with him,” their partnership is also built on trust.
Before they opened Nicole Miller, after working together for seven years at another dress firm, Konheim made two promises to Miller that he never broke.
“The first promise was that we would be partners,” Konheim said. “So far, that has worked and it has been a good partnership. How many people are partners for five years, let alone 20?”
The second promise wasn’t so easy, Konheim said, but it is one the company has stuck with through the years.
“I told Nicole that she was a great talent and that we were going to sell exactly what she designed,” he explained. “We are not going to change the designs for the stores. We will design what the customers like and stores will buy them. That was the promise that set us up.”
Konheim admitted that this philosophy, as well as the anti-markdown strategy, might have alienated stores over the years and caused growth to be stunted.
While Konheim has been working to keep these promises to Miller over the years, Miller has been concentrating on being true to her customer and not changing the direction of the design. In Miller’s first collection was a simple solid smock dress with an asymmetrical hemline that buyers loved and customers gobbled up.
“It was the kind of dress that looked great on anyone who tried it on. It was funny, I really didn’t think it would do that well, since it looked terrible on a hanger,” Miller said. “Then everyone started copying the design.”
Her signature has become those whimsical, conversational prints she puts on her designs, as well as on the licensed bags, umbrellas, socks and, of course, the ties. The men’s ties continue to be the only accessory Nicole Miller produces in-house, but they are an accessory that continues to perform well at retail. Miller said that it is in tough times that they do the best.
“They are fun, conversational pieces that people love to wear,” she said.
She expresses herself in the prints and finds it fun to experiment with new ones. But Miller said that when she thinks back to how it all began, she is surprised that she became known for her motifs, since her collections contained many more solid pieces than printed ones.
“A lot of people are confused about what came first, the printed tie or the dress. It was, of course, the clothing,” she said. “At first I never did that many prints in clothing, it was just the accent or the touch. I felt that I was more about the little black dress than I was about the prints.
“Everyone wants to be the new kid on the block, but you can’t be the new kid on the block again and again. So the secret is to keep reinventing yourself, while still being someone others can rely on. I don’t feel like we are the most commercial company out there. We have maintained what we have always been. We have managed to maintain our designs for the young-minded customer.”
With that said, Miller’s collections have generally received positive reviews over the years, but have sometimes been criticized for shying away from her signature prints, which give the collection its distinction.
The biggest challenge over the years has been translating the image of the brand and the collection at retail. For many years, most department stores didn’t have a contemporary department. They had a junior department and a misses’ department, and Nicole Miller was between the two.
“Nicole kept making young, fun, sexy designs that were not cheap for women 25 to 40 years old,” Konheim said. “The department stores said that if it is trendy and young looking, it has to be cheap. If it’s for an older woman, it has to be better made, conservative and expensive. Nicole was making a fashionable statement at a good price for a mature woman.”
Konheim and Miller now insist that the relationship they have with the department and specialty stores that carry the brand is strong. As for their own chain of signature shops, they have come a long way since the first shop opened on Madison Avenue in 1986. They now own and operate 15 Nicole Miller boutiques and franchise another 15, but they admit there have been some problems with running some of the retail spaces.
“There is so much detail to worry about with a store,” Konheim said. “Now I think we finally have a good handle on running these stores and we now know how to handle them well. We got through the rough times and learned a lot.”
Konheim said they do not plan to open any stores this year.
Meanwhile, Konheim has become an active participant in city politics and an outspoken critic of some of the ways of Seventh Avenue and retailing. He was a fund-raiser and adviser on the fashion industry for former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, while Miller helped sew the first UNITE label into a garment when that union was formed as a merger of the ILGWU and ACTWU.
Konheim has also been an active supporter of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s efforts to clean up the streets of litter and crime — Miller drove the FCBID’s first motorized street sweeper — and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s mission for cultivating new design and business talent.
Miller and Konheim have also seen the face of Seventh Avenue change. They were one of the first design houses to join the 7th on Sixth roster and held their first runway show in Bryant Park in 1990. A couple of seasons ago they chose to present the collections in a more intimate setting: their showroom. While many designers have taken this route in recent years, it has led to some cramped quarters and difficult-to-see presentations in the less-then-perfect showroom space.
As the industry has consolidated and other industries have moved in, both Miller and Konheim agree that Seventh Avenue is not what it used to be.
“I think it’s disappearing. Buildings are being taken over for other things and people are moving to SoHo,” Miller said. “I just don’t know if it’s always going to be here. When I started working in this business, fabulous-looking girls were walking down the street. You just don’t see that anymore. People used to dress up more. You used to really feel like you were on Fashion Avenue.”
As for his relationship with Miller, who despite her low-key demeanor is still a Seventh Avenue designer, the fatherly Konheim said: “Everyone has their idiosyncrasies, in any relationship. You just learn to live with them and move along with what is important.”
Sometimes, it is the small things that are most important.
“You know when you get excited about something and you just can’t wait to tell your partner?” Konheim asked. “You tell her and then she gets excited in return? Now that’s a partnership.”