What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
Fashion designer Nanette Lepore is known for her bright colors and feminine styles. Her dresses, jackets, swimsuits and shoes are sold internationally in 120 department stores, 360 specialty stores and 8 Nanette Lepore stores. When we spoke by phone earlier this month, I couldn't resist telling her that I wore one of her dresses in my engagement photos.
But it wasn't always evident that Lepore, an FIT graduate, would make it in fashion industry. After working several jobs in New York, the Youngstown, Ohio, native started selling her eponymous line in a small shop in New York's East Village, taking her brand wholesale in 1990. Though she sold $250,000 worth of merchandise at her first trade show, she didn't have enough money to produce the clothes to fill the orders. "My dad mortgaged his house and gave me the money," she says. "We were paying [my dad] back every six months as we shipped new merchandise. Then one month I lost it all [when expenses outpaced sales], and it was devastating. I had to work for ten years to pay back my dad. My family thought I was going to lose the family house."
Lepore says she and her husband, Robert Savage, managed to enjoy themselves despite the years of struggle. "It was a fun, fun time to be in New York and to be young," she says of the late '80s and early '90s. "I had a great husband, who was with me in the business. He would work at Ben Benson's steakhouse at night -- we had our health care through Ben Benson's -- and I would work sometimes till eleven. He would get me after his shift because I would be in the office alone and I'd be afraid to leave then." Lepore says the company grew at 20 percent a year from 2002 to 2008.
Today, Nanette Lepore has about 100 employees, but family remains central to the company. Savage serves as CEO, and their daughter, Violet, collaborated with Lepore on a teen line for JCPenney. She also often joins her mom on the runway to close the fashion shows.
Why do you do the work that you do?
I realize in hindsight that it was a career in New York that was kind of wide open when I went into it. There was a small number of Americans -- Stephen Sprouse, Christian Francis Roth, Todd Oldham -- but it felt like a pioneer time. My shop was in the East Village between a soup kitchen and a gas station, and it was all galleries and drug dealers and crack viles. In the mornings, I'd be like, "If my mother could see me now, she would die." There would be homeless guys sleeping all over the street because there was a shelter right there. We got robbed a couple of times. Oh my god, it was an adventure, and I loved that adventure. This business is rough, and I have to be involved in everything from what color zipper to how we're going to get the price down on a dress. But when I finally have a quiet moment in my design room and I'm working with a pattern maker, it's so rewarding. I get to be an artist.
Lepore with daughter Violet after her spring 2007 show in New York.
What work would you be doing if not this?
I've always struggled with writing, but I would love to do it. But I would probably have ended up teaching. My parents were both teachers.
What do your parents think about the way you work?
My dad comes to every fashion show. My mom passed away a couple years ago, but she was very supportive. This is making me feel emotional. But they were really sweet about it, even though there were years when they didn't see it going anywhere. When it finally turned, they were so proud of me.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
I do regret that I put off having a family because I was so busy trying to just hang on and build the business. I would have wanted a bigger family. But I would see these designers have kids and the next thing you know they'd be out of business because they would just be overwhelmed. I was cautious of that. But I think you can juggle it. If you're really the kind of person that's super-aggressive about what you do, you're going to make everything work. Also, I wish I would have saved a little more because now I want more money in the bank.
Lepore with daughter Violet after her spring 2013 show in New York.
How old were you when you had your daughter?
Thirty-eight. I was getting up there. Then after that, trying to have a second one became a major situation.
Have you ever had the big meeting or runway show coincide with the school play or something else related to your daughter?
I've never missed a recital or a play, but her birthday always lands on Fashion Week. When she was little, she didn't know. One thing parents don't realize is up to 5 or 6, they have no idea. I would just tell her it was her birthday a week later. Now she’s pretty good about going with the flow on her birthday. I just feel like I've missed quiet family time –- my husband and her go to my county fair back in Ohio every Labor Day weekend, which I've never been able to do with her.
Can you talk about the distribution of work in your home? Who does the cooking? The bill paying? The laundry?
I have a cleaning lady that does the laundry, and my husband pays the bills. It's the cooking that's the struggle. For a while we had someone come in and cook on Sundays and fill the refrigerator. Then that started not working. Now I have to look at him earnestly and say, "You really have to start cooking." I have to tell him in the morning, "OK, you're going to have to go to the grocery store on the way home." My dad did all the cooking, but I married someone who doesn't do that. I work really late, so that's hard to get home and start dinner, so I like for him to start it at least. I hate for my daughter to eat a lot of carryout. I would say of our marriage, that's the biggest point of contention.
Lepore with actor John Slattery and husband Robert Savage in East Hampton, New York.
Do you get enough sleep?
No, I don’t. That's a problem because I'm so exhausted and then at midnight I'm wide awake. That's something to learn how to deal with.
What do you do relax?
I love lying on the floor and watching TV with Violet. I love getting out to the Hamptons and swimming. I do laps, but I feel like it's really relaxing and wonderful. I love to travel. We take family vacations once a year with my dad and my sister and her kids. I really think it's nice that my daughter gets to spend time with her grandpa.
Do you think women have a responsibility to help other women at work?
I do, and I don't like to find out when there's any kind of animosity or fighting amongst the women here. I like to believe that everyone gets along and that they're all pretty supportive. When I find out something strange, I'm always shocked because I feel like I have such a great, down-to-earth group of women. I lose my temper sometimes because I get overly stressed, and I always feel terrible when I do it. I like to keep a rapport where they know that I might lose it, but I don't hold a grudge or mean it. That's one of the things about being Italian. No one's ever talking in a regular voice, which is hard for people when they come from a family that didn't do that. It's just like I'll panic and then I'll get over it. I don't like when people have quiet grudges. That's harder to live with when you're in a situation where somebody's upset with you and you don't know why. I hate that kind of working environment. I'd rather be upfront with people and clear the air.
Lepore (far right) with sister Michele Lepore Hagan, father James Lepore, husband Robert Savage and daughter Violet Savage in Capri, Italy.
Do you have a work persona and a non-work persona?
I think they're kind of the same. Sometimes I worry that I scare my daughter. I go home and I'm in the barking mood, and she'll look at me with this panicked face. I'm like, "Oh god, I just scared her."
Do you think women manage differently than men?
Absolutely. My management style versus my husband's is majorly different. I have to be on the ground with the forces, and he manages like, "I'm this person who is running things and so do what I tell you." I feel like if I need my girls to work until nine o'clock, then I'm gonna be with them.
Do you think that there's still a glass ceiling?
I'm always surprised when I hear about it because you think that women have made so many strides, but I do. Because there's so many cases where I could not have gotten money from banks or help from this person or that person without my husband picking up the phone. We're like, "OK, this is the man job." There are men who want to talk to a man. In some cases, I would not have been as successful as I was without having a man who did the financial part of this business. He can say something as stupid as "How 'bout those Yankees?" and they immediately love him. It’s like the old boys’ club.
Lepore (second from right) with husband Robert Savage, niece Natalia Lepore Hagan, father James Lepore and daughter Violet Savage in Galway, Ireland.
Are you close friends with anyone you work with or have worked with in the past, or do you tend to separate your worlds?
It's all one big mush. I like to go out with my staff because we have fun together, but we also can have dinner and talk in a more relaxed way outside of the office. I try to spend time with my director of retail, publicity, my store managers. They enjoy hanging out with me. I like to think they do.
Do you have a "work uniform"?
I like to change it up. I need to experiment with clothes. I need to make sure that clothes that I'm putting out there are everything I need. If it's not what I need, then I'm not serving my customer properly. I take home a whole new wardrobe every season and try to figure out what I missed and how I screwed up. I beat myself up every day if I find something wrong. "Oh my god, I didn't make enough bottoms this time.” “We didn't make plain T-shirts." "This dress doesn't fit right." "This jacket was supposed to go with everything, and it only goes with one thing."
Lepore with actress Emma Roberts at the Vogue Eyewear and CFDA unveiling of the "Emma" sunglasses by Nanette Lepore in 2012.
Do you have a role model?
I love Kirsten Gillibrand. I can't believe how much she keeps in her brain. I love Arianna because I can't believe how much she balances. I am in shock at how some people can know so many diverse facts about so many different things and be so well read. I'd love to be political, but then I start to open my mouth and I realize I'm just spouting opinion and I don't really have facts. Kirsten is amazing to me -- she's in Washington, she's raising a family, she knows everything about every issue. That kind of person I'm stunned by.
What is your definition of success?
Feeling satisfied with what you've achieved. Also, feeling like you love your job. And then just knowing that you have a really good support system, knowing that your family loves you and that you work hard together.
According to that definition, do you feel successful?
I do. I feel really lucky that I was able to know what I wanted to do, too, because I have so many friends and family that are going through life not really feeling like they ever found what they love. I feel really happy that I discovered what I love.
This interview has been edited and condensed.