Let a Celeb Reinvent You: Nicole Miller On Fashion Design

Find out what it takes to create your own label.

by Rory Evans
Donita Vann, left, displays one of her dresses on a mannequin in designer Nicole Miller s studio. The women share a love of prints.
Photograph: Photo by: Danielle Levitt

The Celeb Nicole Miller, clothing designer whose collections are sold nationwide at such stores as Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Nordstrom and JCPenney
The Reinventor
Donita Vann, coordinator at George Washington University, avid home sewer who has shown her work during D.C.’s spring fashion week

Love at first bite
The first garment Donita remembers working on was a shirt for her doll: She was three years old and tried to bite armholes into the material. “I later found out it was upholstery fabric, which explains why it was so hard to chew through,” she says. To this day, she features heavyweight fabrics in her designs, including a patchwork coat she pieced together from swatches of leather. Sitting in Nicole’s sun-soaked office in New York’s Garment District, Donita shows her a photo of the coat as the two click through Donita’s Web site, phillygurl.com.

My sew-called life
One of Donita’s long-term goals is to sell her designs to stores. But even though she can produce quickly (she used to whip up outfits in the hours before she hit the nightclubs, as her friends were taking disco naps), Nicole tells her that selling at retail will require her to find a small manufacturer. Delegating production may be one of Donita’s biggest hurdles: “I cannot imagine not being at my sewing machine, creating my vision,” she says. Usually when she makes a dress more than once, she changes a detail—which is a cardinal sin for mass producers, Nicole says. Buyers want to know they’re getting the very same dress in a run of sizes. She recommends Donita buy a book on how to grade patterns into different sizes; eventually, she may need to hire a service to do the job. “It would be hard for me to let go of sewing my garments myself,” Donita reflects, “but if I had to make the same dress 10 times, maybe it would be a relief.”

Tailoring plans
In addition to coordinating fashion shows, Donita wants to hatch both a line of children’s apparel and a plus-size women’s collection. Nicole, however, urges her to “be focused.” (Nicole waited almost 20 years before branching out into accessories.) She suggests that Donita start by taking a line of six or eight pieces to boutiques where her designs would fit in with what’s already on the racks.

A star is worn
Nicole acknowledges that the fashion industry is increasingly dominated by Hollywood: After Angelina Jolie wore one of Nicole’s dresses to an event with Brad Pitt—the couple’s first appearance together post Jennifer Aniston—the piece exploded in popularity. Still, Nicole advises, “Don’t fixate on a celebrity wearing your clothes. Have faith that if your work is good, a stylist or celebrity is going to find it.” And if they don’t? Donita, who has custom-made pieces with stars like Ananda Lewis in mind, may have the moxie to change that: She says of an arm-baring sheath she calls her Michelle Obama dress, “I want to throw it over the fence of the White House. I work four blocks away!”

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