Bud Konheim, the chief executive officer of Nicole Miller Inc. and the designer’s longtime, much-beloved business partner, died on Saturday after sustaining injuries in a bicycle accident in Connecticut. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth College, Konheim went on to serve in the U.S. Marines before becoming a fourth-generation garment executive. An industry leader for over 40 years, he co-founded Nicole Miller in 1982, and he was instrumental in the brand’s evolution into an international powerhouse with approximately 40 employees and a robust licensing business. An iconic executive, innovative thinker, and profoundly loyal colleague and friend, Konheim was deeply beloved and admired.
“Ever since I met Bud, in the mid-nineties, I wanted to be like him when I grew up…even though i was already pretty grown,” says Brandusa Niro, editor-in-chief and CEO of The Daily Front Row. “He inspired me to do more, and 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. Our dinners were always my favorite — hi Bud, let’s have a state of the union!— and the most incredible fun. Every time I said good bye I wanted to see him again immediately, I could never get enough. I spoke with Bud the day before his accident and we were scheduling one of our dinners for this Tuesday. It’s impossible to imagine the world without him.”
The Daily‘s thoughts are with Nicole Miller and the company’s wonderful staff, whom Konheim valued so deeply, and Konheim’s family—his wife, Colleen, a son, Alex Konheim, and a stepson, Christian Hoagland. Another son, Eric Konheim, passed away in a kayaking accident in 1991; Bud Konheim worked with the Rocky Mountain Institute to support the organization through the Eric Konheim Fund. We are deeply sorry for the loss, and would like to honor Kohheim’s legacy by re-publishing an interview that ran in our magazine in February 2019, below.
You’ve been in the business forever. What’s the luxury industry looking like from your perspective?
The whole idea of luxury has changed, and who has changed with it? Nobody. Not the industry. I’m trying!
New ideas can be risky…
What’s risky is the old idea that you stay with, because it always works. That is a disaster. Let’s take the idea of markdown allowances and return privileges — it trained retailers not to be responsible for what they buy. They didn’t have to select good merchandise from bad merchandise because they always had the ability to go back to the manufacturer and say, “Pay me.” Then, the manufacturer would say, “Listen — we don’t want to take it back if you’re not selling it, mark it down and we’ll pay you the difference.” Now, 60 percent off is not even a markdown. You can’t get anyone’s attention unless you’ve marked something down to 75 percent off. Who wins the price war? The person who gets to zero first. We all know what the problem is, but where is the new thought? What you have to do is you have to get back to Adam and Eve and start from scratch. Did you study Latin?
Tabula rasa. Start with a clean slate. Why does anyone want to buy anything from us? When you start there and when you get your answer to that, you are on your way to a new business model that might work. The reason somebody wants to buy something is because it makes them feel good. How do you make people feel good? Well, you can do it with a cute design, you can do it through price, you can do it through keeping them warm when it’s cold, or cool when it’s hot. Our particular way of making people feel good is Nicole. She makes women feel good with the clothes. End of the story. Do we talk in those terms? No, we don’t talk in those terms.
We talk in womenswear terms — it’s edgy, it’s cool, it’s Lower East Side or it’s Upper West Side, whatever the hell it is. We use all kinds of language to cover up what we’re trying to do, which is to make women feel good when they buy merchandise designed by Nicole Miller. When we don’t make them feel good, we know immediately what the answer is — they don’t buy it. What we’re doing now is expanding Nicole’s idea of the aesthetics that make people feel good. We’ve gone into jeans, and we’ve now expanded into the lifestyle area as well with Nicole Miller Home. Have you seen our rugs? They’re great.
Yes, and the jeans are fantastic, too.
Right now, design doesn’t have the same cachet as hype. Hype is selling more merchandise than good design. But we’re not letting anyone slap our name on a product. Nicole’s jeans feel like pajamas — they’re soft, stretchy, and flexible, and they look great. We insist that all our products are up to our standards, as if Nicole is standing behind the piece as it’s being made.
She’s incredibly hands-on.
Because that’s who we are. On a regular basis, Nicole is asked by big-name designers, “Do you go into the office on a regular basis? Do you ever show up? Do you need to do anything there?” She’s in here every day. I get to the office at a quarter to 8, and she gets in a quarter after 8, and she’s here until 7 o’clock at night.
You two make a great team.
I tell you what — it’s all the elements, consistently doing the same thing over the years, come hell or high water. One of the things that brought the industry down is [overhyping] the latest flavor of the month. I am totally against the idea of developing a prima donna, genius designer right out of design school. When Michelangelo graduated art school, he had to copy the masters for eight years before they gave him a brush of his own.
How many licenses does the company have now?
Around 63. Retail buyers tell me anything with the name Nicole Miller on it sells. But let me tell you something — it comes with a lot of work. We are very careful about the product, and we don’t put our
name on toilet paper. Nicole is hands-on in everything she does.
The brand’s longevity and success is really remarkable.
I’ve been in the industry since 1955 — I’m fourth generation in the business, and I’ve never not had an interesting day. Not every day is good, but I can never say it is boring… And there has never been a day without some kind of challenge. Some of the challenges, some of the worst challenges, are when you’re doing well. What’s the thing that separates a real designer from someone who’s just playing? A real designer hates what she just did. Because if she loves what she just did and figures that’s the end of the design, nobody needs her anymore. The whole point of design is to improve the status quo — to change the world from what it is into something that’s more perfect. I don’t care if we made the best piece of clothing that was ever done yesterday. That was yesterday, now we have to improve on that, and that’s what designers are all about