Mary Dougherty is one of the most influential women in Philadelphia, and is steadily cementing Nicole Miller as a heritage brand in this city. With two thriving storefronts, located in Manayunk and Center City, Dougherty paints a pretty picture of success. However, the process wasn’t always bridal gowns and rainbows. We sat down with her to chat about breaking into the industry and her advice for female entrepreneurs in Philly.
Tell us where it all began.
My first exposure, believe it or not, was working in the Downingtown Farmers Market at 13; I worked for a wholesale room selling samples. No one in my family was in the garment industry. I eventually ended up modeling for trade shows in high school, getting into the wholesale business, and then getting into retail. The process from the farmers’ market and beyond helped me recognize there was more to garments than playing dress-up.
What were the early days like?
When I opened in Manayunk back in 1994, everyone said I was crazy. At the time, there were some cool stores and restaurants, but the other three quarters of of the neighborhood were empty. I said, “If I do something really fabulous, if they see Nicole Miller open in Manayunk, other stores will work there.” The next year, I got the visionary award. I trusted my instincts. Fortunately, it worked, but it was definitely scary, and I had a lot of doubt. We’ve been at the Bellevue now for 18 years and in Manayunk for 22.
What’s Nicole like? How do the clothes reflect her personality?
She is a great friend. We’ve known each other for over 30 years. She’s an incredibly talented designer that’s not afraid to be different. She’s kind of on the quiet side, definitely not an in your face personality. A lot of people market themselves a certain way, but she really walks it and talks it. She knows how to sew; she sketches. Her life really reflects on her collection. And she makes sure at the end of the day that it’s salable – she understands that it’s a business.
As a designer, she has truly evolved in so many ways – sportswear, dresses, patterns. Every print you see is inspired and designed by Nicole and her team, and you can’t get it anywhere else. We’re still one of the few design houses that is privately owned and operated. Nicole and her business partner privately own the company, and I privately own the store for a license fee.
What’s the best part about your job?
Interacting with people. I can walk into a room of 100 people, and somebody always has a Nicole Miller dress story – they got married in her dress, went to prom in her dress. We have a really important role to play to people because when you get an invitation, the first thing you think is, “What am I gonna wear?” And when you look back on memories, one of the first things you think is, “What was I wearing?” For us, it’s a really big responsibility, and we take it seriously.
What’s with the letter from Bill Clinton?
President Clinton was at the Bellevue for something else when Ed Rendell and Ron Rubin introduced me to him. He was so sweet, and I was joking around with him. He was like “Come on, let’s go in your store.” We walked in, and everyone was freaking out. I gave him a scarf for Hillary, and they sent me that thank you (pictured above). That was one of the best days we had because every woman in the store bought what she was trying on when the President came to visit. You never know what’s gonna happen at the Bellevue.
What are you most proud of?
Being able to balance my family with my career, which is not always an easy endeavor. I’ve been blessed with three boys, and I’ve been married for 26 years. We both own our own businesses, have been juggling this for a long time, and still love what we do; we are still happy.
What advice do you have for aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Don’t be afraid to believe in your vision. That sounds kinda hokey, but if you feel strongly about something, keep your eye on the prize. Get out and network; you’ve gotta work the city. And if you’re fortunate enough to do well, be sure to give back to the city that’s been good to you. Don’t take it for granted, just like a lot of things in life – if you’re not careful they can disappear. People need to hear real stories and know their story’s next.
The Details: Nicole Miller at The Bellevue, 200 Broad Street, Center City, 215-546-5007. Nicole Miller Manayunk, 4249 Main Street, 215-930-0307.