Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Milli Wiggins


Mildred Verna "Milli" Wiggins, of Ketchum, Idaho, passed away May 1, 2007, at a Boise hospital after a fight, of undetermined length, with cancer. She was 74.

As cofounder of the elegant Sun Valley boutique, Avventura, originally located in the Sun Valley Mall and later in downtown Ketchum, Milli was a leader of women's fashion in this world-famous resort for nearly 50 years. That was only half her life. She was also at the cultural heart of the community, supporting and promoting the artists and musicians that have made Sun Valley far more than a ski resort.

Milli was an original, a wit and a true intellectual. In the words of her lifelong friend, Connie Maricich Chesnel, she was a cultural "catalyst" in the mold of Gertrude Stein.

Milli was born on Sept. 11, 1932, in Stuart, Okla., to Osco Eugene and Flossie Elizabeth Wiggins. Her family moved to the San Francisco Bay area where she graduated from Richmond Union High School in 1951.

She enrolled at Contra Costa College in Richmond but soon selected her true niche in life. She moved to Dallas, Texas, with Connie to enter the world of fashion and art.

She took her first professional job at the Dallas Fashion Guild, which was being influenced, at the time, by the budding Neiman Marcus organization. After a couple of seasons, Milli moved to New York City where she worked a desk job by day but got to know scores of writers, artists, and musicians by night. She subsequently worked for the Christian Dior company.

In 1960, Milli visited Connie in Sun Valley, where Connie had moved a few years earlier. It was supposed to be just a visit, but Milli never left.

Before long, Connie, her husband Herman Maricich, Sun Valley pianist Johnny Lister, Blanche Rosenthal, and Dr. Don Soli, of Jerome, decided to open the Leadville Espresso House in what had been a pioneer church in downtown Ketchum. Soon the group obtained a liquor license and renamed their bar "Leadville." They hired Mike Solheim to manage the bar and he brought in his new girlfriend, Milli Wiggins, to help.

The bar was an enormous success. Skiers, celebrities, locals, and characters of all kinds—including the likes of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson—converged on Leadville and a good time was had by all.

Mike and Milli were soon married. Although they amicably divorced 10 years later, they remained close friends throughout the years.

In 1967, Milli and Connie decided to open their clothing boutique in the Sun Valley Mall. For the next 17 years, Avventura was synonymous with exquisite taste in women's apparel. With their background in fashion, their natural charm, and Milli's exceptional entrepreneurial skills, they couldn't miss.

They also worked brilliantly at their trade. Each year, Milli and Connie would restock Avventura by traveling to Europe to purchase the latest fabrics, dresses, pants, sweaters and accessories. They went to fashion shows in London, Paris and Milan, selecting the newest in women's fashions. They even ventured into the back streets of Paris to find the less established but completely original designers—stuffing their suitcases with their latest expressions.

They also traveled to "ski manufacturers" in and around Paris where they picked out the latest in ski and après ski clothing. When visitors came to Sun Valley from Europe, New York or Hollywood, they found things at Avventura that they could find nowhere else in America.

The success of Avventura was chronicled in the New York Times as well as many fashion magazines of the day. A 1967 edition of Women's Wear Daily ran a lengthy article saluting the success of Avventura of Sun Valley.

In 1978, Avventura closed at the Sun Valley Mall and reopened in downtown Ketchum as The Avventura. Connie left the enterprise after a year but Milli kept the store going until poor health forced her to close her doors in 2006.

Milli was an astute merchant, but her role as a committed patron of the arts was more important to her. She was involved in all manner of community organizations supporting the arts and historic preservation.

In 1999, Milli was successful in saving the First Congregational Church in downtown Ketchum. She personally rescued this pioneer church, built in 1887, hours before the wrecking ball. She may have done it for God, or maybe country, but it should be noted that this same church had been transformed into Milli's famous bar, "Leadville," 35 years before.

Milli became a board member of the Ketchum/Sun Valley Historical Society, serving from 2004-2007. She ran for Ketchum City Council in 2000. While she didn't win, she fared quite well with the voters.

Milli always told the truth. As her friend, Rosalee Sorrells said, if you couldn't deal with the truth, Milli wouldn't bother with you. Connie Maricich Chesnel put it another way. Milli, she said, "lived her life authentically—and very few people do that." She was, said Mike Solheim, a "rare spirit." Longtime Ketchum friend, Jan Cox, mentions Milli's "gift for friendship."

Milli's oldest friend, David Pierce, a former mayor of Richmond, Calif., who attended grade school with Milli, described her as brilliant, colorful, "full of piss and vinegar," and said that from childhood she was always boss—by general agreement of those she bossed. Mr. Pierce said that she often described her birthplace as "Rock Creek, Oklahoma, the little town that washed away." If you knew Milli, you can just hear her say that.

Milli is survived by her sisters, Pat Pillion. of Brentwood, Calif., and Norma Madison of San Pablo, Calif., and by her brother, Charles Wiggins of Chino, Ariz.

She was inurned Saturday, May 5, in a private ceremony at Ketchum Cemetery. A celebration of her life will take place on June 23 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Iconoclast Books, 211 N. Main, in Ketchum.




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