Friday, October 27, 2006

Millie Wiggins: From vocal to vintage

Renegade stylist retires after 40 years in fashion business

Express Staff Writer

Millie Wiggins modeled a dress by 1960s fashion icon Rudy Gernreich for her enduring clothing store, Avventura.

Surrounded by the detritus of decades in the clothes business, while wearing a fox stole, Millie Wiggins showed off a few favored items: a maroon Krizia dress, ("Isn't it cute?" she asked) a vintage tailored Austrian wool jacket, and a slinky Irene dress from the 1940s.

These were among the remnants that Wiggins was packing up since closing her breakthrough women's boutique, Avventura, in downtown Ketchum.

Consider this. Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, fashion in Sun Valley meant flannel shirts, wool suits and leiderhosen. In 1959, the Leadville Espresso House, Idaho's first coffee shop and musical venue, opened its doors, and with it came a new wave of people, including Wiggins. She arrived in Ketchum in 1960 to help out her high school friend, Connie Maricich, who with her husband, Herman, owned "Leadville," as it was known.

Wiggins set down roots, married, "took over Leadville and sort of ran with it," she said. She met skiers, celebrities and writers. She had movie nights, costume parties, and hired musicians to play in the old church that housed Leadville, many of whom have remained friends, such as the Idaho folk singer Rosalie Sorrels.

In 1965, she changed course and set about bringing cutting-edge fashion to the Wood River Valley. A trendsetter, who'd worked in the fashion business in New York City, she knew no fear when it came to mixing and matching vintage and designer, East and West.

Wiggins owned and operated Avventura until last week when she retired, after 40 years on the job. In the beginning, Connie Maricich was her partner. Together they created a happening shop for dames looking for something different. Every fashion maven who has come since is following in Wiggins' well-worn footsteps.

Wiggins was born in Oklahoma, but grew up in California. "I have Indian blood—Cherokee," she claims, and in old photos one can see the proof in her high, wide check bones and almond-shaped eyes.

Whether she was wearing a vintage embroidered rodeo queen shirt and a feathered headdress made by 1970s fashion icon Giorgio Sant'Angelo, she was a shocking presence in a town full of skiers and ranchers.

"I was about 30 years ahead at Leadville Espresso; we had a liquor license and served all these spiked coffee drinks. The town was very different. The streets weren't paved. There were no sidewalks. At Fourth of July and Wagon Days, there was an appalling amount of dust that hung over the town."

Besides Sant'Angelo, she carried such quirky designers as Rudy Gernreich, Ossie Clark, Betsey Johnson, Anne Klein, Missoni, Krizia, and various English designers.

"Rudy was up here one time," she said. "He thought it was really interesting that anyone would buy his clothes in Idaho."

Originally located in the Sun Valley Village, Avventura became famous for its window displays, with themes like a motel room and the beach.

"It seemed more interesting than anything else and it was, when I first moved out to Sun Valley," she said. "Ketchum was still quite small. There were no stores downtown really, except for Sturtevant's. It was quite hard to have a business outside of Sun Valley."

She said she never thought of herself as a fashion maven. "It was just life. I was coming of age in the 1950s. Women just didn't go open stores. They were encouraged to go out and reproduce rapidly.

Between Leadville Espresso and Avventura, Wiggins knew lots of musicians, artists and writers including the author Robert Stone and the young, unknown Hunter S. Thompson, who was covering various Western issues for the National Observer.

Thompson became a good friend of hers and her husband, Mike Solheim, but in the divorce, "he got Hunter, which was OK with me," she chuckled. "Much as I loved him, he could be hard to be around."

"I've always stayed in touch with the Stones. Most of my friends are writers, artists and designers, the ones that stood the test of time."

One of those who stood the test is skier, climber and writer Dick Dorworth. "I've known him since he was an acne-ridden, 19-year-old racer, full of hormones, fresh out of Reno," she said. "He's a guy who really likes women. He was a racing hero."

If pictures tell a hundred stories, then Wiggins, in some great get-up, either gave or went to a hundred parties.

"The high points are all when you're young and all the lights are golden, she said. "That's how it is when you look back."

In 1979, Wiggins moved Avventura to Ketchum. Though there were some lean years, she stuck with it, even mentoring others along the way.

"She was sort of way ahead of her time," said Suzy Hart, owner of Déjà Vu, a vintage clothes store. "I admire who Millie is—her independence, her tenacity and way of sticking to her vision.

"She really helped to reinforce my ideas—even if you feel like you never fit in—of what I wanted my store to be. She is who she is. She has such a dry humor, and that hidden genius that comes out in a unique fashion, definitely her own person. I was always impressed she could keep in business so long. It's so hard. She's a pioneer of the boutique."

In the early 1990s, Wiggins moved Avventura to a home at the corner of East Avenue and Fourth Street in Ketchum, which is where it remained until last week.

Although she was once considered an outsider, the town came to accept her. She once ran for Ketchum City Council because she was discouraged (and still is) with how the town's government is run, and she pushed to have the "Eat More Lamb" sign repainted on the outside of the Lane Mercantile building, which now houses Starbucks. "The Eat More Lamb presentation got people talking about sheep, and its history in the valley, and now look."

In addition, Wiggins was the brain behind the all-nude "Sun Valley Exposed" calendar of 2005, the sale of which raised money for the Sun Valley-Ketchum Historical Society.

Wiggins took a sweater off the clothes rack in the basement, where vintage hats were sitting cattywompus on empty shelves and boxes were half filled with photos and other paraphernalia.

The sweater was a fat fluffy cardigan in muted colored yarn. It had a goofy style and could have been made anytime from the 1940s through today.

"This is a hand-knit sweater by Women's Home Industry in England. Everyone complained about the prices," she said. "Years ago, Joanne Woodward came in with Paul Newman, with the best blue eyes, and she bought one. Twenty years later in The New York Times magazine there's a picture of her at home in Connecticut in front of her house. I said, 'Hey isn't that one of those WHI sweaters. Just imagine, she's been wearing it for 20 years.' Then, years later, when she was in the movie 'Philadelphia,' as Tom Hanks' mother, she comes to the hospital, and she's wearing the same sweater. Then there was another picture of her in it. She certainly believes in getting her money's worth.

"The thing is, it was a cute sweater."

And that's what counts when you're a fashion maven in love with style and presentation.

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