Nicole Miller’s Sustainability Obsession and What’s Next for the Brand

by Tangie Silva

Nicole Miller’s “hands-on” approach to design has ensured her brand’s success in the increasingly competitive retail landscape. The Daily caught up with the fashion mogul post–Fashion Week and pre-Coterie to get the scoop on her latest collection, current sustainability obsession, and most important, her astrological sign!

Nicole Miller and model (Caroline Fiss)

What’s the story behind your Fall ’19 collection?
I’ve been on an anti-plastic, sustainable, recyclable, and reusable kick. First, I got a bunch of vintage men’s cashmere sweaters, and had all my designers and staff participate. Some we cut down, and some we left large. We slashed them, shredded them, tie-dyed them, beaded them, embellished them.… It was a great design project and challenge! The funny thing was that initially, everybody was intimidated. The sweaters sat there for weeks until one brave intern went in and chop, chop, chopped it in half! It was really cute. A lot of the sweaters will be sold on the website as one – of – a – kind items. Some of the ones we liked best will be remade and sold for the holiday collection.

Are you using any other techniques or fabrics?
I’ve been working with old denim, too. You can buy it by the pound at some vintage places. I cut it up for pockets and the old waistbands. I started using these techniques for Spring, and I added a bit more of them for Fall.

How did you implement your sustainable obsession?
We made a jean out of recycled soda bottles, and then I made an anti-plastic T-shirt that wasn’t on the runway but is going to be on our website. The recycled jeans are going to be on the website in another month or two as well. In Europe, I found a lot of recycled fabrics. Europeans are aggressive about recycling. I had long conversations with a lot of companies that are forerunners for all this — the ones that are really making strides. It seems like they’re more aggressive about it over there than we are here. I think a lot of it is just creating awareness. That’s sort of the big company philosophy here, too. We’ll do whatever we can to get the word out. I have an [internal] newsletter, which I don’t send every week, but I do it when something comes up that’s really relevant.

What do you discuss in the newsletter?
For example, one was about gyms that give everyone a free water bottle or sell water. I believe that gyms should make people bring their own water bottles. We all should think more about our personal habits.

Beyond the sweaters, what was the inspiration for the collection?
We started thinking about what women do every day. Everybody’s always looking for answers, so they’re always looking at their horoscopes, and they’re always going to work or going to the gym, so I showed business suits with athletic clothes. We used embroidery with messages, as well as astrology prints. The collection is about seeking balance in life, too, so we included a little bit of fun. I couldn’t resist putting in some club posters, because you can’t just be a stiff all the time.

Speaking of astrology, what sign are you?
Pisces. But I haven’t had a birthday in years. [Laughs]

Do you relate to the characteristics of a Pisces?
Well, I don’t know, because I find it confusing. I’ll find Pisces people and they’re either very similar to me or they’re very different. One girlfriend of mine was always carrying on saying, “I’m sensitive! I’m a Pisces! I’m this! I’m that!” And I said, “You’re so not a Pisces. I bet you were [born] premature.” And she was! She should’ve actually been an Aries.

Are there any Pisces traits that you identify with?
Well, I think they always say sensitive and artistic, right? And creative.

Have you noticed any trends on the horizon?
There are many trends going on concurrently. Skinny jeans are in, high-waisted jeans are in, baggy jeans are in.… There’s always a lot of freedom to make yourself look however you want.

What were some of the key Fall pieces you think every woman should have in her closet?
I really like the gangster-stripe blazer that opened the show. I like the embellished boyfriend shirt, too.

How hands-on are you during the production process?
Well, it’s kind of funny — I did embroider some of the samples myself.

Not a lot of designers do that.
Well, I was given this sewing machine, and I kind of got addicted to it, but then I got custom-made embroideries, and I designed a bunch myself. I taught one of the sewers how to use the machine, but initially, I was the only person who knew how to use it!

Are you going to be at Coterie?
I always stop by to do a run – through to make sure everything looks good! But then it’s onto the next thing — we’re going to Shanghai Fashion Week, and Shanghai doesn’t want us to show the same thing that was on the New York runway, so I have to make a whole new collection.

How much time do you have to turn it around?
One month! Because we’re going someplace else, it’s going to be a little out there. I’m trying to do things that are totally different.

The Daily also caught up with CEO and co-founder of Nicole Miller, Bud Konheim. The always-dishy exec reveals his own recipe for fashion domination — and tackles a few other issues, while he’s at it!

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?

Of course.
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.

Nicole Miller, Bud Konheim (Giorgio Niro)

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

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