Every industry has the people who understand how everything works now, as well as how everything used to be. The fashion industry had Bud Konheim. He was the chief executive of Nicole Miller, which he founded in New York in 1982 — named after the young designer he’d hired to work alongside him. But his roots in the garment trade went back generations.
Konheim, 84, died over the weekend after a bicycling accident in Connecticut. His memorial is Friday in New York.
You might expect that what would come next in this appreciation would be a lament about how so much institutional knowledge died along with Konheim. But that would not be true. Because while Seventh Avenue has lost one of its most buoyant and charismatic business executives, Konheim was generous with what he knew. He doled out wisdom and expertise in great heaping helpings. He readily provided context and insight to a host of reporters who regularly called him up, along with unvarnished truth about the business that to which he’d devoted his life. He did so even when there was nothing to benefit him other than the satisfaction in knowing that we got the story right — or as close to true and fair that flawed humans can get.
Because he refrained from condescension, he created a safe space to ask any question — although he would have scoffed at the use of such a politically dubious phrase as “safe space” to describe any room that he was in. For someone in a business built on glossy image and self-conscious performance, Konheim was willing to give a tour of the messy, sweaty backstage. That truth didn’t take away from the beauty of fashion; it only made it more remarkable. Understanding how challenging the fashion business can be — from catching the creative muse to manufacturing quality products to convincing a customer to buy them — helped you realize how miraculous a success story truly is.
He didn’t rely on publicists to vet and massage his every statement. For one thing, he was too cheap to employ a fancy communications firm. But his was a private company that did not have to answer to investors. He was sure in his point of view, willing to admit when he was wrong and curious to hear what others had to say. Konheim didn’t just answer your questions; he engaged with you. Just a few minutes of conversation with him could make a story more nuanced and thoughtful.
His chats with reporters were not just about the fashion business, but also about politics, films, books. (He hosted a book party for me several years ago.) His varied interests and background informed the way he talked about fashion. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth College, with a stint in the Marines. He could talk about the nitty-gritty of business as well as the big picture cultural shifts. He was a no holds-barred ranconteur whose narratives were rooted in confidence and self-awareness. Nicole Miller, the brand, wasn’t hip. But it was thriving — and that was plenty good for him.
Nicole Miller was not an agenda-setting behemoth. Most consumers probably associate it with the novelty tie craze of the early 1990s, when business executives wore four-in-hands printed with everything from playing cards and slot machines to calculators. But the brand also produced sexy — but never vulgar — party dresses. They had a big moment on the prom scene.
The brand’s heyday may have passed, but the company soldiered on, shifting its business strategy with the times, staying abreast of changing tastes and building a solid group of licensed products — from linens to luggage. Just recently, the company mounted a runway show in Shanghai.
Following Konheim’s death, the company rests in the hands of his estate, along with designer Miller. It will probably be sold. It’s impossible to imagine that any new executive team will be to the press what Konheim was. He actively encouraged good journalism — not just for Nicole Miller but for every company.
Because after he made the reporters better, he expected them to push the industry that he loved so deeply to be better, too.