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The Light Files - Nanette Lepore

Nanette Lepore

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Sometimes accomplishing The Dream takes the scenic route. Laura Max interviews the wonderful Nanette Lepore, a contemporary fashion designer.

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Laura: Hi, everyone. I'm Laura Max, your host of The Light Files on thebusinessmakers.com, brought to you by Audi Central Houston. I am absolutely thrilled to be here Nanette Lepore, world's renowned fashion designer. Nanette, welcome to the show.

Nanette: Thanks. I'm excited to be with you, talking.

Laura: Well, I have been admiring your clothes and your perfume, which I told you I wore for about four years, for my entire adulthood, so I couldn't be more excited to talk to you today. And you really embody somebody who had absolutely followed and realized their dreams.

So I want to talk to you today about where it all began. I mean now you have world recognition. Where did your dreams of being a fashion designer start?

Nanette: When I was a child I always wanted to learn to sew, so I begged my parents for sewing classes. And my dad was an abstract expressionist and a professor of art, so they - my parents got behind me and helped me learn to sew and bought me a sewing machine. And then I had free rein of the JC Penney's credit card, because they had a sewing department, and I would go in there and I would buy patterns and fabrics and go crazy and have like, you know, I would spend the weekends staying up late, sewing things, and then never want to wear them, and my sister would take them and wear all my clothes to school and she would get lots of compliments.

And then I went on and I sort of like got into high school and forgot that I loved to sew.

Laura: You left it behind.

Nanette: I did.

Laura: Wow.

Nanette: And I started college as a social worker and Spanish language major.

Laura: So that's a little bit on the other side of the spectrum.

Nanette: Totally. I would have visions of myself driving to work in like cute clothes and a sports car and I was like, "Wait, this sort of vision of myself and what I love and where I'm going, it's not fitting together that well." So I, you know, did some soul-searching and decided to move into fashion merchandising.

Laura: And you ended up going to FIT, right?

Nanette: I did. I had a professor in Ohio who then told me about FIT, 'cause I didn't know that FIT existed.

Laura: And I meet a lot of people, you know, who are - who have a really big dream and they tell me once that dream is actualized that they had a lot of people along the way tell them, "I know you have what it takes." Did you have professors who said that to you?

Nanette: I did. I had two professors who had been in New York, who had worked at different schools in New York, who told me, "You really need to be in New York. You're wasting your time here." Which was really nice that they saw it in me, because I was studying business, and I thought, "Oh, I'm just going to go into a buying program or something like that" and then they are the ones who really pushed me.

Laura: So there are so many people who are aspiring fashion designers who moved to New York. I mean you're talking about being in a sea of I'm sure millions at this point. What made you stand out? What made you continue to pursue your dreams when the odds were unbelievably against you?

Nanette: Well, I almost quit a few times, but my first three jobs were really - the first job lasted three weeks and I was let go.

Laura: No way.

Nanette: Oh, honestly, I was working-

Laura: All right, everyone, Nanette Lepore was let go from her job after three weeks.

Nanette: I know.

Laura: So if you ever doubt yourself, you can know that that actually happened to Nanette Lepore.

Nanette: Exactly.

Laura: I'm sure that made a lot of people feel better.

Nanette: No, I know - well, I agree, you have to be truthful about those steps along the way. But I was working for a woman named Su Yung Lee, and I was just in a closet, sketching. I never really had a desk. And then after three weeks they were like, "Well, you're let go." And I was shocked. But then the next one I went to it was sort of like everything was made in China and it was very, you know, an environment where there wasn't a lot of creativity going on and the people were not nice. And so I left that one after three months. And then I went on to a job that ended up really, really cementing my love for fashion. There was a woman who owned a boutique that I was obsessed with, and I saw in Women's Wear Daily that she was hiring an in-house designer, and I was so intrigued. So I went and I - you know, I would go in that store anyway and study all the clothing, 'cause she carried Alia and Gaultier and all my heroes. So I started to beg her. I begged her so much for that job, like I called and went to my interview, and then once a week I called her.

Laura: Persistence is key. Absolutely.

Nanette: Yes. Finally she said, "You know, you want this job so bad, I'm just going to hire you. Okay, you have it," and that was it.

Laura: I love it.

Nanette: I know. So she took me with her to Europe and I saw the collections in Europe, and that was really what did it for me.

Laura: So, Nanette, from getting your dream job, how did that end up translating into starting your own line?

Nanette: When I went to Paris and London and Milan with my boss, the London kids were the ones that really impacted me about myself and made get introspective and realize I could do what they were doing. Because in London we would go shopping in these big, open flea market situations and the designers were just like 20-year-olds with a rack of clothing. And I would go with my boss and we would buy the whole line right there, pick it up and carry it back to New York. Like it wasn't even an order written or shipped. And I was like, "Wait, I can do that. I want to be that person who just creates my own thing and then builds a line from that."

But then when we went to Paris it would be the opposite, and it would be at fashion shows and the tents and it would be fabulous and there would be hundreds of people and incredible fashion shows.

Laura: Yeah.

Nanette: So the whole thing I just really want that experience of having the buying side.

Laura: Ultimately after getting this inspiration how did you start your business?

Nanette: Well, I left my job, thinking that I would just, I don't know, find something else to do, because for some reason I quit. Sometimes you do stupid things as a young person.

Laura: We can -w e can say that.

Nanette: Yes, I was inspired to take - okay, yeah, let's just skip why that stupid decision. You know, so I left that job and I decided that I would go out on my own. And my husband helped me find a shop that was in the East Village, between a gas station and a soup kitchen.

Laura: Oh my gosh.

Nanette: Yeah. Yeah.

Laura: Perfect location now. I can imagine back then it might've been a little more interesting.

Nanette: Right. Definitely crazy. The rent was $500.00 a month.

Laura: This was New York?

Nanette: Yeah.

Laura: Oh my god.

Nanette: For a 250-foot square front. [Laughter] I mean square-foot storefront. And I just started with a small collection, and from there it grew into like, you know, years later this giant business.

Laura: And now we're sitting in Neimans, surrounded by your clothes.

Nanette: I know, the best store on earth.

Laura: The best store on earth.

Nanette: And now my clothes are sold here at Neimans, which I'm very proud of. And it was - it was a long road, though. That was - you know, it was ten years just getting the line established and getting the debts paid off, 'cause I had started as wholesale, and our first season we did amazing business; we sold everything COD, all the money came in. My dad mortgaged his house to give me the money to manufacture, and then after two or three seasons I started losing the money. So then it took like ten years of really hard work to pay him back, which I did.

Laura: Wow, it's so incredible, because you see somebody's finished product and rarely do you imagine that they went through so many struggles to get there. You know, so many people who are struggling may compare that to other peoples' finished product and they have no idea. I mean you had debt, you had a mortgage, you had all these things that went into this, and it's so cool to hear that.

Nanette: Oh, I know, and it is really funny, because from the outside everybody always looks like they're having, you know, it's easy.

Laura: Oh yeah.

Nanette: But, you know, you realize everyone's struggling in some way or another and you have to just get through it. So I'm very proud that we survived and that we're here and thriving.

Laura: And now looking back, I mean I'm sure you wouldn't take any of it back?

Nanette: No, that - and the value - you look back on the value of your experience and you understand things, like why, like why did I have to take all those pattern-making classes at FIT that I really hated. Well, yes, because it really changed my life and gave me the ability to do things on my own. I wasn't - I didn't really need as much help because I had the background in the trade side of it, like the actual working part of something. Because when I first started my business I could make my own patterns, because I learned it. Even though the whole time I was learning it I was so mad.

Laura: Well, so many times, you know, that's what I hear from people, that they had so many sort of odd jobs or oddball experiences or things that didn't even feel relevant at all to the dream that they are pursuing, and by the time their dreams actualize they look back and they see, "Oh yeah, you know, I did - I learned how to sweep at this job" and somehow that's relevant to them now. And it's really amazing how it all comes together if you keep moving forward.

Nanette: I know, it really is. And then the more I've been doing it the more I realize how lucky - certain lucky breaks hit and happened for me that enabled me to do what I do now.

Laura: Well, we're so glad that you do what you do now, 'cause you've graced the world with some very fabulous clothes, and I am so honored to have had you on the show today, Nanette. Thank you for joining me.

Nanette: Thank you.

Laura: And I am your host, Laura Max, of The Light Files on thebusinessmakers.com, brought to you by Audi Central Houston. You can find me online always on thebusinessmakers.com and each weekend on Sunday at noon on News 92 FM. We'll see you again next week. Bye, everyone.

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