In the world of fashion, where one day you're in and the next day you're out, Nicole Miller has remained in the mix for a long time by staying one step ahead of the pack.
She burst on the fashion scene in the early 80s with the "hip smock dress" that became a national sensation. She followed up with another runaway success — the "cheek high" black mini — and delved into prints that became her trademark. She was among the first designers to open her own boutique (in 1986) and the first to put actresses on the runway (in 1996). She created a successful lower-cost line for JC Penney (in 2005) while maintaining her upscale line of body-conscious dresses imprinted with digital imagery or made from such unlikely items as cut-up paper and shreds of masking tape.
Her secret to success? Resilience.
"I have sort of a Peter Pan complex. I've noticed businesses that have been around a long time, their clothes start to look old. I never wanted my clothes to look old. So I always make sure I have a lot of young people around me and I always make sure that clothes have a young feel to them," she said during a whirlwind visit to Houston last week for the Recipe for Success dinner and a personal appearance at Neiman Marcus.
"The company has gotten older, but the customer never got older. It's a wider variety of ages, from young to older, but I always feel like my customer doesn't think she's old. She has a young attitude. And I've always had this thing against dressing old. I think some people dress older than they should. I hate that attitude that when you're over 40 you should get your hair cut. Nobody over 40 has short hair anymore, do you know what I mean?"
CultureMap: You were born in Fort Worth. Do you still consider yourself a Texan?
Nicole Miller: I don't have any family here. We moved here because my father worked for General Electric. But I've always been referred to as the Texan in the family. I have fond place in my heart for Fort Worth. And the way I like Tex-Mex food, I might as well be.
CM: How do you manage to balance creativity with consistency?
NM: I guess because I'm always really involved. I still design a lot of the dresses. I'm always sketching or experimenting or draping on the form or being involved at every level.
CM: You were the first to put actresses on the runway (in 1996).
NM: Yeah, and all of those girls turned out to be huge stars. Everybody from Jill Hennessey to Minnie Driver to Gretchen Mol and Gina Gershon. We had an amazing group of actresses. The real reason we did that was the models had raised their rates and I couldn't afford them at that point. So somebody came up with idea to use actresses. We gave them clothes and they were happy.
CM: Would you feature actress on the runway now?
NM: I might do it as an advertising campaign. But at this point (fashion critics) don't take you as seriously if you put actresses on the runway. We got more press than we ever did at that fashion show, but most of the press was about the actresses rather than the clothing. It was a moment in time and the right thing to do at that moment, but not now.
CM: What do you find interesting about your collaboration with JC Penney?
NM: I'm really picky about the color and prints and all of the trim. I try to find the best fabrics for the price and make the clothes look as cool and expensive as I can. Every once in a while I go online and order something off my own (nicole by Nicole Miller) line. This year I ordered myself a cashmere sweater. Where else can you get a cashmere sweater for $59? It's just a basic sweater but the quality is great. I love to mix the expensive with the inexpensive. It's great because it's not taboo anymore.
CM: What's your spring Nicole Miller collection like?
NM: I always start with prints. For spring I started with manipulations of materials, one being crushed paper (and) spray painted masking tape torn apart. We either digitalized it or photographed it and reprocessed it. Then I ended up with really interesting prints that nobody else had. That took a lot of work.
CM: Your fall collection, shown in New York last month, is very blue.
NM: It's tricky because when you're dealing with a season like fall, you don't want to go too bright and springy. So I was trying to play with shades of blue that could be bright but kind of fall-like. I liked the blue so much that I did a version of it in persimmon. I like blues with gray and a little lilac in them. And with digital printing you can get a lot of different shades. I had such a good time with digital printing I started digitally printing on cashmere, wool and all these qualities that are hard to print on.
CM: Some reviewers labeled the collection "futuristic."
NM: It's like Sol Lewitt meets Ziggy Stardust. I was trying this modernist approach but I wanted to have a glam rock feeling. I would have played that up more, but style.com did this whole thing on Ziggy Stardust and David Bowie. So I thought I'd better not (talk about it much) or they'd think that's where I got the idea, even though it had been in the works for six months.
NM: I know a lot of designers that don't drink — ever. Everybody's different. But he's been thrown to the wolves. It think it's really unfortunate. Who knows what they said to him first? He might have been reacting to some foul thing they said. We don't know the beginning. The only person who stuck up for him was (stylist) Patricia Field. That's our culture; we're so quick to find somebody guilty.
CM: You attended the Oscars for the first time. How was it?
NM: Cold. I just can't believe how those actresses sit there in their strapless dresses and not freeze. It was so cold in that theater. Actually the red carpet was warmer than the theater.
CM: Hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco received a lot of criticism.
NM: I thought she was fabulous. I think she's incredibly talented. I was just blown away by what a good job she did. I don't know they're bitching about — other than James Franco who was MIA; he barely said anything. Even in the breaks, she was cutting up and having so much fun. What a pro. For anyone to say anything bad is so wrong.