How Nicole Miller built her fashion brand in New York City


Nicole Miller, Designer, Nicole Miller

New York City

Interview by Laura Piety


We visited Nicole’s Studio in the heart of New York’s fashion district to chat with the designer about her career rise, integrating digital marketing into her brand, and how she has seen the city change over the past years. In addition to being one of New York’s most well known fashion designers, Nicole is also a member of the CFDA’s Emeritus Board.

I’d love to hear a little bit about your story, growing up, and how you moved into the fashion industry?

My mother is from Paris, so I always had a French influence at home. I’d live for the French fashion magazines she ordered, but they would come by boat, which meant they were always two months late! We lived in Massachusetts, so we weren’t in New York City or anything. I then went to Rhode Island School of Design and then L'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale, the couture school in Paris. It was great as I got a good background in art as well as fashion, and had good couture training too. After school I came to NYC and managed to get a job with a company I’d had an internship with previously. 

My obsession came from seeing pictures of my mother. I have images of her in Paris, where she was always super chic and well-dressed.

What drew you to fashion initially?

You know, I have to say, I think a lot of kids are obsessed with the actual clothes, but I my obsession came from seeing pictures of my mother. I have images of her in Paris, where she was always super chic and well-dressed. That really started my initial passion for clothing. She was a true fashionista and wore cool clothes that carried the Parisian air, there’s even a great picture of her with a Pompadour hairstyle. 

So you came to NY and got a job. What was the transition into owning your own brand?

I think everyone has that fantasy, but sometimes they get sidetracked. However, it definitely happened faster than I anticipated. I was working for a company with the man who is now my partner, and that company was backed by a big corporation. The corporation went out of business, and we had to go out on our own, so I was kind of forced into it. It happened before I planned it, and it was out of necessity. So we left to start our own business with $100,000. 

 
 

What did you put into place as you began to build Nicole Miller?

You know, we didn't start with a lot of financing. So we didn't have fashion shows and other things in the beginning. It was really about getting the clothes out and selling them. I was fortunate because that year I made a dress which became the hottest dress in the United States. Everybody had one, and every other company copied it. It had a long life span, and I actually had to stop making it because there were so many knock offs on the street! They were in Europe, they were everywhere. It was quite remarkable because that dress sold over and over again and really launched the business. 

There was a trend of the season and everybody would wear the same thing, whereas now, lots of trends continue simultaneously. I remember that platform shoes would go out and you’d have to get rid of them because you couldn’t wear them the next year.

You know, everything used to be different in the US. There was a trend of the season and everybody would wear the same thing, whereas now, lots of trends continue simultaneously. I remember that platform shoes would go out and you’d have to get rid of them because you couldn’t wear them the next year. The mini skirt would go out, you’d have to wear a maxi, and then you’d be frustrated that you couldn't wear your favorite thing anymore. But now, the trends are at the same time and things don't go out of style in the same way.

The best ideas I’ve had are just quirky, random ideas that have come from seeing something vintage, or in a movie.

When you're designing a collection, how do you know what look or DNA to channel? Is it based on predicted trends, or just what you’re inspired by?

The minute you identify trends they’re all over the market so you can’t really do that. I think the best ideas I’ve had are just quirky, random ideas that have come from seeing something vintage, or in a movie. It’s often something your eye has misinterpreted but ends up being a creative idea.

That’s a great way of putting it. 

Yes, very often I’ll see something, it sets me on a path, then I’ll go back and see what inspired the original process and sometimes it has nothing to do with the final product!

Let’s talk about your most recent collection, Spring Summer 2015?

It is very Brazil-inspired. You know, I think Brazil has been on everyone’s mind, in part because of the World Cup. I was playing this old Peter Allen track called I Go To Rio and just started thinking about it. Then I got an invitation to an artist’s show who was also from Rio and then started looking at other Brazilian artists. It set me on a path to Rio, Ipanema and Copacabana. I like when a theme is fun. Fashion should be fun. When I get my staff energized and we have a lot of laughs around a theme, it’s a much better creative atmosphere than when we’re trying to be esoteric and clever. 

The other thing that has changed in fashion, I feel, is that it used to be more about strange shapes, but now it’s more about decoration and embellishment than say, an asymmetrical or weirdly cut dress. There is room for that, but I feel like in a way, New York is quite a conservative city. I don't see the girls here wearing anything avant-garde at all. 

When I get my staff energized and we have a lot of laughs around a theme, it’s a much better creative atmosphere than when we’re trying to be esoteric and clever.

I mean there are certain areas in New York though, we did a photoshoot on Bond Street and everybody had crazy colored hair or was wearing something funky, but for the most part, you go to the restaurants and clubs now and people are not wearing avant grade clothing as much, the creativity is more around their hair, body piercings and tattoos. Even when models come in for castings I feel like they’re much more normally dressed. Even if they’re wearing the short skirt, high heels, or skintight jeans, it’s not crazy. 

 
 

You mentioned injecting energy into your team. Can you talk a little bit about cultivating a team here and how you keep everyone inspired?

It’s kind of like when I do a fashion show. It has a theme and it keeps everyone excited. We always do better when we have a theme that everyone is excited about, and although staff do turnover, I have my three close people who I have worked with for a long time. 

How have you infused more of a digital and social media presence into your brand?

It has been something we’ve really got involved in a lot. 

The NMWarrior Videos were great.

Yes, we’ve experimented with videos a lot and I’ve not always been happy with the product, but these ones in particular seem to have been really successful. You know, we’ve got a really good reaction to the Warrior theme. I like strong women, and I’ve always tried to push that idea, you know, the previous collection was Revolution!

Everyone has really liked the #nmwarrior hashtag and I kind of said it completely by accident! I was speaking to a lot of female bankers at an event we had in our SoHo store, and I said, “Well you don't have to wear a suit to feel strong” and everyone jumped on the idea and phrase. I said it by accident, but I meant it! I was just trying to sell dresses to bankers haha, but everyone liked it! 

Our Spring Summer show took a little softer edge, but within that there is a strong character too.

I’d love to chat a little bit about your experience with New York City itself. Obviously you’ve been here for a long time. How have you seen the fashion industry change, and how have you seen the city change?

The good thing is that we have much more global sourcing now, so you can do so many techniques that you couldn't when I was starting out. You couldn't do all the embroidery and beading. And even though we are 90% made in New York, I can get beaded pieces done outside of the country and then sew the dress itself here. 

I feel like the quality of clothing has also got so much better in New York over time. It’s so much more interesting, because thirty years ago, everyone just made a dress with a simple zipper up the back, all were cut in the same fabric, and basically that was it. 

With regard to the city… well there’s too much building going on, and they’re ruining a lot of neighborhoods. I feel even though they’re going to build, they should stay in the character of the neighborhood or the zoning restrictions. People are always getting variances for the zoning. So many buildings go up, there was one on the Lower East Side, where they put two extra floors on it, and you know, you can’t tell the building to take those additional floors down. People are bypassing a lot of stuff here which is unfortunate, which means a lot of areas are losing their character. 

Lastly, a couple of your favorite places in the city to eat and visit?

Well I love going to Williamsburg, there are so many great restaurants there. I always eat Downtown too. Spots like Nobu, Indochine and Waverly Inn are really great.

 

For more information visit http://www.nicolemiller.com

 

All images courtesy of Nicole Miller