The Real Deal New York

Nicole Miller’s new pattern

After three decades at the helm of her successful fashion label, the longtime designer still surprises
By Christopher Cameron | September 08, 2015 07:00AM

How does fashion designer Nicole Miller think she’ll celebrate after this month’s New York Fashion Week? She’s toying with the idea of taking her team surfing following the show. That’s right, surfing. And it wouldn’t be the first time — she’s tamed the waves with her staff in the past.

Miller, the longtime consummate professional, is brimming with the unexpected. For example, with her upcoming collection, the designer who “always sells pretty” is turning her attention to the street.

On the first Friday of Fashion Week, Miller will debut her new spring line at Skylight Clarkson Sq in Soho, inspired by the back streets of New York. The Downtown-chic collection is the latest installment from the pattern-obsessed designer in a series of themes that have included fantasy (think Tolkien illustrations) and a “magic carpet ride” in recent seasons.

“We wanted to capture the hardcore vibe of the street,” Miller says. Armed with cameras, Miller turned her team loose on Downtown Manhattan. “We were inspired by things like manhole covers, metal grates and cobblestone streets,” she says. “We turned those images into monochromatic patterns, and it looks really great.”

“The funny thing is that we always sell pretty, and we wanted ‘street’ to be pretty, so we put flowers on everything. It’s like if you saw flowers on a manhole cover,” she added.

If anyone can make a manhole cover flattering, it might well be Miller, who, after more than three decades of enviable success designing under her own label, is still at the creative helm of her firm.

Together with her business partner Bud Konheim (who stirred controversy last year after suggesting on CNBC that America’s less fortunate should stop whining), Miller has built a brand that drives reportedly more than half a billion dollars in annual sales. And everyone from Angelina Jolie to Jennifer Aniston and from Beyoncé to Blake Lively have strutted the red carpet in her gowns.

Her clothing and bedding collections are distributed to roughly 1,000 stores nationwide — from her two high-end boutiques, Nicole Miller Soho and Nicole Miller West Hollywood, to premium department stores Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, as well as mass and specialty stores like JCPenney and Anthropologie, to name a few.

And while Miller is a designer thoroughly embraced by the mainstream consumer — she recently celebrated a decade-long partnership with JCPenney on the rooftop of the Refinery Hotel in Midtown — her own style is anything but.

“I like more obscure designers,” Miller says, in the living room of her 10th-floor Tribeca co-op of 25 years, wearing a glimmering blue, black and gold dress of her own design (see cover photo). With her husband, financier Kim Taipale, she splits her time between Manhattan and her home of 19 years in Sag Harbor. “I don’t really like the mainstream people.”

She loves the work of Michael van der Ham — a Dutch designer known for his bold women’s wear and his costumes for Bjork and Tori Amos — and Philipp Plein — an irreverent German designer who was dubbed the “Neo-Fashion-Nazi” by Chinese protesters angered over his campaign against design plagiarism in China.

“Likewise with art, I tend toward obscurity,” she adds.

In her sprawling Manhattan home, Miller has more art than walls. But save for a pair of Ray Johnson prints in the guest bathroom, the majority of her collection is composed of lesser-known artists.

A painting of a young girl in the backseat of a car dominates her living room. It’s by American artist Damien Loeb; “Not to be confused with Damien Hirst,” Miller says. A snarling punk rock composition by artist Micha Klein fills an entire wall in her bedroom. And a neo-expressionist work by Mexican artist Julio Galán is placed over a retro sideboard. It’s an eclectic and somewhat rotating collection.

“I bought this at the artist’s senior thesis show. I thought he was going to be a star,” Miller says, pointing to a portrait of a redheaded woman by Gary Murphy, hung in a nook. “But I went back for his master’s show and I hated everything.”

Miller does all her own decorating. “I don’t like ‘decorated apartments,’” she says. “They just feel so weird. They always fill them with weird knick-knacks and glass objects.”

Her style is more organic. The apartment’s warm dark wood floors contrast with cool white walls. The scheme is accented with pops of bright color, like her almost-fluorescent blue mid-century dining chairs, green and blue throw pillows and lots of plants.

And when it comes to food, Miller, a self-described foodie, prefers to run with the younger crowd. Following this interview, Miller was jetting over to the Lower East Side for a dinner at Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese. Often, she says, she’ll head to Brooklyn with her staff for a rowdy evening at Brooklyn Fare, the Reynard at the Wythe Hotel, or even to Bed-Stuy for a foie gras doughnut at Do or Dine.

In fact, Miller’s reputation as an in-the-know diner has earned her the honor of hosting an upcoming event that will combine her love for avant-garde art and food. In October, along with Michelin-star chef Michael White, of Ai Fiori fame, Miller will host “The Art of Food” at Sotheby’s on the Upper East Side. The event will bring together 25 chefs with a presence on the Upper East Side (including Le Cirque’s Matteo Boglione) to create a dish modeled on a work of art in Sotheby’s next auction.

“I’m not sure what I’ll be doing for the event quite yet,” Miller says. “Maybe I’ll make little dresses out of lettuce.”

Miller also knows how to appreciate more salt-of-the-earth victuals — like a Chick-fil-A sandwich. She says she can’t wait to visit NYC’s first Chick-fil-A location, which will open at 37th Street and 6th Avenue in October.

“There’s a Chick-fil-A at NYU, but you have to have a student ID,” she says. “A girl in the office recently flew us eight Chick-fil-A sandwiches from Atlanta.”

But Miller also has a practical streak, and she says her mother — a forceful Parisian who raised her in the U.S.— is responsible for much of her sensibility today.

“I grew up reading my mother’s French fashion magazines. Of course, they used to come by boat back then, so they’d be two months late,” Miller recalls. “She was a very stylish person. She always looked very chic with some big, cool hairstyle, shoulder pads and custom-made shoes.”

Inspired by her mother’s tweeds and herringbones, Miller set off first to the Rhode Island School of Design, then to L’École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne (the French Federation of Fashion and of Ready-to-Wear Couturiers and Fashion Designers).

Those schools “gave me a great balance of art and technique,” Miller says.

Her first job was with the almost forgotten dress-designer Clovis Ruffin. “I’ve actually been buying up his old clothes so I can give them to a museum at some point,” Miller says, adding that she often buys her own discontinued clothes on Etsy and Ebay. “Recently, I got a note in the package that said, ‘I bet you bought this because you have the same name as the designer!’” she laughs.

She launched her own business in 1983, but didn’t have her first show until 1990. “We opened on $100,000, so we didn’t have the money for a show,” Miller says, her dog, Godzilla, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, climbing over her. “We just wanted to stay in business. It was just really important that I made really cool clothes that sold well.”

Somewhat ironically, a breakthrough came with one of her more daring designs.

“I made this dress that seemed to be very avant-garde at the time, and I wasn’t 100 percent sure it was going to sell,” Miller says of the shoulder-padded smock with a Mandarin collar. “But it became the biggest thing in the United States. We sold thousands of them. It’s funny, in my whole career I’ve never seen a dress sell so much. Every single company out there copied that dress. But it got to a point where we got sick of it. It didn’t look avant-garde anymore, it looked commercial.”

And that wouldn’t be the last time Miller would pull the plug on a lucrative design.   

“At the premiere of ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ [in 2005], Angelina Jolie appeared on stage wearing my dress. It was a total surprise. My dress was on the cover of People and InStyle and every other magazine. It was big,” Miller says of the silky, floor-length dress. “Obviously, everyone tried to buy the dress. But I just didn’t want to make so many of them. We did one reorder and then we stopped production.“

“It didn’t make any sense to me to milk the Angelina Jolie dress because it could get to the point where everybody hates you for it. What if you show up at a party and 600 people are wearing it? I think we were smart to do a limited production,” she adds.

Looking back over her career, Miller says that today’s fashion industry is a very different métier than the one she first cut her teeth in. She has watched the rise of e-commerce. Fabrics have become cheaper and the workmanship more intricate in a global economy. But there’s also a dizzying glut of options.

“There is just so much stuff. I think that the customer gets very confused,” she says. “It’s harder than ever to get dressed.“

“It’s not like everyone has to wear a miniskirt because miniskirts are in this year,” Miller adds. “Before when a trend died you wouldn’t be caught dead in it. You could never wear bell bottoms after they went out. It would be the kiss of death. But now you can wear bell bottoms, you can wear skinny pants, you can wear high-waisted pants.”

She recommends that people simply wear what looks good on them, what makes them comfortable, according to what their personal style is.

“There are no trends anymore, and nothing goes out of style,” she says.