AFTER a year of blood, sweat and tears in the wilds of Panama, Savannah Miller is back with a new womenswear collection that’s cool, effortless and understated – just like the designer herself
SAVANNAH Miller does good milling-around chat. We’re waiting for the launch event of her collection for Debenhams to kick off and along with on-message fashion talk about the collection which is artfully displayed on stands and rails around us, there’s mum stuff about kids and chaos, then she’s telling us about the stooshie on her flight back from New York where an overexcited fellow passenger had to be restrained in their seat. This prompts my colleague Gaby to tell us a story of flight nerves where the very nice man sitting next to her held her hand for the entire journey. It was Christopher Biggins.
“Christopher Biggins, wow!” says Miller, as impressed and envious as the rest of us, and you forget that she’s rubbed shoulders with more household names than Nicky Clarke has rubbed the shoulder of, that she was Alexander McQueen’s assistant and her sister is actress Sienna Miller. She seems so normal.
It’s this school-run-mum-with-an-edge-of-cool that makes her a perfect fit for Debenhams, along with her top-class fashion credentials - the 36-year-old graduated from Central Saint Martins with a first class degree in fashion and knitwear in 2004, then cut her teeth with Alexander McQueen, Matthew Williamson and Anya Hindmarch. She became co-creative director of fashion line Twenty8Twelve with Sienna for six years and has also designed a one-off line for Scandinavian fashion e-tailer Nelly.com, as well as producing a bridal collection with Stone Fox Bride, the hip, high-end New York label. Think flower crowns, bare feet, bohemia meets Brooklyn brides.
Her Debenhams collection is called Nine, after her lucky number and her daughter, Lyra, who is in turn named for the star constellation that shines most brightly at 9pm. Nine by Savannah Miller is her version of a stylish smart-casual wardrobe of dresses, jeans, tops, coats, hats, shoes and bags to take you from desk to dinner, school run to cool fun. In a neutral palette of blacks, greys and pastels, with a little sparkle of embellishment and embroidery, there are knits, denim, leathers, lace and star and swallow motifs. With 70 womenswear pieces and 48 accessories in the first collection, and a further 35 pieces added for Christmas, it’s affordable high street fashion with prices averaging £35, and the latest in the Debenhams Designer portfolio that features the likes of Jonathan Saunders and Betty Jackson.
“With every design we try to dress it down. I think it’s really important that it’s casual and never feels over the top. So the sequin skirt is worn with slouchy knitwear and the white jacket with grungy boots,” she says.
“Less is more. There’s something for every occasion, but it’s styled in a way that’s cool and has personality. It’s slightly more youthful than any of the other Debenhams collaborations, more casual, with an everyday vibe. And it was important to me that it’s available in all sizes, from 8-20 for all women. Of course the models, celebs and journalists who are size six are annoyed, but we’re trying to do something for everyone.”
Miller is well acquainted with the life of a working mother, although her version is more glamorous than most. One minute she’s talking about driving into Bristol from rural Gloucestershire where she lives with husband Nick and their three children, Moses, 10, Lyra, 7, and Bali, 3, to pick up another pair of the cargo jeans she says she “lives in” and indeed is wearing today, the next she’s talking about her excitement at jetting off to Moscow, one of the international stores where her collection will be stocked, along with outlets in the Middle East, Latvia, Turkey, Iceland, Cyprus and Denmark, in addition to 65 UK shops.
“I’m constantly juggling 25 balls in the air, forgetting PE kit. I don’t have a system. I feel a lot of the time like I’m treading water and never giving anything enough attention, but that’s a classic working mother situation,” she says.
“I love what I do, and it’s good to give children a work ethic,” she says. “And I couldn’t be a stay at home mother. But I have done it and loved it too. When you’re completely on your own with the children that’s completely devotional and there’s something beautiful about that. There were moments when I felt, ‘God, this is the right thing to be doing’. And then there were others, when the mountain of laundry is over your head and someone is fighting and the place is a mess, when you think, ‘Aaaaghhh’’”
It’s hard not to envy Miller. Five foot ten, size ten, blonde hair, blue eyes, family film star looks that have propelled sister Sienna all the way to Hollywood, three healthy children, a bushcraft expert husband, a house in the Cotswolds and a fashion pedigree longer that than of her big bouncy French sheepdog.
“Effortless, cool and understated” are epithets applied to her designs, and are a fair description of the designer herself, yet only a year ago, blood, sweat and tears might have been more apposite when the family left the UK for a year-long sabbatical in Panama while Nick set up an adventure holiday company. A year out for an Amazonian adventure might sounds idyllic, but it wasn’t, says Miller.
“We all have this illusion that we can live on the beach or in the country and eat fruit. But the reality is very often that you don’t have power or water, or things happen, like one day I picked up my daughter’s swimsuit and it had a scorpion inside it. Imagine if it had stung her, a six-year-old. It’s really sink or swim, make your own bread, butcher your own meat. And I’m a real urban girl.
“We lived in a tent for four months in 96 degree heat, trying to home school. Of course there were elements of amazing-ness, like trekking, surfing, but I like being able to turn on the tap and have a hot bath.”
So there were pros: the children loved it, learned Spanish and how to surf. And there were cons: Miller’s post-natal depression following the birth of daughter Bali 18 months previously, and an accident when Moses’ leg got caught in a boat propeller and he needed emergency surgery.
“It was Nick’s dream really. I felt like I had dragged him into my lifestyle, in a way that he possibly didn’t want to be living. He would love to be in a completely unstable place somewhere, so I thought I had to give it a try.
“It came off the back of me having a difficult time. I did a business project that came apart and had mild post-natal depression. One child’s a doddle, two you understand it, but a third, Oh My God. The post-natal depression was diagnosed later. I was trying to hang on for dear life, hold everything together and it was time for a break, but we possibly made an error in the location choice. I didn’t think about the effect of not having support. We had Nick’s parents over there, but I didn’t have my mother or my sister.”
After a year, the sheer hard work of living the good life began to tell and the family returned to the UK. Miller has never tried to dress up the realities of their experience.
“I want to be honest and say what it was really like. Because we all have this illusion, lust after lives that aren’t ours and the reality is very different. So we came back and the children go to a lovely village school. They remember Panama very fondly and that’s wonderful, but for me, it was too much. We gave it nearly a year, then came back. I wasn’t able to sit back and leave my career forever. You can’t take too long out of the game.”
Away from the school run, her family and certainties, not to mention baths and electricity, Miller was forced to reassess everything and looks back upon this time as life-changing.
“In Panama it became clear to me that I have to speak the truth, that’s all I can do. If you don’t, you’re diluting yourself. Living remotely and doing nothing, I had the rug pulled out from under my feet and it made me determined. I realised if I wanted to have a successful business and longevity, I have to know what I want to say.
“That’s why with this collection I feel like I’ve spoken with my truest voice in a long time. It’s aspirational but not intimidating.”
Miller also credits Debenhams with allowing her to concentrate on design, and having all of the efficiency and expertise of an established company.
“When I started Twenty8Twelve with my sister I was 26 years old, just out of college and all over the shop. I never imagined it would become so big so quickly and I was intimidated by the design team because they were older. I felt, ‘What do I know?’ You don’t know who you are and who you are trying to dress. I lost sight in the end, lost the love for it. Now I have a more relaxed confidence that comes with age, and design for women like me.”
Born in New York to an American banker father and South African mother, Savannah and Sienna grew up in Fulham and Wiltshire. Their parents divorced and their father went on to marry Kelly Hoppen – who Savannah still calls stepmother – and then an American woman with whom he now runs a retreat in the British Virgin Islands.
“Our mum pretty much brought us up on her own and was very strong. Our father was always the one forging ahead. Also our stepmother Kelly Hoppen is a phenomenal, inspiring woman too, independent, feisty. We were very lucky,” she says.
“Sienna is my best friend and my sounding board. We have always been very symbiotic because it’s just the two of us and our parents got divorced when we were quite young. When we were doing Twenty8Twelve we would do mood boards together. Were we feeling Gothic witches or 1970s? We’d come up with a collar shape or a silhouette, and obviously she was in all the look books.
“She’s constantly saying, ‘Where’s that from?’ And I say, ‘Yep, that’s mine’. She’s not a dressy princess but she’ll give her ten penn’orth when necessary. She’s incredibly strong in her opinions and knows what she likes. She styles herself for all those events she does. She just has a very clear idea of who she is and what she wants to wear.”
Sienna may be the “junior partner in the relationship” as Savannah likes to call her, but she has had to grow up fast under intense media scrutiny that her elder sister is glad to have escaped.
“It’s really horrible, really difficult, being in the public eye,” says Miller. “It’s hard to have any kind of privacy. She’s got a handle on it now, though, after the phone hacking inquiry. There were times when we were followed down the street when we were young. I like being able to go and get the milk in my pyjamas.”
Yes, there will be nightwear in the next collection, for those of us who like to shop in our, ahem, leisurewear.
Miller had been making clothes since she was nine, including alien and Madonna costumes that involved bubble wrap and her younger sister, but her parents were keen for her to pursue a more traditional career. “Something like a lawyer,” she says. “I did quite well at school and ended up going to Edinburgh University to study religious studies, but I left after a year. I’m not very good at cold and windy,” she says.
“My heart wasn’t in it, so I went to Saint Martins to do what I had always wanted to do. Once I started my parents could see how committed I was and they had seen me making clothes all my life, so it made sense to them.”
After Saint Martins, Miller started working for Alexander McQueen.
“I was his assistant, running around wherever he went, but I was totally clueless. I didn’t know what I was meant to be doing. But he didn’t mind and I learned everything from him. We just became really good friends. He had a magnificent mind and was an intense researcher, and it was a wonderful experience.”
A season collaborating with Matthew Williamson on a knitwear collection followed – he also became a good friend – then she worked for Anya Hindmarch. “All of that was interesting experience, getting into the mind of other designers and trying to convey it.”
It was just after she graduated with a first in fashion and knitwear from Saint Martins that she met her husband Nick when she was 24.
“I was working at Alexander McQueen, in this high stress environment and was overwhelmed, when I met him at a wedding in a forest. He was hosting it and living in an eco-structure there. It was amazing, instant recognition, and we fell in love on the spot, but I was very young. Now, it’s 13 years and three children later…”
A year after the wedding Moses was born, followed by Lyra and Bali. “Bali is named after the place. We went there for our honeymoon and fell in love with it. She was a bit of a surprise and Nick was hell bent on naming her Bali. It really suits her.” You could see where he was coming from as he also has a son called Java, now aged 20 and Miller’s step-son.
“Living down here it’s very down to earth, a very normal life. I have three kids and work, my friends work, so our social life is barbecues and stew by the fire in winter. I go up to London for work, a two-and-a-half-hour commute, and see my mother and sister then too. It’s great, except if I’m in a meeting in London and get a phone call that one of the kids is sick. Then it’s frazzling.
“I do enjoy getting dressed up too when I go to friends’ events and launch parties. It’s fun, especially when you’re a mum at home and run ragged, living in cargo jeans the rest of the time.”
Either way, Miller has the clothing situation covered, and is at pains to stress she’s just like the rest of us, for better or worse.
“It’s really important that you don’t offer some kind of illusion of a life. It’s got to be real, because we are all human.”
With winter launched and next summer’s collection done and dusted – think boho, boyfriend jeans, and floaty maxi dresses – Miller is working on next winter’s look.
“We are going to get a bit heavier on theme this time. We’ve set the tone and now we are going for something with more personality,” she says.
It looks like Savannah Miller is only just getting into her stride.
• Nine by Savannah Miller has an average selling price of £35 and is available at Debenhams stores now and online at www.debenhams.com