Originally published in Manayunk.com Magazine
Nimble is a word that Mary K. Dougherty shows a clear affection for. She uses it to describe how she proceeds through her days, ideally. And it’s the guiding force of her ever-growing, fashion-centered empire in Philadelphia, which includes her privately owned and operated Nicole Miller Manayunk store, her foundation, so to speak. Dougherty celebrated the shop’s 20th anniversary with a red carpet bash in April.
But it was a brush with tragedy that honed her appreciation for the word like none of her mounting accomplishments could. Not the wholesale business through which Dougherty got her start with Nicole Miller in 1983 and which she’s continued to nurture. Not the second shop, Nicole Miller Bellevue, that Dougherty opened in 1997. Not her most recent enterprise, the Center City-based PR and event planning firm, Mary K. Dougherty & Associates. Not even all the mentoring and philanthropy that was laced throughout all of it. No, it was a car accident this winter that forced Dougherty away from all of it, for the first time in her career, and stole her agility.
“It was humbling and profound because I had everything planned out and nothing was the way I had planned it,” she says.
In the days just before the anniversary party, Dougherty reveled in the onrush of benchmarks of a life lived at full speed again—the career milestone, of course, but also a recent 25th wedding anniversary and their newly-college-bound son. (She’s the mother of three boys, ages 18, 15 and 13.) All of it maybe a hint more vibrant because, for a fleeting moment, it was threatened.
But the anniversary of the Manayunk shop was always going to be more than another impressive summit scaled with all that those 20 years comprised and everything that Dougherty came to mean to the city at large because of her integral role in them.
Always an astute observer, it was hardly as easy as Dougherty landing in the right place at the right time. Center City was suffering in April 1994. She saw that. She also saw that Main Street in Manayunk wasn’t, thanks to a core of thriving restaurants and fashionable shops. Those pieces made all the difference. She’d come to understand that during her decade long rounds to shopping centers in the Mid-Atlantic region as a wholesale representative. From that day on, Mary’s Nicole Miller store became the main driver of fashion in Manayunk and still remains that way today.
Dougherty credits former Philly Mayor Ed Rendell and Manayunk developer Dan Neducsin with pulling the city out of its freefall, but she herself assumed a greater role in that evolution with every year that passed. From her first days as a shop owner, Dougherty helped dictate the tone for the new era, supporting the fresh crop of fashion retailers and emerging designers. As the fashion programs at Drexel, the University of the Arts and Moore College of Art & Design developed into some of the most formidable in the country, Dougherty created more opportunities for students within her ranks. Today, half of her staff started with her as interns and all have learned the Mary Dougherty/Nicole Miller way. When you shop at Mary’s stores you get a level of customer service and styling from a fashion educated staff that you just can’t find at department stores. If what you want is Nicole Miller, Mary’s stores are THE place to go. It’s her attention to detail and her promise of customer satisfaction that makes ALL the difference.
“At the end of the day, I have my eye on the prize,” she says. “However, I do believe in making sure I’m open to supporting and helping other people and not being so selfish or self-centered that I don’t see a bigger picture. There’s always a bigger picture.”
Yet, it’s the most intimate scenes that resonate with Dougherty: the countless outfits sold for graduations, weddings, first dates, job interviews, even funerals. All of them, an experience shared, a relationship formed.
A guy came into the Manayunk shop not too long ago and bought a red dress. His plan was to pack it in secret and then ask his unsuspecting girlfriend to put it on one night during their trip to Italy. From there, he led her to a spot he picked out beforehand and proposed.
“That’s a big responsibility,” Dougherty says. “That’s not just a dress.”
She wears little else besides Nicole Miller. Always has. After more than 30 years of selling her collections, Dougherty may be the designer’s most pronounced advocate. But for every article sold for a meaningful occasion, it became less about the clothing and more about the people she was selling it to.
Nicole Miller Manayunk and Nicole Miller Bellevue are privately owned and operated by Mary K. Dougherty. Nicole Miller Manayunk, 4249 Main Street; nicolemillerphiladelphia.com.
Visit the Manayunk Development Corporation Contact page for full contact information.
Office: 4312 Main Street, Philadelphia, PA 19127