WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE: Haute The Talented Nicole Miller

 “I’ve always been kind of a modernist so I’ve always collected fifties furniture for the most part but my art is more contemporary.”

Nicole Miller has been a driving force in fashion, in both design and business, since she opened her first boutique on Madison Avenue in 1986. Since then, she’s made her mark in multiple markets by designing everything from theater costumes to couture gowns to a ready-to-wear line for JCPenny. Aside from appearing on the runway during Fashion Week, her designs can be seen on everyone from Susan Sarandon to Joss Stone to Cyndi Lauper.

But don’t let her icon status fool you. This red-haired beauty has recently used her success in the fashion industry to call attention to the social and economic issues that have long plagued the African nation of Rwanda. Miller partnered with Indego Africa, a non-profit organization that works with female artisans in Rwanda, to give them access to education and an opportunity to make a fair wage. These women handcraft accessories, home décor products and jewelry, which are then sold across the United States. Indego Africa’s sales generate much-needed income for artisans and 100 percent of its profits go toward administering training programs in literary, computers and financial management and entrepreneurship.

“We were introduced to Indego Africa through a personal connection,” Miller said. “They partner with many different artisan cooperatives in Rwanda and I took a look at some of the work they did. It was very interesting, but I didn’t really feel like it always translated to contemporary U.S. consumer preferences.” So Miller used her current fashion expertise to launch an exclusive line of fair trade woven bracelets and textile bangles in 2010, all handmade by Rwandan artisan women. Indego Africa credits their meeting in late August 2010 with Nicole Miller as the tipping point for their partnerships with other high-end retailers including Ralph Lauren and Anthropologie.

“It still looked like their workmanship but just a little different from what they had done traditionally,” Miller said. This July, Miller debuted her second wave of goods through Indego Africa, a line of jewelry, sarongs and shorts, all in traditional African prints. Miller recently traveled to Rwanda to see the project’s success for herself. Her trip was extensive and humbling, to say the least.

“You know, it’s interesting because a dollar to us is nothing but a dollar to them could be a whole day’s salary,” she said. Miller also sings Indego Africa’s praises, which not only helps struggling women, but teaches them a skill that they can use for life. “You can’t just give them charity,” she said. “You have to teach them how to become independent.”

When she’s not jet setting around the world to promote charitable causes, Miller is hard at work designing her next line or looking for the inspiration to do so.

“I always feel like I have to turn everything upside down before I know what I want to do,” she said of her creative process. She finds her inspiration by looking at old movies, books, pictures, archives and even at her past collections. “I look at all those things and I kind of feel like I leave nothing unturned until something hits me.”

But her interest in design doesn’t end with fashion. Miller is an avid collector of fine furniture and art. “I’ve always been kind of a modernist so I’ve always collected fifties furniture for the most part but my art is more contemporary,” she said. Miller’s art collection includes pieces from artists Damian Loeb, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Ross Bleckner and Terence Koh.

It seems the eye for fashion was always in the cards for Miller. Her mother, a true Parisian, kept the family up to date with all the finest French fashions.

“I grew up with these amazing pictures of my mother who was a super chic Parisian and always had these amazing clothes,” she said. As a child, Miller remembers leafing through her mother’s French fashion magazines, devouring the chic styles within.

But the French influences in her life didn’t stop there. While Miller was earning her degree in Apparel Design from the Rhode Island School of Design, she spent a year abroad in Paris, where she studied French draping and design techniques.

This trans-continental set of experiences earned Miller her unique yet timeless aesthetic.

“The training I received that year in Paris was so ingrained in my head,” Miller said. “I think it gave me a sense of aesthetics I might not have developed anywhere else.” Miller also places a strong emphasis on the engineering of her pieces. Growing up, her father was an engineer at General Electric and Miller adopted that same hands-on approach to working through the technical aspects of her pieces.

“I do like the engineering part of design quite a bit,” she said. ‘I’m very technical. I’m always able to figure out the complicated pattern. I can show the pattern makers how to make something if they can’t figure out my sketch.”

It’s not hard to see why Miller is so successful. She is soulful, hardworking and intelligent. Her interests and inspirations are deeply intellectual and rooted in the world of fashion, fine art and design. She’s stayed true to her beliefs, taste, and most importantly her instinctive eye. As for her advice to young, emerging artists? Miller tells them to “persevere, stay young and be versatile.” It seems Miller has taken her own advice.