Nicole Miller Talks Pandemic, Online Sales, Influencers’ Power

Like many designers, Nicole Miller chalked up 2020 to a “very challenging year,” but she is now upbeat about an office move, strong dress sales and sustainable materials.

In a few weeks, the company will downsize its two-floor offices at 525 Seventh Avenue, relocating to the building’s third floor. The layout is similar the company’s existing space but the square footage is about half the space. The designer decided she no longer needed two floors, one of which has been being used as a photo studio. “We’re trying to move 35 years of stuff,” Miller said with a laugh recently.

Except for about three or four weeks last year, Miller has been coming into the office. The design, production and patternmaking teams have been at work in the Garment District offices a few days each week for most of the pandemic.

Earlier this month Gordon Brothers announced that it is providing a secured credit facility for the company. The facility is secured by Miller’s intellectual property and will be used to fund strategic growth initiatives.

Regarding working with Gordon Brothers, Miller said: “There were a lot of things going on here after Bud [Konheim, her longtime business partner and the former chief executive officer] died [in 2019] and with the pandemic and everything…they are great partners to have going forward. I am still very focused on the creative part even though I’m CEO.”

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Gordon Brothers is not looking to sell the company. “No, no, no — no at all,” she said, confirming they are helping with financing. “They’re also going to be helpful because they’re involved with a lot of licensing companies,” said Miller, citing handbags as a priority. Gordon Brothers was also selected because they are strong internationally, she said.

Introducing a casualwear collection last summer (something Miller had in the works before the pandemic) has helped ring up sales. “That was really everything that we sold for 10 months. Sweatshirts and sweatpants were the bestselling things. Returns are a lot less on those things, too,” she said.

Along with fueling the business, that served as a pathway to a lot of places where the brand wouldn’t normally be in, namely sportswear departments. She also wound up doing a lot of sweaters, which have been another bright spot in retail over the past year. More recently, dresses have been strong, and they are now selling in sportswear rather than only dress departments, the designer said.

”It was easy to foretell that this spring my dresses would be back in action again. The minute people can have an event or whatever, everybody is itching to dress up again,” said Miller, adding that the company has been prepared.

After months of selling sweatshirts and sweatpants, shoppers are looking for dressier items.<br />Photo courtesy Nicole Miller 

Having always felt “kind of trapped” by being placed in dress departments, Miller said selling more dresses in sportswear departments is a fun outcome. In addition to occasion wear, she is offering more casual styles like “sweatshirt-y, easy-to-wear, comfortable dresses, too.” There are also dresses in washable silks, cotton, ripstop, floral prints, silk and rayon blends without anything being too dressy.

Nicole Miller is seeing interest in online sales. 

Offering a good price-value has become more of a priority. While the company routinely offered dresses upward of $400, with some around $1,000, in seasons past, there weren’t many recent offerings above $325, with many dresses in the $200 range.

Online sales have been “very good,” driven by separates and Zoom-friendly dressy blouses. “They weren’t worried about everything else,” Miller said. “There’s been a shift. We’re selling probably as many dresses as separates now. We’re selling a lot more than we were. I don’t know the exact percentages. The uptick on dresses has been very big for the last three or four weeks.”

Online shoppers have also been buying gowns. So much so that the company had to make some more — fun ones and classic styles with more color options. One week 15 or so were sold, the designer said. The label also brought back bridal on a limited basis.

As more people are getting vaccinated and coronavirus restrictions are easing in certain areas, Miller expects to do another influencer event with The Daily in the Hamptons this summer, as she has in years past. As for whether consumers’ views of influencers have changed in light of the pandemic, Miller said, “A lot of these influencers have a real stronghold and a huge customer base. But every year the room is getting more crowded. I think all the girls who got in there early have solid footing. But it’s going to be harder and harder for people, who are starting out now. It’s like everything. I was listening to Clubhouse the other day. Every day there is just more and more stuff on it. It gets more and more overwhelming. All these social media, they are all great ideas. But the longer they are around, they are just more crowded and people are coming up with more and more each day.”

Shifting gears to sustainability, Miller said the August delivery is sustainable by using recycled fabrics and organic cotton. Referring to the push to get the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides updated, Miller said, “Everybody should be held accountable.”

However, finding sustainable materials can be challenging and minimum orders for sustainable fabrics can be sizable, she said. “I think the only people who can really pull this off are expensive companies. Anyway, we do what we can. We made it through that one delivery. We’re always looking for recycled fabrics, yarns or whatever we can get.”

From her point of view, consumers should be more focused on their everyday habits to improve sustainability. “Everybody is against the clothing business and blah, blah, blah. If you want to help, you should. Just not use plastic cups, plastic water bottles. Don’t order everything from Amazon all the time. Walk to the store and pick it up yourself. I just get livid here, when I see people put their plastic in the trash or their paper towels in the recycling,” she said.

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