Miller never saw herself as a ‘woman’ entrepreneur but recognizes that ‘Somehow, the men get touted more than we do.’
6 min read
For more than three decades, Nicole Miller has been a stalwart of the American fashion industry. When the designer first launched her eponymous high-end brand in the early 1980s, her pared-down silhouette dresses became almost instantly iconic, quickly earning fashion’s favorite form of flattery: copycat designs.
In the years since, Miller has grown her business to include partnerships and collections for such mass retailers as J.C. Penney and Bed Bath & Beyond, giving the entrepreneur and her company household-name status. We checked in with this founder to talk about the past and future of her business, the impact of technology and social media and how even after 30-plus years, Miller still sees lessons she wants to learn.
You’ve been in this business for more than 30 years. What was it like building a brand when you first launched in 1982?
We launched on a bare-bones budget, $100,000 that we had scraped together from friends and family, and me and [co-founder and late CEO] Bud [Konheim]. Fortunately, that first year, I made this smocked-hip blouson dress that I think everybody in the United States bought. We made a gazillion of them, and back then, they were very avant-garde and cool and hip. But after making them for two years, it started to look kind of dumb, and by then everyone was making a version of it, so we stopped. But now it’s coming back — that whole look. I think I saw one at Zara or something like that, and I was flattered.
How did you capitalize on that early success to grow the young business?
Five years in, we opened our boutique, this little spot on Madison Avenue. We had that store for 25 years, and renovated it so many times. A cosmetics company eventually came by and offered us money for the lease, so we decided to move on. It wasn’t emotionally hard — I had hung on to it as long as I wanted it. I just got tired of looking at it. Sometimes you get to that point where you just don’t have any nostalgia left for something.
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What was it like being a female entrepreneur in the 1980s?
I never really looked at it that way. The clothing business has always had a lot of women in it. But, somehow, the men get touted more than we do. And everybody will say that; any other woman designer will say that; and it really hasn’t changed. I think women seem to have a higher rate of attrition in this industry: You always hear about these new, young, hot designers, but when they’re women, they don’t get the financing as much. And I don’t think it has anything to do with clothes.
What are some ways you have seen the industry change?
It’s changed a lot with social media. First, we were only competing with other designers. Then we had to compete with celebrities and their [apparel] brands. And now we have to compete with celebrities and influencers. And the influencers have a lot of clout, but who’s controlling their product? They’re not designers, so some sub-brand is probably doing that with them. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out.
Has that changed the way you work?
Well, I try to use some of the influencers to my advantage! Since they’re out there and they’re popular, it’s in my best interest to work with them — and a lot of them are fabulous-looking, and they style my clothes in fabulous ways I haven’t thought of. So, they’re good for us, too, but sometimes I will be in competition with them.
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Has social media given you an increased amount of customer engagement and feedback?
I don’t really get enough feedback. You post on Instagram and they go, “Oh, I love that dress or that outfit.” So, you can see what’s popular, but I don’t get a lot of complaints, I guess. Sometimes, people will ask me to bring past designs back, and in 2018 we did a vintage collection — all these vintage crepe dresses, some featuring original prints.
What’s your advice for people who want to break into this industry today?
You have to be resilient and focused. And you have to have your own identity.
How much do you work with young designers and entrepreneurs today?
I do have a lot of interns, and I work with them a lot — and I’m always trying to get them creative projects, from tie-dying t-shirts to hand-screening shirts, photographing flowers to turn into prints, helping with the runway shows.
Have many of them have gone on to have successful careers?
Well, I did have Zac Posen [as an intern]! But a lot of them have gone on to very good companies. And Alli Webb, the founder of Drybar, worked for me! They just opened a Drybar around the corner from me and I am so glad.
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As your company has grown over the years, how have your needs changed as a leader and manager?
The distribution of work changes dramatically. I used to have five designers on my team, and I don’t know why. I had five different personalities giving me five different looks, and then I’m trying to merge their looks together, when really they should be designing my looks. So, I’ve actually narrowed it down to two designers now, who are fantastic and in tune with my thinking. I’m happy with a tighter group.