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It's Miller's Time Designer Finds Success with Fun-First Fashions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After more than 16 years in the fashion business, Nicole Miller has become an overnight success.

It's hard to say exactly why. Maybe it was the formal fashion show she finally found the courage to hold two years ago -- after more than a decade of quiet sales in her showroom.

The response to the show was overwhelming, with worldwide publicity and an immediate leap in sales.

And maybe some of the credit goes to our slower-than-molasses economy, which has even women of some means now in a desperate search for dresses with high style and low price tags -- exactly what Nicole Miller has always specialized in.

No matter how you look at it, the time is right for this 40-year-old, Texas-born, Massachusetts-reared designer. In an industry where designers seem to specialize in copying one another, Ms. Miller's clothes are different. They have style, they have a sense of humor and most importantly, they are relatively inexpensive.

"I don't think that women have to be priced out of fashion," says Ms. Miller, who offers dresses for less than $200. Although her very special evening outfits can cost more than $1,000, her best sellers ring in at about $500. In Baltimore her clothes can be found at area department stores as well as specialty stores such as Femme and Panache.

"Price can be controlled. And style -- that's something that you should get automatically, no matter what the cost," she says.

Ms. Miller's method of keeping costs to a minimum blends good old-fashioned restraint with a healthy dose of common sense. And with annual sales climbing to the $40 million mark, this designer is riding her conservative conscience all the way to the bank.

"All of our goods are manufactured in the United States -- that way we can keep a close eye on quality control, and we don't have to spend an outrageous amount of money on imported fabrics and duties," she says. "I don't see where the European fabrics or manufacturing is so superior to what we can get right here. It may mean that we spend more time developing our American resources, but we more than make up for it in savings. Besides the customer doesn't have to pay for all of our trips to Europe."

Ms. Miller also operates with a very small margin of error when placing her orders with manufacturers. "What many designers do is overcut to allow for extra orders. What's left over they assume will be marked down, and of course the consumer pays for those markdowns. I try very hard not to overproject, and if I fall short I can always reorder since the factories are so close. A customer ** shouldn't have to pay for my mistake."

THE FUN ONE

Although the price tag will likely play an important role in whether a garment ever makes it to the cash register, Ms. Miller insists that women buy clothes strictly on emotion. "If a woman is absolutely crazy about something, she will feel like she can't live without it. If a dress is that exciting to her, she will do almost anything to get it. On the other hand, if something is sort of run-of-the mill, she will hesitate, thinking that she can maybe get something better someplace else. My job is to make clothes that she will fall in love with and buy immediately."

This philosophy has gained Nicole Miller a reputation for having some of the most unique prints in the industry. One of her patterns consisted of junk you'd find at the bottom of your purse. Another showed a jumble of theater tickets. Still others featured such unusual motifs as fortune cookies complete with printed predictions and matchbooks from trendy New York nightclubs.

Originally, those prints were made up in skinny slip dresses and full-skirted dance numbers. However, when Ms. Miller stitched one up as a tie for partner Bud Konheim, she hit on an idea that would bring in close to $8 million annually. Her crazy-print ties, originally sold only through dress shops, have earned her a very profitable spot in the men's market. Locally, they can be found in men's specialty stores such as A. J. Borenstein's Eclectic and J. S. Edwards.

It seems that men, too, are willing to part with a buck when they think they are buying something unique, exciting and expressive.

For Ms. Miller, coming up with these ideas is as easy as going out to dinner. (One pasta print came after she went out to eat with a few friends.)

"One thing I try very hard to do is to have fun -- all the time," says this vibrant redhead who hits New York's party scene almost every night. She was even photographed for People magazine while rolling on in-line skates through her TriBeCa loft. "I think that's the best way to bring fun and excitement to my designs."

"On the other hand, one thing I never do is listen to my customers. So many designers go out on these personal appearances and they hear women asking for this and that. I find that just distracts me. I can't design for any woman but myself. I make the kinds of things that I want to wear . . . crazy things and sometimes more serious things that show different sides of my personality. People keep asking me to bring back some of the baggy old things I did years ago when I used to think I was fat. But I say no way to that because I feel like I have to go forward and do new things all the time. To go backward is to get stuck."

Not surprisingly, all this emphasis on fun means that some of Ms. Miller's clothes don't work for more serious pursuits -- such as work. Many of her micro hemlines and shapely waists are a bit too provocative for the conservative Baltimore/Washington area.

She also gets some complaints on the fit of her garments, which often excludes all but the tall, thin woman with no hips but plenty of nerve.

Says one shop owner, "Tell her that I could sell a lot more of her merchandise if it would cover my customers' fannies."

But Ms. Miller says her clothes are for those who are hip. Anyone with a little extra around the hips might want to look elsewhere.

THE AGE RAGE

Ask Ms. Miller who her clients are and she'll tell you they range in age from 18 to 80.

But for the most part her fun-and-funky looks appeal to those on the kinder side of 35.

"I want the people who wear my clothes to look and feel hip. I don't like stuffy clothes, and I think my customer prefers clothes that will make them feel fun rather than proper," she explains. "I don't care how old the customers are, just as long as they want to look young."

For a woman whose focus is firmly turned toward the here and now, Ms. Miller gets a great deal of inspiration from the '60s.

Many of her color-blocked chemises, cutout midriffs and op-art graphics are pure pop, and many of her acid-tinged colors hearken back to the days of vinyl go-go boots and frosted lipstick.

Right now her favorite piece is a baseball dress, featuring curved seams meant to mimic those on a baseball. "That seaming does a lot for the figure," she says. "Believe me, I know, because I wear that dress all the time."

FROM RAINCOATS TO SWIMSUITS

Like most designers of her age, Ms. Miller spent her first years out of design school (she trained in Paris and New York) working her way up and down Seventh Avenue. She developed a talent for creating amusing raincoats, and in 1982 she formed a partnership with Bud Konheim, a third-generation fashion-industry man. Together the two invested $200,000 and began translating Ms. Miller's quirky sense of humor into something more than raincoats.

As Nicole Miller Inc. approaches $40 million in annual sales, the designer is taking on a number of licenses, including handbags, scarves, shoes and swimsuits.

She also has plans in the works to open eight boutiques, from Madison Avenue to Mexico City to Barcelona, all by the end of 1992.

"They're fun cities," says Ms. Miller. "I think my clothes will do

well there."

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