THE ROAD TO THE TOP WITH NICOLE MILLER
Of the topics I am knowledgeable about, women's fashion ranks somewhere around soccer and growing after the age of thirteen in the bottom one percentile. Of the many conversations on the many topics I have had on my time here, I can recall diving deep on a wide variety of subjects. Want to talk baseball, basketball, football, movies, old tv shows, backgammon, fitness, nutrition, public speaking, leadership, entrepreneurship, you name it - deal me in. I am even happy to talk about the two topics banned from most settings - religion and politics - though I did go to religious schools all the way through high school and got a degree in political science in college. Women’s fashion… not much I can add to the conversation.
On the other end of the spectrum, few people in the world hold more authority on women’s fashion than legendary design Nicole Miller. When you hear her name, you think women’s fashion. She created and built an iconic company and brand in the women’s fashion space and is still going strong more than thirty years after opening her first store in 1986. Nicole’s label has generated over $650 million in annual sales. Her clothing sells in more than 1,200 stores across the country today. The most successful and beloved entertainers - from Beyonce to Eva Longoria to Angelina Jolie - have worn and continue to wear her designs. (I now know a lot more about women’s fashion than I did before, but still not a lot.)
I had a chance to go one on one with Nicole, and unsurprisingly, was more interesting in learning about how she got to the top - and her advice on how everyone else can get there too - than I was in talking about women’s clothing. (That might come in interview #2…) I asked Nicole to share what she has learned from journey as part of my Lessons In Leadership series in Thrive Global. Here are some highlights:
Adam: You have been very successful at leveraging your brand through your licensed products business. What have you learned along the way?
Nicole: You really have to have eyes on it all, so you don’t have any surprises later that you are not happy with. We have over 60 licensing partners who help us create everything from denim to men’s accessories. The licensing team and I work very closely with our partners to ensure each product out on the market is completely on brand. It can get quite messy having to manage all of these partners and keep our product and brand consistent, but the team makes it happen. Our licensed categories are also often incorporated into my runway show each season.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Nicole: A lot of hard work and determination got me here. I was trained at The Rhode Island School of Design and the Chambre Syndicale De La Haute Couture in Paris where I learned to drape fabric and study the classical techniques of couture. The training was intense but taught me so much about fabric manipulation, which became a signature facet of my designs. I launched my business alongside my business partner, Bud Konheim in 1982. I opened my first shop here in New York on Madison Avenue in 1986 and quickly became known for my line of little black dresses. Over the past 27 years, my brand has evolved and been worn by so many incredible women that I admire.
There are always going to be challenges in the industry but it’s all about how you approach them. Mine have always been with the production, fabric and fit of my garments. It is always a challenge to get it perfect.
Adam: What is your best advice for someone trying to break into the industry?
Nicole: Internships are great way to get firsthand experience in the industry and very often turn into a job opportunity. We typically work with 20 interns a year. I’m all about a youth culture and a young attitude. Most of the interns attend the fashion schools right here in New York. They are involved with everything from helping to dress models during our NYFW shows, to sketching concepts.
Adam: Where do you find inspiration? And what do you believe is most responsible for your tremendous success in such a competitive industry?
Nicole: There is inspiration everywhere. I’m always inspired by my travels but so much of my collection is inspired by my home here in New York City. My collection is often a juxtaposition of Uptown and Downtown vibes. Being active is important to me and I love to escape the city to be by the water to waterski, wakeboard and kiteboard. In the winter I love to head out to the mountains to ski and snowboard. When I’m home in the city, you can find me at Flywheel. Being out in nature and active helps me stay grounded and inspires so many of my collections. I’ll be re-launching a new activewear line soon which is very much influenced by my lifestyle.
Adam: What is something about you that would surprise people?
Nicole: People are always surprised to hear how hands on I continue to be with my business. I still go to the office every day, I love it! I’m involved with every aspect, from concept to production. Whether it be meetings related to new designs, fittings, model castings for NYFW or reviewing products with licensees, I’m there. I’m also quite the foodie. I love trying new recipes, restaurants and hosting brunch or dinner parties in my Tribeca Loft or my home in the Hamptons. I’ve even been a guest judge on Iron Chef!
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Nicole: Stay focused, network and always come up with original ideas.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Nicole: I’ve never received any good advice, so it’s a good thing I never listened to anyone!