Nanette Lepore

Fashion Designer

Location: NYC

"What do you do when you can’t get hired? You hire yourself. Taking a risk can light a fire inside you that you didn’t even know you had."

I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into. I squeezed everything I had into my soon-to-be husband’s beat up Toyota and headed to New York. My first job lasted all of 3 weeks. I was sketching at a desk in a closet and was inexplicably let go. I still have no idea what happened.

Job number 2 was not much better. Those were the days when fashion was mean and I was working for some of the meanest. That one lasted 3 months. I left. My career in the fashion world was off to rocky start. My third job was the lucky one, but it would take me years to realize the impact it had on my career and my life.

There was a very fancy boutique on New York’s upper east side that only carried the chicest European designers. The shop was extremely intimidating — especially for a recent grad from Youngstown Ohio with no money. The outside door was massive and slid slowly open with the ring of the bell. If you wanted to gaze upon some of the world’s greatest designers, you were literally forced to walk across a bridge suspended above a moat of expensive clothes. This was long before style.com. Once in a while I would work up the nerve to walk the plank and admire some of my favorite designers.

Soon I discovered they were hiring a designer. I couldn’t let myself be intimidated. I had to have that job. I was so persistent that the owner, Carol Rollo, a fun Italian woman from the Bronx, finally hired me — probably so that I would leave her alone. I had been calling her every other day for about three weeks.

Soon I was traveling with her to fashion shows in Paris, London, and Milan. I had caught the fashion bug. When I saw my first runway show in Paris (an over the top, glamorous spectacle, which featured Iman and Jerry Hall slinking down the runway carrying live monkeys) I was hooked. But when I got to London and saw all these crazy kids in their 20’s creating garments and selling them out of stalls in flea markets, I realized I could make my fantasy a reality. There was no big machine behind them. They were doing it on their own. I knew it was possible to one day start my own line.

But first, I wanted to work for one of the big names in fashion, to get more background in design. So I quit the boutique and started the job search anew. Unfortunately I discovered that I had too much experience to be a newcomer and all the wrong experience to be an associate designer. I had to pick up a job cocktail waitressing just to pay the bills. I couldn’t find a job in fashion for a year and half. Whoa.

What do you do when you can’t get hired? You hire yourself. It’s easy to talk yourself out of things and most rational people can find a million reasons not to take chances. But taking a risk can light a fire inside you that you didn’t even know you had.

My husband Bob, who is not afraid of anything, encouraged me to take the leap. Neither of us had any idea what we were getting into, but that’s the beauty of youth. Life’s an adventure! We set up a shop in the East Village in the cheapest storefront we could find, between a gas station and soup kitchen. We eventually moved to New York City’s Garment Center. I felt at home there. I did the designs and Bob ran the business, we embarked on twenty years of hard work and major stress interspersed with fun and excitement and then some more stress. If you are self-employed, you should pay yourself about a dollar an hour and not expect more or you will never get a business off the ground. Within the first three years, we were over 100,000 dollars in debt and had almost lost my dad’s house — he had mortgaged it to help us pay for production. It took ten years to pay him back and turn a profit, but I eventually went on to stage my own runway shows in New York — changing the image of my brand and catapulting us onto the international scene.

Throughout, I’ve had blissful times and painful times. I’ve gone from feeling invincible to feeling insignificant. But I have never regretted my choice to start my own business.

This story was adapted from a commencement address delivered to the 2012 graduating class Youngstown State University