This story is typical of Milla, who is charming and modest enough to deliver lines like that (or “In New York, our home is at the Peninsula”) without sounding like she’s one of those people. She has a girlish voice, a quick laugh, and enough focus to put her graceful style to work at her own label. For five seasons now, the Kai Milla collection has shown in New York to increasingly favorable reviews. Early supporters like Milla’s friend Eva Mendes have helped build a customer base for the fledgling line of dresses and elegant separates with hidden seams, flowing sleeves, and architectural details.
While Lanvin and Balenciaga are favorites, Milla explains that a Dior couture show in Paris in 2003 motivated her to start showing her own designs. “It’s a scary thing when you put yourself out there,” she says. “Before, it was just me and my sketches. Not that I care so much about being judged, but when you’re opening up your mind, saying, Here I am, it takes courage. When I saw what John Galliano did, the energy of the show was so inspiring. I saw what fashion could be. I had to do it.”
Milla’s clothes have a sculptural fluidity to them, which she credits to her background studying fine art and design at the Corcoran School in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Her perfectionism and attention to detail are evident in her work, and they’re things she and her husband have in common.
“Steve said, ‘Designing is the same thing as music. When you do something, it’s forever recorded. Do it right and you will never be bothered by it.’ That was such good advice. So I never compromise on the detail.”
The pair’s first meeting, at the club Nell’s in lower Manhattan in 1999, is another typical Milla story. She was a freelance art director, at a party for work, when a man approached her, wanting to introduce her to a friend of his. “I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m here on business.’ I turned around and literally ran into Steve,” she says. “Then he said, ‘This is who I wanted you to meet.'” Within minutes, his entourage scattered and the two were left alone (relatively, since there’s always security present) to talk until 5:00 a.m. Six months later, they were engaged.
These days, the entourage looks a little different. The security’s still there, but hangers-on have been supplanted by the clan’s eight children, ranging in age from 31-year-old Aisha to little Mandla, including Milla’s older son, Kailand, five, who has already played drums at the Super Bowl with his dad. “We don’t say stepkids. We’re all family,” says Milla. “They’re all here in town, and we have a lot of fun when we go to eat at our favorite Ethiopian restaurants or celebrate the holidays.”
The family priority is apparent, since most surfaces are covered with pictures of kids. (Not one of Wonder’s 24 Grammys, however, is in sight.) The furnishings, a mix of antiques and cushier modern pieces, are dotted with plush pillows, richly textured textiles, and craftsman touches, like the hand-carved wood floor and the hammered copper ceiling in the living room. Somehow, even with the oversize his-and-hers portraits by Russian artist Gagik Darbinyan and 18th-century Japanese horseshoe chairs, the house still has a comfortable feel. Take, for example, the “earth, wind, and fire” room, toward the back of the house, which has an indoor garden, simple canvas-covered sofas, and a sweeping view of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Despite the adjustments, the transition from independent woman to working mom and wife of a music legend has been a smooth one for Milla. Monthly trips to New York, where her business is based, and a hectic family life keep her busy.
There are always days when the old Milla makes her escape. “There are times when I’ll tell security that I’m running to the market, and I’ll end up shopping in Beverly Hills,” she says. “I just have to get away by myself.” But when that’s out of her system, coming home must feel pretty good, too.