Time-starved consumers, mobile shopping and ailing shopping malls are among the numerous now-norms that Nicole Miller’s chief executive officer Bud Konheim predicted decades ago.
The quintessential optimist, who liked to boast that he never had a bad day, was always willing to lend an ear to the opposing side. Konheim once explained to a friend, “I have a problem spending too much time in my ‘comfort zone.’ It comes from years of running a fashion business. I get paid to handle the bad news, not revel in the good. When a day goes by and I haven’t heard any bad news, I get itchy because I know every day produces bad news, I just haven’t heard it. Similarly, with political, military opinions and ‘facts.’ The only way I feel comfortable in what I believe is to hear the opposing view. Sometime the opposing view actually makes more sense than mine.”
Here, a recap of the many fashion, business and societal shifts that Konheim sensed long before they materialized.
On enacting the voluntary drug testing of employees to ensure a sober workplace in 1986.
“Nobody has to take the test if they don’t want to. I don’t want to be hysterical about it. But we’re stupid if we ignore what’s going on in the world.”
Anticipating a windfall in sales from the yet-to-be late Eighties trend of vibrant, body-hugging looks.
“When the coats come off in the spring, you’re gonna see the gold rush rejuvenated. We’re halfway to Alaska already.”
Sizing up Black Friday in 1988.
“What happened on Oct. 19, , has already taken its place in history. Just because the market crashed doesn’t mean women aren’t going to buy clothes anymore. We’re in the middle of a fashion revolution.”
On shopping malls in 1990.
“I never wanted to be in malls in the first place. Malls give me hives. They’re completely devoid of any personality.
“The ambiance of malls has changed. There are a lot of nonshoppers and gangs and danger in the parking lots. They’re on the verge of being taken over by teenagers.”
Forecasting the rise of concept shops in 1988.
“In a department store, when a little shop is run like a designer boutique, it’s the best merchandising around. It can be one-stop shopping for the consumer, if she’s in the mood for a particular brand.”
Commenting on how a dress in a theater ticket-theme print tanked at retail and surprisingly resulted in a $12.5 million novelty tie business.
“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.”
The debut of Nicole Miller’s first concept shop at Bloomingdale’s in 1992.
“The enemies of fashion retailing are saturation and predictability, which is boring. We don’t want our own shop in every department store.”
On launching a catalogue to 70,000 customers culled from the company’s 14 freestanding stores in 1994.
“The catalogue is a culmination of how our business is changing. A traditional advertising vehicle is like shouting in a noisy room — you end up not being heard.”
The source of the new sweatshop syndrome in 1997.
“All the mass market chains are trying to emulate the better department stores with more fashionable merchandise. At the same time, the demand for apparel is high, but supply is even higher. There are too many stores and too many labels vying for the consumers’ disposable income, which is increasingly spread thin by other priorities. There’s virtually no inflation in women’s apparel prices, so the only way for some firms to make their goods cheaper is to manufacture in sweatshops.
“The industry doesn’t do anything to promote its image, and the growth of the contractor system has stunted the rise of technology in the industry. These big company-owned facilities are state-of-the-art because they have the financial ability to invest in machinery that will make them more efficient. Small contractors don’t operate that way. They make money on labor.”
Launching e-commerce in 1998.
“I thought the only reason to be online was to sell. But we have found that customers go from there into the store.”
On time-starved shoppers in 1998.
“We train our people that the customer has a limited amount of time to shop, but in that time they need to find out what she wants and what she expects of Nicole Miller.”
Looking at the big picture in 2001.
“The fashion industry operates in a world of its own.”
The promise of the Internet in 2000.
“When it comes to the Internet, you need a horizon that’s three to four years out. Our redesigned site will be fast, colorful and ultra high-tech with features like voice answering e-mail messages, 360-degree viewing of clothing and a virtual dressing room.
“[The company’s first web site launched in 1994 and] that was a time when no one could even spell the word Internet. The original site was built by an unsuccessful hockey player and bomber-jacket maker for $10,000.”
Anticipating mobile-wielding shoppers in 2000.
“I don’t even know if PCs and laptops will be around. They might be an eight-track.”
On holding off on posting runway footage until the appropriate buy-now season in 2000.
“You don’t want to give away what you’re doing six months ahead of time. It’s not productive for business, so what purpose does it serve?”
Sizing up online equality in 2000.
“The freedom, mobility and advertising on the Internet is going to be unbelievable for the little guys. If someone is on my site, I’m equal to Ralph Lauren, to Calvin Klein and to Levi’s, and I don’t have to pay rent to Simon Malls.”
The great department store debate in 2000.
“My retail hall of fame is Les Wexner and Mickey Drexler, and probably some others who have no problem saying what’s on their mind. The scene is changing. The hot things are H&M, Forever 21 and Zara. Then you have the Internet on the rise.”
On his company’s aversion to chargebacks and markdowns in 2007.
“Someone asked me how we get away with it, and I said, ‘Just say no.’ It doesn’t make sense because the money has to come from somewhere, so if you raise the prices in order to pay back, you’re encouraging the markdown. It’s a silly game and I refuse to play it.
“Unless you sell the clothes all the guarantees are worth less.”
On the prospect of financial suitors in 2013.
“What I get is, ‘This guy is worth billions. He’s got so-and-so capital. They just closed a bunch of deals. They are billion, billion, billion.’ OK, so I say, ‘Does that get my attention?’ Not really.”
What’s at the heart of being a designer in 2013.
“A true designer hates the status quo. Actually, a true designer hates what she just did.”
Recalling his 1955 start in the garment center as a fourth-generation apparel producer in 2011.
“It was like summer camp. When you would talk to someone one-on-one in the showroom or their offices, they always had the hottest thing going. But when you would get together in a group on the street or over lunch, business was always lousy.
“You had truckers coming in every morning from the factories to unload or pick up their goods and therefore the racks and pushcarts were all over the streets. You also had until the 1980s, all the buying offices, so salesmen would be running around delivering samples and orders. Now they’re mostly gone and you have people doing business at trade shows in other parts of town. It’s still got personality, but it’s not what it once was — and it will never be the same.”
The enduring popularity of the color blue.
“America loves blue.”
Deciding not to advise employees how to vote, but giving them the time to do so, in advance of the fall 2017 midterm elections.
“No opinion is the one thing we can all agree on.”