Fashion designer, mum and big sister to Sienna, SAVANNAH MILLER has faced a lot in the past few years. But not even marriage upheaval, business woes or her child’s terrifying accident could take her down, as Anna Pursglove discovers
Savannah Miller throws back her head and lets out a throaty cackle. I’ve got myself in a tangle over the current state of play in her love life and it’s tickled her no end.
‘My friend Ruth is the sister-in-law of my new partner James, and she’s dating my ex-husband Nik,’ she explains.
Ah, right. Not so much a partner swap, then, as a… no, still too confusing.
‘I’m slightly embarrassed by my weird, incestuous situation,’ she giggles, clearly not actually embarrassed at all. ‘But what are you going to do? There aren’t many single people around. Slim pickings in Gloucestershire.’
This isn’t at all what I was expecting from the fashion designer and elder sister of actress Sienna. After all, Sienna has vividly described being ‘hunted’ by the tabloids, likening it to an assault. I was expecting Savannah, in turn, to be tight-lipped about her family.
Not so. Savannah may look demure, reserved even, but she is, in fact, quite the reverse. Disarmingly frank and extremely funny, she is the kind of woman you wish you’d met ages ago. She would be great fun down the pub.
‘Pubs,’ she whispers as though she has only recently learnt the word. ‘I’ve just discovered them! I know that sounds ridiculous, but I was still in my early 20s when I became a mum, so I never developed those grown-up habits. We [she and James] spent the afternoon in a pub with some friends of his when we first got together. I’ve never done that before.’
You don’t have to spend long in Savannah’s company to see that her children – Moses, 16, Lyra, 13, and Bali, nine, plus her stepson Java, 26 – are always front and centre.
‘The way things have worked out [with their father’s new relationship] is wonderful for the children,’ she explains, ‘because they have essentially only got one other family to deal with. We [the four adults and the children] were a bubble during lockdown, and we were all together for Christmas and Easter. When a marriage comes to an end you can throw a bomb under the bus, or you can hold up your hands and say, “We’ve done everything we can and now we want to retain a healthy relationship for our children.”’
Herself the product of an unconventional childhood (‘We were raised by bohemians – my mum in particular – she travelled a great deal and all her friends were very colourful’), Savannah was no stranger to marital upheaval. After her father left her mother, he remarried three times, once to the interior designer Kelly Hoppen, with whom the sisters are still close.
By the time she graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins art college in 2004 with first-class honours, Savannah was pregnant with Moses and already stepmother to Nik’s son Java, then eight. Somehow finding time to work for Alexander McQueen, Anya Hindmarch and Matthew Williamson along the way, she confesses that before meeting Nik (a bushcraft teacher from Devon) she hadn’t had much time for relationships. ‘I didn’t really have an adult life before I became a mum. We just always had a child with us. That was our reality.’
In 2007, she and her sister Sienna launched a fashion label, which they named Twenty8Twelve after Sienna’s birthdate. From Savannah’s point of view, it was very much a suck-it-and-see experiment. She thought that, maybe, nobody would be that interested. Turns out they were. The label’s era-capturing ‘boho’ look was translated into just about every wardrobe in the country. If you’ve ever owned a peasant skirt or moccasin ankle boots, then you’ve probably got the Miller sisters to thank.
‘It went bananas,’ she recalls, shaking her head. ‘I mean, really, it was only supposed to be an 18-month contract. They [backers Pepe Group] just wanted to test the water with us but it went mad! There were stores all over the world… fashion shows… It was ridiculously successful from the get-go.’
She is, however, brutally honest about the root of the hype. ‘I know for a fact that it wouldn’t have been as successful [without Sienna’s fame] because I understand the power of the position that she found herself in. We did have an awful lot of fun, though, because we are very, very close.’
This is said with emphasis because, for nearly 15 years now, people have been trying to find a chink in the Miller sisters’ armour. In interviews they frequently describe the other sibling as being like half of a whole. In photographs they are often seen holding hands or with arms encircling each other’s waists. Can sisters really be that close?
Yes, says Savannah. They can.
‘We work symbiotically and we do often say that we feel like two different halves of one whole. No one will tell it like it is, except for the other one. I would literally work with her again tomorrow if she had the time, but that girl works harder than anyone I know, and she is working on movie after movie after TV show after play – it’s just nonstop.’
Being locked down without her sister (who was in New York when the pandemic hit) for more than six months was almost unbearable as Savannah bubbled-up in rural Gloucestershire.
‘It was too long,’ she says, ‘when you’re one of two. Thank god for FaceTime and Zoom.’
After the sisters stepped away from Twenty8Twelve in 2012, Savannah entered what she has subsequently described as her ‘own personal disaster movie’.
Leaving behind financial troubles, she and Nik decided to move (along with their three youngest children, all still under nine at the time) to Panama. It was supposed to be a reset and a bit of an adventure – there was no running water or electricity, and, for a while, they lived in a tent. The hippie idyll, however, didn’t quite pan out. Suffering from undiagnosed postnatal depression, Savannah’s mental health took a further battering when her son Moses was seriously injured after getting stuck in the propeller of a boat the family were using to tour a nature reserve. The little boy was operated on in the local hospital without anaesthetic.
A combination of a baby who didn’t sleep, separation from her family and the trauma of Moses’s accident left Savannah suffering from panic attacks. Fearing she was having a nervous breakdown, she sought therapy in New York and – shortly afterwards – they left Panama for good.
On reflection, however, she is grateful for this ‘bump in the road’ (she’s heavily into gratitude) because it taught her that even the really tough bits of life are survivable.
Back home in the UK, she regained her physical and emotional strength and struck a deal with Debenhams for a new collection, Nine (so called because the constellation Lyra – which her eldest daughter is named after – shines brightest at 9pm). There followed five years of success, which garnered Savannah a loyal high-street fan base. In 2016 she also launched an eponymous bridalwear business, which has proved robust enough to survive a year where – in the UK, at least – there weren’t many brides.
The pandemic, however, did punch a hole in Savannah’s design portfolio when Debenhams hit the skids. Although legal restrictions prevent her from talking about exactly what happened – specifically how much money she lost when the ship went down – she was clearly hit hard.
‘All I can say is that when a company goes into administration, it’s fairly obvious what happens to the people who are left behind. And, as anyone who has been through this will attest… it’s not fun. Especially at the beginning of a pandemic.’
However, having picked herself up before, she knew how to do it again, this time signing with Next. So Twenty8Twelve, Nine… this collection has to have a numerical name, right? ‘I tried!’ she laughs. ‘I tried Nine again, but they said, “Look, it’s about you, let’s just call it Savannah Miller.”’
So Savannah Miller it is, and it launches this Thursday. Its creator, while a little nervous (‘I always sweat the small stuff, get myself in a real flap’), is also confident that you’re going to love it as much as she does. ‘Because it’s my name, there’s something about it that feels much more like I have to own it. There’s no hiding behind my sister or another label. It’s just me doing what I do. I’ve got to this point, at 42 years old, where I know what I want to do, and I feel good about it. It’s not rocket science, but I do know what women want to wear.’
That – as you’ll see later this week – is a collection of more than 40 lines for summer 2021, including clothing, swimwear and nightwear. The focus is on flattering fits, soft fabrics, pretty prints and denim that looks like ‘it might have been in your cupboard for 20 years’. Unsurprisingly, there is a definite flick of boho in there.
The fact that Savannah still has the figure to model the vintage-inspired cutoffs – at the age of 42 and after three children – would be galling if she were not so genuinely thrilled about the whole thing.
‘Initially, I was talking to them about underwear and pyjamas because I had a really loyal customer base for those,’ she says excitedly. ‘It was right in the middle of the pandemic, so I said we should be doing loungewear as that was all anyone was wearing. Then we added in swim and beach and the denim team saw my boards and said, “We want in.” So, if you’ve got denim, then, what are we going to wear with it? Lovely print tops, and if we’ve got the tops in then we may as well have dresses and…’
She’s run out of breath.
‘I’m very Capricorn. If I had my way, I’d be designing childrenswear and homeware… and architecture!’
A Savannah Miller house? That’s a thought. What would that look like?
‘Well, I’ll have to get back to you because we’re trying to move right now but Stroud is getting gentrified, and everything is going to sealed bids. We’ve been outbid on about ten houses!’
For the time being, she’s contenting herself with making cushions. ‘I’ve got a really clear idea of the things I want in my home, so if I can’t find them then I have to make them. I mean, I probably could find them, but I’d have to spend a lot more money than I’ve got.’
Maybe childrenswear is a more realistic next goal, then. Might 13-year-old Lyra have some advice?
Savannah rolls her eyes. ‘She’s into that very particular teenage girl fashion. The baggy-waist trousers and the tight little tops with the jacket off the shoulders and about a hundred necklaces. I have to remind myself that you’ve got to experiment at that age; to find out what resonates with you. You can’t limit somebody… unless we’re going to Granny’s for tea. If we’re going to Granny’s, then you cannot wear that crop top!’
And if it all went away tomorrow, what would she do?
‘When the whole thing with Debenhams happened, it was a bit of a shock. We were developing collections and I wasn’t expecting the rug to come out from under my feet in the way it did. So, I found myself in a field near where I live, about this time last year, and it was a beautiful dawn. The grass was waist high, and the birds were singing. I just remember thinking: “If there’s somebody up there… whoever you are… I surrender.” And
I was flooded with this extraordinary feeling of love. It was mind-blowing. An epiphany. A religious experience. There was something up there bigger than me and, ever since, I’ve just been like: “Oh well, I’m having a bad day, it’s going to be OK.”’
And for Savannah, because she’s just so damn likeable, you really, really want that to be true.
Our pick of Savannah’s collection
Swimsuit, £48, Savannah Miller collection at next.co.uk
Dress, £49, Savannah Miller collection at next.co.uk
Swimsuit, £42, Savannah Miller collection at next.co.uk
Top, £42, Savannah Miller collection at next.co.uk
Shorts, £28, Savannah Miller collection at next.co.uk