Born c. 1964, in Youngstown, OH; married Robert Savage (a company president); children: Violet. Education: Earned undergraduate degree from Youngstown University, and degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Began career as co-designer of Robespierre, a clothing line and store in New York City, 1987; sole designer for Robespierre after 1989, and under her own name after 1996; launched fragrance and footwear lines, 2006.
Nanette Lepore's lighthearted, feminine dresses, blouses, and accessories are worn by some of Hollywood's biggest names. In business since the late 1980s, the Ohio-born designer struggled for a number of years to keep her small company financially solvent. In the highly competitive world of fashion, her longevity and success are the exception, not the rule. "I never had big plans, and when I think back on it, I'm amazed it worked, " New York magazine quoted her as saying. "Most of it is because I'm really, really stubborn."
Born around 1964 in Youngstown, Ohio, Lepore was one of four children in a family headed by her free-spirited, Midwestern-bohemian parents. Her father was an artist and college professor, while her kindergarten-teacher mother was known for her au courant outfits. Every summer, the Lepores took their children on road trips out West, often taking the longer, legendary Route 66 instead of the newer highways. After earning her undergraduate degree from Youngstown University, Lepore moved to New York City when she was accepted at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). "There's a weird drive when you come out of a place like Youngstown, " she told Marshall Hood in Columbus Dispatch interview. "It pushes you harder. You feel like the odds are stacked against you."
While working at a designer clothing boutique called Carol Rollo Riding High, Lepore met Mary Ann Vassilakos, and the two women decided to launch their own line. By this time Lepore was married to Robert Savage, a painter, who provided the necessary encouragement for her to strike out on her own after earning her FIT degree. "I was traipsing through the garment district trying to get a job and my husband kept urging me to open my own business, " she told a writer for WWD. "I hated the garment district. And after one too many disappointments, I approached Mary Ann with the idea of a collection."
The pair called their new line Robespierre, after a notorious figure in the French Revolution, and in August of 1987 they opened a small retail space in New York City's East Village, which was a rough neighborhood at the time and known for its illicit-drug trade. "The rent was $500, " Lepore admitted in the Columbus Dispatch article. "It was not an ideal location." The 400-square-foot store featured designs by Lepore and Vassilakos that were essentially vintage looks updated for the punk-rock crowd, such as pompom skirts and smoking jackets. Within a year, Lepore and her partner decided to close the store and concentrate on their wholesale business instead, which seemed promising after posh clothing retailer Barneys New York placed an order. More than 50 other stores across the United States were also interested in carrying Robespierre, but Lepore's second collection did not fare as well, and the business tanked. She had financed the manufacturing costs with the help of a loan from her parents. "My father mortgaged the house, and I lost it, " she told Hood in the Columbus Dispatch."Within three years[the money] was gone. I had to work five years to get it back."
By the mid-1990s, Lepore was on her own, and staying afloat by putting out eminently wearable, feminine items that were priced in the moderate bridge sportswear category. She opened a new space in Manhattan in 1996, and dropped the Robespierre moniker in favor of her own name on the label. After adding a dress line, she began showing her fall/ winter and spring/summer collections during New York Fashion Week, the twice-yearly event held in Bryant Park in which designers present their newest wares to store buyers and the press. It was a major expense, but by 2000 her SoHo boutique was doing well enough to help defray the staging costs. "You definitely benefit from doing the shows, " she told WWD's Lauren DeCarlo. "It pushes you to experiment with more newness; otherwise, you get comfortable. The shows help you push the envelope. It's crazy, and I complain about it for three months, but it's worth it in the end."
By 2003, Lepore had also opened a retail space in Los Angeles, and entertainment-industry insiders began to clamor for her clothes to use on screen. She dressed Reese Witherspoon in the 2003 comedy Legally Blonde 2, and Lepore's designs also appeared regularly on Sarah Jessica Parker on the hit HBO series Sex and the City. One outfit not listed on the series' fashion-credits page was the rainbow-hued dress that Parker's Carrie Bradshaw wore when she fell into the water at a lakefront eatery in New York City's Central Park. There was a rush of viewer interest in it, but it was a one-off, Lepore told the New York Post. "It was so sad, because everyone on the planet wanted that dress, " she lamented. "But we couldn't make it because the fabric was printed really crooked, and we couldn't find a manufacturer."
Lepore's business had grown steadily over the decade. With items priced from $45 to $400 at retail, her company managed to do a respectable $63 million in estimated sales for 2005. In 2006, she launched fragrance and footwear lines, and had stores in Boston, London, Las Vegas, and even Tokyo. Her husband serves as president of her company, while her Ohio family are still her most enthusiastic supporters. "I couldn't be more proud of Nanette, " her mother, Jeannie, told Cleveland Plain Dealer fashion columnist Kim Crow while visiting backstage at Lepore's Spring 2006 collection. "I never put it together at the time, but she was always taking cutouts and making clothes for her paper dolls. I never guessed it would lead to this." In turn, Lepore credits much of her success to her family, which includes her sister, Michelle Hagan, the wife of Youngstown's mayor. "I have to be able to stare in the mirror and know it's going to be great, " she told Crow about her creative process. "I always think about how it's going to look on my family, my friends, not just the models."
Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, OH), September 21, 2003, p. 1B.
New York Post, March 2, 2003, p. 47.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), September 15, 2005, p. F2.
WWD, November 16, 1988, p. 8; September 4, 1996, p. 10; November 3, 2005, p. 12.
"Nanette Lepore, " New York, http://www. newyorkmetro.com/fashion/fashionshows/ designers/bios/lepore/ (April 23, 2006).
Nanette Lepore Website, http://nanettelepore.com (April 23, 2006).