A fixture in Philadelphia fashion, frock star Nicole Miller is still going strong almost four decades after founding her line.
"I always had French dolls because my mother wouldn’t buy American dolls,” says fashion designer Nicole Miller. “She was quite the fashion plate,” the petite powerhouse says of her French mother, who raised Miller with a sense of sartorial savoir-faire and followed her familial fashion education with studies at both the Rhode Island School of Design and Chambre Syndicale de La Haute Couture in Paris. Miller’s artistic sensibilities honed at RISD, combined with couture techniques and tailoring learned in Paris, are the trademarks that have earned her a fevered following for several decades running.
In 1982 Miller launched her eponymous line (nicolemiller.com) with the help of business partner Bud Konheim. Known for its figure-flattering dresses, the label was a fast success. “We didn’t start off doing runway shows,” she says of her hard work. “I made a dress that became the trend of the season, and literally everybody in New York had one— everybody everywhere had one,” she says.
“That dress—a blouson smocked hip with very tiny buttons on the shoulder—really launched the business because we sold so many of them that it gave us enough cash flow to keep going.” Today, the brand offers both the collection and atelier, as well as shoes, jewelry, activewear, home, kitchen and bath, and counts celebrity fans ranging from Angelina Jolie to Blake Lively and Beyoncé.
When asked how she keeps her aesthetic fresh and relevant after all these years, Miller attributes her success to both her couture experience and the company she keeps. “I am really a designer, which a lot of people are not,” she says. “I feel like when you’re a female, and you’re dressing yourself, you’re always sort of dissatisfied, so you’re always sort of looking for something different,” says Miller. “I never wanted the brand to get old, so I feel like I’ve always had young assistants and designers. I feel like they help me keep current,” she says, sharing that past mentees include Zac Posen, as well as others. Not that Miller shows any signs of slowing down herself. She still is superactive—both in the cutting room and outside the office. “I kiteboard, wakeboard, water ski, snow ski, snowboard, all those,” she says.
Miller’s roots run deep in Philadelphia. “I have two relatives that were mayors there back in the 1700s,” she says, also noting that she makes it a point to attend events in Philadelphia often. “I’m always impressed with what these women do. I think Philadelphia breeds that sort of independent streak and strong females.”
To Konheim, the label’s success all boils down to something quite simple in fact: “I have been doing this since 1955, so I have seen a lot. One thing that hasn’t changed in 5,000 years of recorded history: human nature. Everyone is looking for something that makes them happy. We are successful when we make the people happy. It is as simple as that. There is a happiness quotient, and we seemed to have figured that out. Mary’s stores in Philadelphia are so successful because she makes people feel good,” Konheim says of owner Mary Dougherty. Her Manayunk boutique is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and the Bellevue shop is turning 22. “When Mary has a party, they all want to come.” this past November was no exception, when Miller and her team painted the town green, along with top players from the Philadelphia Eagles, at the 5th Annual Fashion Touchdown benefiting Big Brothers Big Sisters. The event raised over a half-million dollars for the organization.
Timed with the Manayunk store’s 25th anniversary, Drexel University is hosting a Nicole Miller retrospective April 12 to Aug. 30. The free exhibition, staged inside the URBN Center’s Fox Historic Costume Collection gallery, is filled with fashion, bridalwear, Philadelphia-themed prints, photographs and other fun ephemera taken from Dougherty’s archives. “The Nicole Miller stores have played such a unique role in the social activities of the region,” says Clare Sauro, director and chief curator at FHCC. “We’ve taken a distinctly Philadelphia approach to the Nicole Miller brand with this exhibit.”
“Philadelphia is truly the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly A ection,” Dougherty says. “Our stores wouldn’t be the success they are without the loyalty of our incredible staff , interns, customers—and the support of the local community—for over 25 years,” she says. “We pride ourselves in knowing our customers’ dress sizes, where their kids go to school, charities they are involved with, wedding anniversaries, as well as their favorite restaurants. Our stores have always been a place where they feel connected personally and know we pay attention to every detail to make them feel special when they walk through our door.”