Seven Things

Look around. If you chose seven belongings whose stories would impart an understanding of who you are the life you’ve lived, what would those things be?

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

Phyllis Bell Miller is a scholar, writer and voracious reader. It follows naturally that she would have an expansive vocabulary.

There is one word that is not in her personal lexicon, however: the word “dabble,” defined as “to work at anything in an irregular or superficial manner.”

Miller, who has served for 25 years as professor of apparel, textiles and merchandising at Mississippi State University, is not a dabbler. She throws herself into her many passions with a fierce enthusiasm that belies her otherwise calm demeanor. Her interests are many; her devotion to them almost pathological.

“When you find something you love, run to it,” she says. And Miller has been running from the start, as her Seven Things clearly demonstrate.

1. Miller loves to read. Her home, she says, is essentially a library, with more than 5,000 books tucked away in every nook and cranny. Yet there are three BOOKS that have special significance for her, two from her childhood, the other a groundbreaking text she would later author. “This is my copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” she says. “When I was little, my mother would read the stories and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to read them myself. I was fascinated by the stories, but also the places. I wanted to go to those places and see them for myself.”

The next book is The Crescent and the Bull: A Survey of Archeology in the Near East. Miller says the book reminds her of an important lesson taught to her by her parents: “You can be anything you want to be,” Miller says. Her father gave her the book after she had watched the movie “Valley of the Kings,” a story about early archaeological explorations in Egypt. “I mentioned to my dad that I wanted to be an archaeologist after watching the movie,” she says. “The next day, he brought me this book.”

Although she didn’t turn out to be an archaeologist, Miller says her parents’ encouragement instilled in her a belief she could do anything she set her mind to do. “Too often, people are told they can’t do something, and I think that just reinforces what they were told as children. But I never believed that because our parents taught my brother and me that we could do anything.”

The last book, Auto-Cad for the Apparel Industry — a product of five years of tireless research by Miller as she pursued her Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee — represents a revolutionary advance in fashion design. In the process, Miller wrote three software programs and holds 30 copyrights for the textbook/manual, which was the first to adapt AutoCAD, (Computer Assisted Design) to the field of apparel design. As she was doing her research, she wrote articles. When she learned that another graduate-school student in California was thinking of using her articles to put together a manual/textbook on the subject, Miller sprang into action.

“With anything, the first person who does something gets the spoils,” she says. “I wasn’t about to do all that hard work and let someone else get the benefits. The lesson there is, don’t wait. Do it.”

2. Those stories of faraway places she first heard as her mother read to her in her childhood instilled in her a love of travel that would never be exhausted. “I’ve been all over the world,” she says, noting that she had to have extra pages added to her PASSPORT to accommodate her travel. “It’s something I just love to do. I love to see new places, see the people, their customs, what they wear, how they live,” she says. “I’ve made so many friends from so many countries. I’ve traveled to more than 50, many of them more than once. What I’ve learned is that, really, we are all the same. We all want the same things. We just express ourselves differently. Everywhere I go, I learn something. I just can’t imagine not traveling. It’s such a huge part of my life.”

3. As she travels, Miller is always looking for something that reflects the culture of the native people she encounters. It could be a garment or a piece of jewelry. Of all of the items she has acquired, the GLASS NECKLACE she picked up in a little shop on Murano, “The Glass Island of Venice,” in northern Italy is her most treasured. As a designer, the intricacy of the glasswork — a collection of different flowers fashioned in minute detail — appealed to her for its artistry and craftsmanship. Like many of her “Seven Things” it also reinforces a theme of hers from her own life. In this case, the necklace represents a quality she has always embraced: Persistence. “I must have been to nine or 10 different shops that day, looking for something I felt really captured what Murano was for me,” she says. “But nothing really caught my attention. I was about to give up, but I decided, ‘No, I’m going to try one more shop.’ Wouldn’t you know it, that’s where I found this necklace.”

4. As a child, Miller was drawn to knitting, a pursuit she quickly abandoned. “With those long needles, I was a danger to myself and others,” she says, laughing. It turned out to be one of those rare interests that lay dormant, but hadn’t died. “In 2006, I was leaving for India on a Fulbright Scholarship. I was in Chicago, at the airport, but the flight was canceled, and I had to wait until the next day to fly out,” she recalls. “So on a whim, I went to a fabric store and saw these short, gold-plated rosewood KNITTING NEEDLES. I bought them, along with a knitting book. I knitted the whole way to India, 15 hours. By the time I landed, I was addicted. So much of my job now is in the computer lab, so knitting is a creative outlet for me.”

5. If there is one thing she never leaves home without, it’s her iPAD. “It’s just something I use all the time,” she says. “It is something I use for work, but also to keep in touch with my friends from around the world, and that’s really important. I like to shop for my friends when I travel, so when I find something a friend might like, I can send a picture and ask, ‘What do you think?’ It’s such a great thing to have. I have my portfolio on it, too. I can’t imagine living without it … I’d be lost.”

6. As a fashion designer, Miller has long followed one basic tenet: “I don’t design clothes I can’t fit into,” she says, “and since most of fashion is designed for size 2 to 4, that means I have to work to make that happen.” One of the ways she achieves that is through riding her bicycle, HELMET on head, which supplements her regular visits to the gym. “I’ll ride my bike to the gym, work out, and then ride for six or seven miles after that,” she says. She started cycling in earnest in 1993 after returning from a teaching assignment in Bulgaria. “The culture there is to walk,” she says. “While I was there, I lost about 20 pounds because I walked everywhere I went. So, when I got back home I thought, ‘OK, how am I going to keep this going? That’s when I started biking again.”

7. Miller is also a animal lover. “I love dogs, but most of all, I love cats.” The FIGURINE — a cat dressed in 18th century clothing with a cap resting jauntily on his head — reminds Miller of her beloved Jasper, who died this past summer at the ripe old age of 17. Jasper succeeded to the “throne” after the 14-year reign of Mopsy. Miller now has two kittens — litter mates named Ian and Phillip — who share the throne in Miller’s feline kingdom. “The figurine just reminds me of Jasper,” she says. “He had such a big personality, which is what I love about cats. They have so much personality, so much intelligence. They have such a whimsical nature.”