By Laurie Brookins Photographs by Douglas Friedman| August 23, 2011 |
Plaster silk twill dress ($410) and foiled skirt ($345), Nicole Miller. 200 South Broad St.. Shoes, bracelet and watch, Miller’s own
David Bowie To the Rescue
She has explored Byzantine cultures and ancient Mayan civilizations, all in the quest of design inspiration. So what moved Nicole Miller for her Fall 2011 collection? A little David Bowie.
“I was into melding a rocker aspect with a futuristic take, and that is what Bowie says to me,” Miller explains in her New York studio one late June morning. “I feel like I have done the travel thing, so what interested me was moving on to a more abstract idea, one that blended artistry and futurism.” Her penchant for digital prints likewise evokes this idea, with Miller pointing to the contemporary artist Ellsworth Kelly as a key inspiration: “He is a little earlier than what I collect—I tend to collect more from the ’80s onward—but I am certainly a big fan, and that is definitely at the heart of the angular ideas for the prints,” she says.
Fashion for the People
The fashion community will see this artful blend, from Bowie-influenced metal pants to Kelly-inspired graphic prints, when Miller shows off her Fall collection on September 12 as part of The Philadelphia Collection, a 10-day series of fashion events around the city, where it will be part of the XIX Most Fashionable Women kickoff party at the restaurant XIX Nineteen (which will benefit The Career Wardrobe). But if you are expecting full-on Ziggy Stardust, then you don’t know Miller. “People are always asking, ‘Is fashion art?’ But fashion really has to function, whereas art does not,” she says. “It is fun to make some crazy things once in a while, but in the end, someone has to wear it.”
It is this mix of posh and pragmatic, the notion of luxe clothes that never veer into the unapproachable or outlandish, that has garnered for Miller a devoted fan base, particularly in the Philadelphia area. “She is a rock star when she comes into Philadelphia; everyone knows her,” says Mary K. Dougherty, owner of the two Nicole Miller boutiques in Manayunk and Center City. “And when I am at a party, I feel like a rock star, because everyone comes up to me and asks, ‘Omigosh, you’re wearing Nicole Miller? I wore her to my wedding,’ or ‘I wore her for my very first job interview.’ When you have been in this business a while, you see things come and go, but Nicole is someone who is always rocking and rolling. She is young and fun and has a great spirit, and that comes through in her clothes.”
Style and Substance
This year marks the 25th anniversary since Miller opened her first boutique on Madison Avenue (you will now find 28 around the US, including the two Philadelphia locations), but during that time, she has never strayed from focusing on one key question: How do you create a collection that feels modern but relatable? For several seasons, that question has been the impetus behind Miller’s drive (and impressive ability) to mix chic pieces—“I have some really great coats in the Fall collection,” she points out—with her growing fondness for digital prints. “I am always interested in the newest fabric; I think I was the first designer to get into metal fabrics, for example, and I have always been interested in how to take prints to another level,” she says. “But it is only recently that the industry caught up to what I wanted to do.
Miller in her New York Studio
“Years ago you could do this type of photo printing, but it had to be on synthetics, and there were not many good polyesters out there,” she continues. “When printing on fabric went digital, all of a sudden, you could produce these amazing effects on silks and georgettes and cashmeres and wool coating. It is a whole new world now; anything is possible.”
From her studio wall, a portrait of Miller by Philadelphia pop artist John Stango
Indeed, adhering to that yin and yang—wearable must-haves that, upon closer inspection, push design to new levels—has always been at the heart of Miller’s philosophy. “I am definitely someone who believes in design innovation, and I am always a little amazed by designers who make expensive clothes but [make it] about buying super-expensive fabrics,” she says. “It is easy to buy three yards of $200 fabric, but that is not design—that is just buying someone else’s expensive fabric.” She mentions another designer whose prices far exceed Miller’s: “A friend said they saw someone in one of my dresses, and it was actually [not my design],” she recalls. “It was funny and flattering, thinking they might have been influenced by some of the things I am doing, and my dresses are $500, whereas others [out there] are $2,000 or more.”
“One of the greatest things about Nicole is that she is an incredible designer, but there is absolutely no ego there; she just puts her head down and works, no matter what,” says Dougherty, who was one of Miller’s wholesale reps for more than 20 years before opening the Philadelphia boutiques. “She loves to push boundaries while still producing collections that are timeless and an amazing quality and affordable. You just cannot get a better combination than that.”
On the Road
With the economy still a hot topic in just about every retail or fashion conversation, I cannot help but ask Miller if it is more vital than ever to get out on the road and do personal appearances and fashion shows like this month’s event in Philadelphia. “Sure, you have got to keep doing everything, otherwise it is too easy for people to forget about you,” she notes. “There are so many celebrities being designers and socialites being designers, it is not enough to just sit back and design clothes anymore. You have to be out there and on top of everything nonstop. The world has changed, and you have to keep up with the world.”
While a few of her new looks boast more than a bit of “Rebel Rebel,” there is already a hint that another culture will soon be finding its way into a future collection. “I went down to do a fashion week in Santo Domingo recently; I kind of went on a lark, but it ended up being a great experience,” Miller says. “It is a colorful country with a lot of great people, and it gave me some great ideas. I met these crazy guys who dressed really eccentrically, and I think you will see bits of that in my Resort collection.”
Dougherty, for one, is not surprised. “One of the things I love about Nicole is not only that she is always looking ahead, but also that she is pretty fearless and always ready to embrace new ideas and new experiences,” she says. “It is one of the reasons Nicole just gets better and better.”