How Nicole Miller turned one dress design into a four-decade-long career.
To designer Nicole Miller, fashion was all around her while growing up. She remembers the time when you couldn’t walk down 7th Avenue in Manhattan without seeing people dressed to the nines or looking chic while getting on a plane. Born in Paris and raised in the United States, Nicole became obsessed with fashion at an early age. She drew early inspiration from old pictures of her French mother in Paris and by reading the fashion magazines her mother had shipped in from France while her father ran a business in the garment district. Fashion was her world. As a kid, Nicole aspired to be a model. She idolized the top models of that 60s — Twiggy, Veruschka, and Jean Shrimpton, to name a few. Living in Western Massachusetts, she would jump at any chance to travel to New York just to shop and would return to her small town with her new edgy outfits. When she realized she would never be tall enough to be a runway model, she pivoted and turned her focus on designing clothes.
Directly after high school, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in apparel design. There she studied 2D/3D design, illustration, life and fashion drawing as well as anthropology and art history. She spent a year in Paris at Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture where she mastered the classic French techniques of haute couture. During school, she had several internships, one of which started her legendary design career. Her internship experience was priceless. Working for a popular, hip and trendy designer, she enjoyed the process, designing, production and most of all, the fashion shows. Although working her dream job, she felt a void. She left to design raincoats, a personal passion of Miller’s as she’s one to obsess over detailing and hardware. One of her raincoat designs was eventually featured in the New York Times among other publications.
Shortly after, Miller got her big break working for a new contemporary and sportswear company, P.J. Walsh that was just launching in the U.S. Within only a few years, she worked her way up to lead designer. The company ended up folding and Miller was forced to pivot again. This time, along with her business partner, they scrounged together $100,000 and took her former colleagues to start her own company, Nicole Miller, established in 1982.
For Miller, sketching never stops as she continuously ideates new designs, concepts and techniques. Though, through all the success, Miller has received her share of disappointment. During her first year in business, she had a problem with production not thoroughly inspecting a beaded top which fell apart when customers tried it on. All her profits had to be returned. “Disappointments will come, and you have to be resilient and work through it. One day, you could think you made something great, but it doesn’t sell. Becomes a really big reality check. Then you analyze and figure out why it didn’t sell.”
But rising from the ash can be magic. After the production debacle, Miller had designed an Asian blouson dress with a smocked elastic hip, somewhat avant garde for its time. The dress took off and increased the company revenue into the millions. It was the piece that got the company through the first year and versions of it were made by other designers. Duplication is the best form of flattery. Trends tend to go through some type of renaissance and Miller understands old designs may eventually be replicated. What Miller does not agree with is copying the exact design and claiming it as “original.”
If there’s advice she can give to young designers, first is to develop your identity early. “Although there are designers that are versatile, the more focused you are, the better you become as you grow as a designer” She also recommends, “Don’t be stubborn. Allow yourself to expand.” She credits her licensing business as part of the success of her company. Nicole Miller licensed products include eyewear, footwear, handbags, home goods, cookware and more. “People have not wanted to do it. I’ve done licenses and am really happy to do it.”
Being in business for four decades, Miller has received quite a bit of notoriety, but she takes the recognition in stride. “Yes, people do ask if I am the ‘Nicole Miller.’ I still get surprised since there are so many people with my name.” She eventually plans to step away from the brand, but in the meantime, she’ll continue to enjoy the perks. “My name is really good for restaurant reservations.”