image May 5, 1990

Dressmaker, Make Me... a Tie

Isadore Barmash

Some of the hottest-selling ties in the United States right now were created by a women's clothing maker that backed into what has become a $2 million business after deciding there had to be a way to use some leftover dress fabrics. And after circumstances both fortuitous and fortunate, the company, Nicole Miller Inc., found itself with a profitable sideline.

Merchants like Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys are enthusiastic about the company's ''fun'' ties, with their bright sketches, usually on black backgrounds. Some of the patterns seem antic, ranging from Broadway ticket stubs to a cascade of pasta shapes. Other designs are of the contents of a medicine cabinet, a handbag, a fruit store or bakery.

''The Nicole Miller ties are the fastest-selling novelty tie collection we have had in a long time,'' said Linda Beauchamp, vice president and fashion director of men's and boys' wear at Saks. ''It's mind-boggling. Naturally, we have reordered them. They seem to be selling to young, urban, fashion-conscious people.'' The ties cost $55 at Saks, a little less at Macy's and some other stores.

Nicole Miller's successful new venture shows that a hot-selling item is not always the brainchild of a team of hard-working designers or product developers. It can come, as it did in this case, from the right pattern drifting in over the transom at the right time in the right place.

This tie story began a few years ago when a young textile design artist, Terry Rosen, wandered into the company's New York showroom and asked to trade two of her drawings for a Nicole Miller dress.

''We use about 40 freelance artists,'' said Bud Konheim, founder and president of Nicole Miller, ''but occasionally an artist will drop in to show his or her sketches. Ms. Rosen appeared one day and convinced Nicole Miller, our designer, to give her a dress for two finely drawn graphic Art Deco designs.

The printed fabrics made from her designs were used in rayon crepe dresses, which sold well. When the artist returned two years later, she gave Mr. Konheim a print of a series of colored ticket stubs on a black background. The design was unusual, but the success of Ms. Rosen's earlier renderings persuaded the company to use the print on a collection of silk dresses. But those did not sell well, there were no reorders and a backlog remained in the warehouse.

Mr. Konheim recalled that one day as he stared morosely at the unsold inventory, he decided to wrest some small benefit from the situation. ''I've been a manufacturer of ladies' clothes for 35 years,'' he said he told his production manager, ''but you know, I've never had a tie made from our fabrics. Make me at least one tie.''

Word soon came back that because of production requirements, a minimum of 36 ties had to be made. Mr. Konheim reluctantly agreed. When he finally wore the tie with its bright panoply of theater ticket stubs, he thought it was ''fun.'' But would it sell? He dispatched the remaining 35 to the company's retail store on Madison Avenue.

Better as a Scarf?

''A store buyer had told me that we should have made the print into women's scarves,'' Mr. Konheim said. ''So I thought that women might buy the ties for scarves.''

The next step was up to Kato Wilson, a security guard at the Nicole Miller store who doubled as a guard at the gift shop at the Metropolitan Opera House. A Metropolitan Opera Company ticket stub at the bottom of the tie caught his eye and he asked Catherine Greenberg, the Nicole Miller store manager, if he could borrow one. He showed the tie to the manager of the Met Opera gift shop. The gift shop bought all 35 ties from the store at the retail price of $45, marked them up to $90 each and sold out in a week.

Shortly after, Mr. Konheim was buzzed by his switchboard operator, ''Metropolitan Opera for you.'' Picking up the phone, he snapped: ''We don't accept charitable solicitations over the telephone. Only by mail!'' After a moment of shocked silence at the other end, the response was: ''No, no, this is the Met Opera gift shop. We want to reorder those wonderful ties. Your store hasn't any more. They referred me to you.''

Mr. Konheim said he took the shop's order for 300 ties. ''This time, they didn't have to buy it retail,'' he said. ''I gave them a wholesale price so that they could put out the ties for $45. Later, because of rising silk prices, the ties went to $55 retail.''

Since then, the gift shop has sold 4,500 of the theater ticket ties and 3,000 scarves made of the same design. ''It was the Met Gift Shop that really put us in the men's tie business,'' Mr. Konheim said. ''As for the Broadway theater design, we can't close it out because the reorders keep coming in.''

A Major Expansion

Realizing the potential of its new line, Nicole Miller told its freelance artists that it had started a competition for new tie designs. This led to a major expansion of the tie line, which now includes 36 prints.

So, quite accidentally, Nicole Miller joined 175 other American manufacturers in the tie business, which is expected to reach $900 million in retail sales this year. The industry's revenues were flat during much of the 1970's and early 80's. Then, about 1984, tie sales began to grow at an annual rate of 5 to 10 percent, said Gerald Andersen, executive director of the Neckwear Association of America, a trade association based in New York. He said Nicole Miller's entry was welcomed, because ''there's a greater dropout than start-up rate as a result of mergers and family businesses giving up.''

Peter Rizzo, general merchandise manager of the men's store at Barneys New York, said: ''We've had a pretty good reception with the Nicole Miller ties. We've reordered twice. They're fun ties. We recommend them to guys who like to wear a casual jacket with chino pants or a sport shirt with a tie.''

The tie's success also helped Ms. Rosen. She is now one of Nicole Miller's freelance textile designers and is also the computer graphics manager at the Grey Advertising Company, New York.

Preparing for Father's Day

And Mr. Konheim, ordinarily busy with his regular line of evening dresses and sportswear, is now devoting more attention to expanding his tie distribution to men's wear stores and preparing for such big tie-selling events as Father's Day.

''We've got some new designs for it, including a boxing theme and a football scrimmage theme,'' he said. The company has been encouraged to try the same ''wild'' prints in other products, like beach or camp shirts, pajamas, robes and boxer shorts. Meanwhile, the tie business is growing rapidly, totaling about $2 million of the company's total $35 million sales.

''We very much like the men's tie business,'' Mr. Konheim said. ''It's more profitable than the ladies' business. There's no fit problem. And absolutely no aggravation because there are practically no returns or a downside to our tie business.''

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