The Woman Behind Nicole Miller’s Success

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in the Philadelphia Style Magazine on August 18, 2014.

Entrepreneur Mary K. Dougherty has made fashion designer Nicole Miller a household name in Philadelphia.

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Mary K. Dougherty dresses Philadelphia women for a lifetime—from prom night to wedding continued on page 56 day—in Nicole Miller.

A few years after Mary Dougherty was recruited to be a road rep for a young New York designer named Nicole Miller, then company president and current CEO Bud Konheim approached her about opening a store in Philadelphia. It was 1993. Dougherty took Konheim and the brand’s team to the little-known town of Manayunk, where just a few restaurants and two retailers made up Main Street. “It was getting dark, and we were at the edge of town,” recalls Konheim with a laugh. “It was like being in a western—Mary showed us the building, which seemed like it was right next to the O.K. Corral. Mary said, ‘I think this is the next big thing.’ I said, ‘You know best.’ ”

With Konheim’s blessing, Dougherty took the leap of faith and opened the boutique the following March. Void of a marketing budget, Dougherty called in favors, recruiting then Philadelphia mayor (and later Pennsylvania governor) Ed Rendell, sports figures, local celebrities, and Miller herself to attend the opening party. The epic affair was the first of many bashes. “I was told I was nuts to open a store there,” remembers Dougherty, but this spring, she celebrated 20 years in retail in Philadelphia.

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Nicole Miller produces stylish bags and heels.

Dougherty now owns and operates the Center City and Manayunk Nicole Miller stores and is the wholesale representative for the brand in six states.

Looking ahead, she feels the fashion future is bright for the brand, the city, and the industry. “In the beginning, we worked from 11 am to 11 pm on weekends,” she says. “We added a second store at the Bellevue in 1997, back when the only things in that neighborhood were Le Bec-Fin and Susanna Foo.”

On Mondays, she’d hit the road, heading out in a 22-foot recreational vehicle built to house the entire collection for retailers. “If I had more Marys, I could quadruple my business,” says Konheim. “When people talk about entrepreneurs, she is the poster child for the American entrepreneur.”

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Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell with Miller and Dougherty.

The youngest of eight children, Dougherty was already working in the fashion business at 15, first in retail, then for a clothing rep in Philadelphia, and even doing some modeling at fashion trade shows. When she was recruited to work for Miller, the designer was the enthroned queen of the little black dress, a new icon of contemporary women’s fashion. But it would be the printed men’s tie—made of leftover fabric from a seasonal collection—that sold thousands and made the designer a household name. “Nicole Miller is an incredibly talented designer who makes my job easy,” Dougherty says.

For Dougherty, the brand’s impact cannot be understated. “Whether you’re going to dinner or the Academy Ball, Nicole Miller has played an important part in the fabric and style of fashion in Philadelphia,” says Dougherty. “One of my hobbies is counting how many of our dresses are worn at a single event. The record is 50-plus sightings at a local gala.” But at the same time, she has dressed many a Philadelphia woman for myriad milestones. “Girls come for a bat mitzvah or party dress, then they return for prom, graduation, and wedding dresses.”

Keeping Philadelphia fashionable for two decades has lent Dougherty a sense of permanence. “There is a feeling of vindication,” she says. “At our store, you can get a $500 dress and $5,000 dollars worth of service—that’s what distinguishes us.”

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The Manayunk and Bellevue locations stock dresses for every occasion.

Success has also created numerous opportunities to give back, and Dougherty and her family—husband, Erik Neumann, and teenage sons Nyle, Alex, and Ryan—are longtime supporters of Homefront, Juvenile Diabetes, and Philadelphia Academies Inc., where friend and famous customer, Philadelphia’s “first lady” Lisa Nutter, is president and chairman. “The charity work is hers alone,” gushes Konheim. “She does honor to our brand name.” Philly-themed printed ties and scarves were a recent merging of the two spheres—a hit for the retail stores with proceeds going to area charities.

But through it all, Dougherty remains humble about her contributions and her awards. “We have a lot more to do and give,” she says, citing a desire to become a job creator for Philly’s next fashion generation. “My hope is that Philadelphia continues to evolve and provide jobs and opportunities. I see showrooms, manufacturing, trade shows, an entire fashion district here. Now, the sky is the limit.” 4249 Main St., 215-930-0307; 200 S. Broad St., 215-546-5007

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