Nicole Miller and the $10 Million Mistake That Haunts Her to This Day

by The Daily Front Row

Nicole Miller is not simply a fixture of American fashion who is celebrating more than 25 years at NYFW this season—she is also fully immersed in the art world, with an intriguing past that we finally convinced her to discuss! The proud RISD alum and avid art collector counts former teacher Dale Chihuly as a frequent pen pal (and friend), had memorable run-ins with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Roy Lichtenstein, and hung out with Andy Warhol at The Factory. And that’s only the beginning!

When did your love of art emerge?
I was always an art lover, and have always enjoyed contemporary art, like [Roy] Lichtenstein—all those ’60s modern artists are my favorites. Then I went to RISD, a place with a lot of art and culture, and people were creative in multiple ways. There was even a tap dancing troupe. I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of people from there over the years.

NEW YORK CITY – AUGUST 21: Designer Nicole Miller sighted on August 21, 1987 at her showroom in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Such as?
Mary Boone was in a class with me freshman year, and she’s probably the I’ve bought the most work from over the years. We’re great friends; I just talked to her a few days ago. Dale Chihuly was a teacher while I was there, and he’s a good friend now. I always get little packages in the mail from him: crazy postcards, books…. It’s the coolest thing. He doodles on the packages, puts tons of old stamps… they’re really hilarious. I stay in touch with James Carpenter, too—he’s another glassblower. There were a lot of famous musicians there when I was in school: David Byrne and Talking Heads, Martin Mull.

You’re still on the RISD board—clearly, you enjoyed the place.
It’s got really vibrant culture. Now, there’s all kinds of famous alumni, like Shepard Fairey, Kara Walker, Dan Colen, Seth MacFarlane, and Jemima Kirke. I think it was cooler when I went there. It was more funky! It was such an exciting time. Providence is now a mellow, gentrified place with nice restaurants and a beautiful waterfront. When I went there, it was totally seedy! People were always burning down buildings in order to rebuild stuff, and furnishing apartments from abandoned furniture warehouses. There was a Mafia element, too. There were all these drag queen bars downtown. Rhode Island had all kinds of jewelry companies, so Providence was like a trove of cool stuff; all these stores had vintage jewelry from the ’40s and ’50s, or amazing vintage fabric. Even the RISD students seem more conservative than when I was there; there are always some funky people, but when I was there it felt like everyone was funky.

NEW YORK – APRIL 1992: Fashion designer Nicole Miller poses for a photo at a party at Bendel’s department store in April 1992 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Sounds glorious. When did you first start collecting art?
My first pieces were from RISD auctions, actually. To this day, one of my favorite pieces I own is by a RISD teacher [from an auction], a still life of an apple and a water pail. Another amazing piece I got at an auction is by Peter Buchman, an artist who shows in the Hamptons a lot; it’s a 3-D sculpture called “Jazz Club.” Funny thing is, Dale always put things up for auction, and they were always just out of my reach, price-wise. One year, he sent me a big, lightweight box, and everybody thought he sent a glass piece. You know what it was? Some books. I was like, Damn. But I get plenty of goodies.

How did your collection progress from there?
I have a lot of things I haven’t even hung, that are wrapped up in storage. I keep a lot of pieces at the office, too, because I don’t have enough room at home. I have great pieces from Terence Koh and Peter Saul that I haven’t figured out where to put! Maybe I should start rotating the pieces in my apartment.

Any collecting regrets?
I always say the stupidest thing I ever did was not buy a Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mary really wanted me to meet him; she told me he was this really strong artist. She probably should’ve just sold it to me without having me meet him, because he was just rude. I left and thought, No way am I buying a painting from this guy. I call that my $10-million-dollar mistake. And every year, that mistake’s [price] goes up. Did you see that Basquiat painting that just went for $110 million!? One of my girlfriends lived with him for a year. He broke up with her, and when he left, he left behind about 100 pieces of artwork. She was so pissed off, she packed them in boxes and sent them to him; she says he never would’ve asked for them back. [Laughs]

Employees pose with ‘Red Skull’, 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Christie’s London on September 29, 2017 (Getty Images)

Who else have you crossed paths with in the art world?
That same girlfriend actually worked with Andy Warhol, so I got to hang out with Andy a lot. It was so much fun! We’d do these blind-date dinner nights—everyone would bring a date to match with someone else, and the guests were never in on the secret.… Andy was really hard to set up. One night, we brought this guy for Andy; he was Toulouse-Lautrec’s great grandson or something, and he was definitely not interested in Andy. It’s just that Andy was quirky and different, or picky.

Any other particularly memorable encounters with artists?
I met Roy Lichtenstein at a birthday party. I’m not going to give the inside story on that one.

How have your artist pals influenced your  own work?
I’m friends with people like Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner, and Will Cotton. I don’t know if it’s influenced me directly, but I love living around their art; I have pieces by all of those people.

What are your favorite museums?
I love the new Whitney, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Cooper Hewitt, especially its textile shows. I still haven’t been to the Met Breuer. And in Paris, you can’t beat the Louvre!

Do you hit up art fairs regularly?
I go to fairs here, like Frieze. The only one I’ve traveled to is Art Basel Miami for a bit, but it got to be such a zoo, I don’t think I’d go back. It became more about the parties, and then the art, if you could squeeze it in. I always go to the Brant Foundation in Connecticut in April and October. But what I really like is to spend a day in Chelsea and go to all those great galleries.

You’ve been a NYFW stalwart for around a quarter of a century now. Highlights, please!
Yikes! [Laughs] I have to say, my first fashion show was a great coup: I managed to get Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell. We got one, and the rest of them came along. Anne Klein used to book its models for the entire day. It was so annoying! So I couldn’t get Christy and Linda for my second show, though I later got Christy intermittently. Naomi would walk me down the runway [as the finale] for almost every show, for my first five or six years. Sometimes, Naomi would have six changes in one of my shows; no girl has more than two changes now! If I couldn’t book one of the supermodels for a show, I’d be devastated. Then Kate Moss came along, and I’d get her. Then the models all decided they wanted to raise their rates one year, so that put a damper on things.

NEW YORK CITY – APRIL 6: Model Niki Taylor walking down the runway at the Fall 1994 Fashion Week: Nicole Miller Fashion Show on April 6, 1994 at Bryant Park in New York City, New York. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Any other shows—and go-to girls—that have really stood out over the years?
I really liked Spring ’91 and Spring ’94. Karen Mulder was one of my absolute favorites. When I saw her I said, “I’ve got to get that girl.” Same thing with Karen Elson. I knew I had to get her the second I saw her, too. The first time she came to my office, I said, “Where have you been? You kind of sprang up out of nowhere!” And she goes, “No, I’ve been around, but I just dyed my hair and cut it, and now everyone’s paying attention to me.”

How has your personal style evolved?
I never wore jeans for years; I was into miniskirts, black pantyhose, and boots. Now, I love black jeans, and wear them all the time!

What do you hope your brand looks like 25 years from now?
Oh, I’ll be retired by then! [Laughs] I’ll probably still be coming into the office and harassing everyone. I hope the brand will be ongoing, and that it’ll maintain its young attitude. I think the longer companies are in business, the clothes tend to get more conservative. We’ve never done that; we’ve always had young customers. I don’t want to wear old lady clothes!

Rolonda Watts, Brooke Shields, Nicole Miller and Phoebe Legere (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

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