Eight Philadelphians get early shot at designer's clothes

Debbie Cenci tries on a Nicole Miller dress in New York while Moira McNally (left) and her mother, Melissa, shop with sales rep Samantha Sciolla.
Debbie Cenci tries on a Nicole Miller dress in New York while Moira McNally (left) and her mother, Melissa, shop with sales rep Samantha Sciolla. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 09, 2013

NEW YORK - Hours before Nicole Miller's spring collection hit the Lincoln Center runways Friday evening, Debbie Cenci was shopping it at the designer's Garment District showroom.

Nicole Miller sales specialists curated a group of dresses and trousers just for Cenci, including a floral sheath fashioned from spongy neoprene. Thick, white lines break up the saturated florals, creating a shattered-glass pattern.

This is Miller's signature spring 2014 print, and at 3 p.m., Cenci had purchased the dress - and a few other 2014 pieces - before the fashion editors, bloggers, retailers, and thousands of Fashion Week attendees have seen it, before the clothes have even been made. Cenci slipped on the model-size sample.

"I never get to shop like this," said Cenci, 49, a West Chester-based property manager and avid Nicole Miller shopper.

Cenci was one of eight people from the Philadelphia area, including the Center City District's Michelle Shannon, whom local Nicole Miller boutique owner Mary K. Dougherty invited for some rare showroom shopping. These clients were the only ones in the country who had access - on arguably one of the brand's busiest days of the year - to the New York designer's collections pre-runway. Not even the big department stores had a wholesale peek, so this retail raid was special.

"We've got the golden key," Dougherty said. "We are the only ones who are allowed to do this, and we don't take it for granted."

It's one way for brands like Miller's to connect with customers at a time when high fashion might feel out of reach for most people. And Philadelphians benefited because of Dougherty's long-standing relationship with the company, where she started as a wholesale rep in the early '80s and is now Miller's only two-store retailer, owner of the Manayunk and Bellevue boutiques. The two women are so closely connected that people often confuse Dougherty with Miller.

"People always think Nicole Miller is from Philly," Dougherty said. "That's good for us. This kind of access lets me bring people into my world. There is so much more to the fashion industry than the glitzy runway shows."

New York Fashion Week's spring 2014 runway shows started Thursday, and Miller, a designer for 30 years, typically presents her collection the first Friday of the week. That way, she says, she can't be accused of copying someone else's zeitgeist.

But the slot can also be a challenge:

Shoppers, just returning from summer vacations, are filling their closets with fall, of-the-moment fashions. Spring, let alone holiday, is barely breaking the surface of most people's brains.

This is also the time designers must make late-fall and early-holiday deliveries - not to mention send their spring collections down the runway - before soon selling next season's collections to boutiques for delivery shortly after Christmas, when most of us still want a deal on winter coats. Miller and other designers also are currently generating ideas for next fall, Dougherty said.

"August used to be our busiest month in retail," Dougherty said. "Now everything happens in one month."

Yet with all these September commitments, maintaining good customer relationships remains key. So Dougherty's top shoppers get to see the vintage bolts of Nicole Miller fabrics, where patterns for samples are made. They get to see where social-media posts are generated and where the lower-priced Nicole Miller for J.C. Penney is designed, too.

Early arrivals even got a chance to exchange pleasantries - "nice to meet you, thanks for coming" - with the shy designer as she simultaneously read e-mails six hours to showtime.

The best part of behind the scenes is the shopping preview. For devotees, it's Nicole Miller heaven, with samples from the most recent fall and spring collections lining the perimeters of the showroom. For fall, leathers, lace, and sequins dominate. The spring racks pop with floral and striped color-blocked pieces that will eventually retail from $300 to $1,000.

Cenci is looking at her purchases. Her husband, mortgage banker Robert, checks his work e-mail on the iPhone, making this his best shopping experience ever.

"See this black dress?" Cenci said, showing off a flattering A-line with some lace overlay. "I plan on wearing this dress to the [Union League's] Fall Ball."

Mother-daughter team Melissa and Moira McNally arrive at the showroom in Nicole Miller blouson tops, and after a tour and some champagne, they order 18 pieces from the fall, holiday, and spring collections. The special deliveries will arrive at their home through February, right around the time designers are rolling out their fall 2014 pieces at the next Fashion Week.

The special presentation wraps up about 4:30 p.m., when Dougherty and her staffers make their way up town from 38th Street to Lincoln Center. It's time for the runway experience, and for many, it's a first. Philadelphia first lady Lisa Nutter and her daughter, Olivia - also invited by Dougherty - meet the Philly contingent in the lobby.

When the guests take their seats at the front left of the runway and read the liner notes, they see Miller was inspired by "rebels with a cause: the gardens of Versailles and storming the castle."

"Think of it as strong woman storming the Bastille," explained Bud Konheim, Miller's business partner, who often speaks in her place.

Visually it's all starting to make sense: the fabrics printed with gardens, mazes, chandeliers.

Then Cenci notices the shattered-glass print on her sheath serves as the backdrop on the stage.

"See the print up there," Cenci said. "That's my dress! See! That's my dress."

And a few minutes later, a peplum version of her just-purchased frock sails down the runway.

Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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