Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller: A Passion For Design

Posted December 2, 2011

Fashion and philanthropy often are closely interwoven, becoming the fabric for social change. Designer Nicole Miller, in town to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, also counts protecting the environment and empowering women among her passions. Miller had recently returned from Rwanda where she works with women’s cooperatives, helping them to develop marketable clothing and accessories. “They’ve developed these little businesses, and some make beads, and some make bracelets, and some make bags,” she says. “They’re all really hungry for work. I think we’ve gotten too used to giving people a handout. We have to give people business.” In collaboration with the nonprofit Indego Africa, Miller sells artisans’ jewelry and apparel online and in stores.

Miller, known for her figure flattering dresses, futuristic fabrics, and technical construction, is also a savvy businesswoman. Her designs sell in namesake boutiques, including the new Nicole Miller at the Forum in Carlsbad, which now also carries bridal designs and is double the size of its previous La Jolla location; department stores; and specialty shops. There’s Nicole by Nicole Miller, a younger, edgier, and more affordable line for JCPenney; Nicole Miller Kids; and a home furnishings collection sold at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller

Chalk up her style and business sense, in part, to her genes: a French mother and American father who met during World War II. She credits her father, a General Electric engineer, for her knack at constructing often complicated designs. “I was always very good with numbers, so I was always very mathematical,” she recalls. So I think I’m very good at engineering clothes. I think there’s a lot of technical stuff in my clothes that you don’t see in anybody else’s.”

As if on cue, an attractive saleswoman at the Nicole Miller boutique in Carlsbad walks by, wearing a black-and-white stretch lace cocktail dress. “This dress is all made of straps of lace, and they’re all zigzagged together,” Miller points out. “It’s really very complicated putting this together. Nobody does dresses like this with lace strips. They’re too hard to make.” She gestures to another example: “My dresses with the crazy pleating, nobody does anything like that. A lot of people copy it, but see how I do the pleats with the braiding?”

While many of her customers are slender 20- and-30-somethings, full-figured women, as well as those more mature, appreciate the strategically placed shirring, tucking, and draping that make the most of the female figure but also mask bulges, bumps (and perhaps, that extra ten-plus pounds).

Miller, a svelte 50-something herself, has helped to popularize the L.B.D — the little black dress — a staple in so many closets. She updates this classic each year, giving it a new twist, and advises women to change up the look to prevent black from becoming boring. The designer also loves bold color and is inspired by a broad palette: “art, movies, the world.”

Miller is known as well for experimenting with fabrics, like those made with metal. In her lower-priced lines, she says she always pushes for better quality fabric, which now is more readily available, but creativity also helps. Take shiny polyester, for instance, which may look sleazy, she says, until you turn it inside out. The result is that the softer, shiny side is close to the body; the more luxe look is on the outside. “You kill two birds with one stone,” she explains. “You have a more expensive-looking garment, and it’s more comfortable.” Pricier touches, such as beading, are harder to do economically in more affordable clothing, so Miller is always looking for a stylish alternative. “It’s got to be affordable,” she acknowledges. “But why should it be bad? It should be cool.”

She lights up when she talks about fashion design, clearly her passion. Looking back upon a career that has spanned more than 30 years, she grows reflective. “I actually enjoy the [design] process,” she says. “The world has changed, it’s more about being out there and promoting yourself. I feel so many designers are figure heads, that they’re just going out and doing the PR and there’s somebody in the backroom doing the other stuff. I’m sure they say “yeah” or “nay” — they like it or they don’t like it. I just feel more and more designers are getting detached from the actual process.”

Hard to believe that Miller has been in the business long enough, but her early designs from the ’80s and ’90s are now considered “vintage.” (Her fun spring collection, “Fast Forward/Rewind,” in fact, takes inspiration from the bold patterns and bright colors of the ’80s.) In a bit of stylish irony, she’s even begun buying some of her early designs online. Last year she snagged one of her dresses on eBay, a style that helped save the fledgling company “when we had no money” in 1982. “This dress made our business because we sold so many of them,” she remembers with delight. “It gave us enough cash flow to keep going.” We’re thankful it did. 760.632.7000, nicolemillersd@yahoo.com   Andrea Naversen

Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller