Tween Trendsetter


Model TWEENS: Sally Miller with her daughters Katie and Lilly.


dressed to the nines: This Sally Miller chemise is glamorous and age-appropriate for the teen set.

Sally Miller remembers her life by outfits. The tan Frye boots she saved up to buy in sixth grade. The blue jersey tunic that helped land her first job. The nude, crystal-encrusted Bob Mackie dress Cher wore on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour—otherwise known as the dress that set Miller’s lifework in motion.

“That was the moment,” Miller says. “That moment of boldness and glamour and mystery made such a statement. I thought, I want to create that kind of magic.”

More than 25 years later, Sally Miller’s determination to carve a place for herself in the industry has made her a tween fashionista.

In fall 2007, the 40-something Milltown resident and single mother of two launched her namesake brand for girls 7-to-14. The trendy, yet age-appropriate line offers casual, mix-and-match pieces for school, and chic dresses for special occasions—including some held at the White House.

Miller had been told that the Obama girls had worn her dresses, but it was confirmed last October, when she saw a photograph of Sasha dancing on the South Lawn of the White House with her father. “I was over the moon,” she says. “She was dancing in the dress, and they were having so much fun. That’s how I want to see all my clothes.”

In 2008, Miller opened a boutique in the heart of Milltown. Today, her designs can be found in New Jersey’s local fashion shops such as Gotham City Clothing in Millburn as well as high-end department stores nationwide, including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdale’s.

“The buyers know her stuff,” says Lynda Johnson, style director and part-owner of kidstylesource.com, a marketing and retail site for children’s clothing. Johnson met Miller when the former was a young fashion journalist in the late 1970s; they’ve been friends since. “I’ve known her from every stage of every job change,” Johnson says. “She really has her finger on the pulse of the market.”

Unlike other designers and fashion houses that rely on market research to get a feel for their customer base, Miller doesn’t have to go farther than her own home. Through her daughters, Katie, 12, and Lilly, 11, and their friends, Miller is fortunate to live within her own market. “I’ll ask [my daughters] their opinions,” Miller says. “They don’t mince words with me, ‘Ugh,’ ‘Ew.’ Sometimes it influences me, and sometimes I know if my customer needs a particular look.”

Before the Sally Miller brand, the designer founded Sally Mack, a tween clothing line partnered with a large denim company. From 2001, she oversaw its growth until November 2006. “I woke up one day, and I just really wanted to go out on my own and bring my team with me,” she says. Recently divorced and without “two nickels to rub together,” Miller admitted she was working on blind faith. “I’m one of those corny believers that, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

After high school in Philadelphia, Miller attended the Rhode Island School of Design. It wasn’t long before she made her foray into the New York fashion scene.

“I had this idea that I was going to wear one of my designs, march into Karl Lagerfeld’s office with my portfolio in hand, and knock on his door,” says Miller. And that’s just what she did. Sort of.

When she arrived at the fashion demigod’s New York City office, the picture she paints reads like a scene out of Mad Men: Jazz stirring softly in the background. Men smoking cigarettes. And Miller, dressed in her own royal-blue wool jersey tunic with an oversized cowlneck.

“I pulled it up and wore it as a hood, very Grace Jones-like,” she says. “I was so dramatic that day. I thought I had arrived.” But Lagerfeld wasn’t in. Instead, his assistant, Eric Knight, was on-hand. He saw the young designer, and after viewing her portfolio, effectuated what some may call good luck or, as Miller puts it, “when hard work meets opportunity.”

Knight telephoned two well-known fashion houses, Anne Klein and Liz Claiborne, and set up meetings for the fledgling designer with Anne Klein company executive Andrew Rosen as well as Liz Claiborne designer Dana Buchman. By the end of that day, Miller had a job as an entry-level assistant designer at Liz Claiborne. Knight had graciously opened the door, but Miller’s tenacity had paved the way.

For the next five years, Miller bounced around the women’s-wear world before taking a job as a designer for a company launching a girls’ 7-to-14 line. “It felt right,” she says.

During the next four years, Miller developed her first line, “Sister Sister,” and immersed herself in what would become her own golden goose: the tween market.

After 18 years in New York, Miller and her then-husband moved to New Jersey when their daughters were ready to enter kindergarten. “We wanted to have that life for them, the life where you can ride your bike outside and have a barbecue and play with friends,” she says.

Once again, opportunity and good luck crossed paths. During their drive to East Brunswick, the couple got lost and ended up in front of an open house in Milltown. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, but we loved the house and we loved the town,” she says.

Later, after her divorce, when the tween trend had fully taken root, and Miller had made the decision to start her own company, she relied on her favorite saying, “If you build it, they will come,” to keep her business afloat more than 100 miles outside of fashion’s epicenter, Manhattan.

“It was not an easy thing to do,” says Johnson. “She was trying to find her way. Trying to have a healthy and happy home for her daughters and keep her own sanity.”

Miller admits that she’s learned some hard lessons. “Knowing when to turn left. Knowing when to say, ’no,’ and knowing when to move on is not easy,” she says. “Mistakes are made, and that’s part of the privilege of having the journey to begin with.” After all, raising tween daughters is difficult enough, let alone also being at the helm of your own company.

Miller, who doesn’t have a nanny, does her best each day to balance her priorities. “When you run your own business, it’s not something you can turn off or on,” she says. “I’m still trying to figure it out. When I was on The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch with [maternity designer] Liz Lange, she said, ‘Balance is like a unicorn.’ It’s like a joke for any working mother, especially a single mom. I have to work to make a living, but not at the expense of being around my children.”

These days, Miller creates harmony in her life by focusing not only on her children, but also on fostering the growth and creativity of young up-and-coming designers. Last November, she invited tweens and teens to submit sketches for her Top Design contest. Out of 75 submissions, 14-year-old ElleryJane Ring’s ivory lace dress with black lining and ruffle detail was among the winners.

The Linden teen’s dress, which Miller named ElleryJane, will be part of the Sally Miller holiday/resort collection this October.

With a budding career at her fingertips, Ring has the good fortune to have Sally Miller in her corner. “The main thing she told me is to never give up,” says Ring. “Always work hard, and if you want, you can do it. You just have to put your mind to it, and it’s possible.”

For more information on Sally Miller’s collection, visit sallymiller.biz.

Fashion Academy guides budding fashionistas

Doubling her efforts to help guide tween designers, Sally Miller runs a fashion workshop series above her Milltown boutique called Fashion Academy, Inc. In addition, Miller will be running a one-day, in-store workshop for 8-to-14-year-olds at Nordstrom’s in Paramus this October. Check sallymiller.biz for details on registration.


If you like this article please share it.