Nanette Lepore

With bold colors and a feminine aesthetic, American fashion designer and businesswoman NANETTE LEPORE has established herself as a style powerhouse. Her thoughtful designs have donned famous bodies of everyone from Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria to Michelle Obama and Taylor Swift. Lepore, 50, chatted with Caroline A. Wong about how she went from small-town Ohio girl to international fashion designer.

When I ask Lepore to explain how she moved from Youngstown, Ohio, and got her start in the industry, the answer seems like a simple one. “I moved to New York to attend FIT [The Fashion Institute of Technology]. I had a few design jobs before working for a small shop on the Upper East Side. After some planning and a little luck, I opened a shop in the East Village between a soup kitchen and a gas station!”

Part of that luck included a $5,000 loan from Lepore’s father, but it wasn’t just luck that moved her collection along. Says Lepore, “I wasn’t exactly getting the design jobs I wanted, so I decided that if I wanted a job, I had to hire myself. I needed to make my own line, so I did.” Lepore’s raw ambition eventually resulted in a line picked up by Barneys New York as well as the opening of her Los Angeles boutique store, putting her brand in the heart of celebrity central. She gained a star following as her line expanded internationally.

“I started to really grow in the US around the same time that I expanded into Japan. I’ve been really lucky to grow organically in both markets. That’s made my brand feel very authentic overseas.” And while some brands have exploded abroad only to fizzle out soon after, Lepore’s collections continue to find success. “We’ve had a great response, and I love my customers there. I recently opened up a new flagship in Ginza, Tokyo.”

Lepore has been very calculating about keeping up the momentum of her business. “I’m involved in every aspect,” she says. “I think better is better, and I hold everyone I work with to the highest possible standard. I love to design, but I also enjoy being a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated business world.” Some of that can-do attitude was a result of her upbringing, she concedes, explaining, “Growing up, [my family] built everything we needed. If we needed furniture, we made it. One time my grandpa even built a really cool custom camper for family road trips to California.”

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