It’s easy to look back and see certain names and instantly equate that person with the trade that made them not only financial successes, but cultural currency as well. Specifically, these fashion heavyweights – which span the decades and are responsible for trends and items of yesteryear, which are tried-and-true heritage pieces – to newer upstarts on the cutting edge of advancement and updated silhouettes, all seem to have one thing in common: their journeys to sartorial prominence are varied and Odyssey-like. From war veterans to interns, and prep stars to lawyers, this is what 20 fashion bigwigs were up to before they burst at the seams.
When Ralph Lifshitz was born in the Bronx – the youngest of four children – he wanted to be a professional basketball player or an artist like his father, Frank, who painted houses for a living. After legally changing his last name to “Lauren” when he was 16 – and having already gained a reputation as a sharp dresser – the newly christened Ralph Lauren made his first foray into menswear at 20, working on the sales floor at a series of stores, including Brooks Brothers. In 1967, he began creating his first line – a well-received collection of wide ties inspired by those worn by the leading men of old Hollywood and prewar England, especially Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. After rejecting other British-athletics-sounding names (like Cricket and Rugby) for his budding brand, he chose to market them under the label Polo. Shortly after college, Lauren was drafted and enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves and went to basic training in Fort Dix – with the military heavily influencing his collections. Lauren told Vogue: “When I was growing up, officers in uniform were very impressive to me. They were doing a job; they were protecting our country; they were heroes. When you wear an old military jacket there’s some sort of connection to those qualities—to being strong, to being tough, to being a warrior.”
Calving Klein had dreams of owning a pet shop with his best friend, Barry Schwartz, a fellow grocer’s son who would later become his chairman and chief executive officer. As Vogue notes, “Style was in his blood. His maternal grandmother sewed samples for Hattie Carnegie on Seventh Avenue for years, then ran her own dressmaking shop. Calvin’s parents probably weren’t surprised when he headed downtown to study design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.” While still in school, he worked for a time as a copy boy at Women’s Wear Daily and also as an apprentice for designer Dan Millstein. When Klein was trying to figure out if he should pursue fashion or instead go into the supermarket business, his father told him, “You know, I never knew exactly what you studied all these years, but I have a feeling if you don’t see it through, even though this is a great opportunity your best friend is offering, I think you will be unhappy all your life. You have to go through with it.”
Palmer West and Jonah Smith
Prior to their 2009 launch of Aether – a technical outwear and gear brand out of Los Angeles – Palmer West and Jonah Smith were established Hollywood movie producers responsible for ushering films like Requiem for a Dream, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly to the big screen. In a 2012 interview the duo said, “For us moviemaking is creative but it uses both sides of your brain – you have to work to budgets and to time-frames and make it work as a business. The clothing business is actually very similar even though there’s a different vocabulary. We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of crossover there was.” They went on to say, “We always joke that we started Aether because there used to be two choices – you could be fashionable, aesthetically and age-appropriate and cold and wet, or you could wear defensive clothing and look like you were lost in a city looking for a lift line, and have to apologize every time you went somewhere nice. Pretty soon after starting Aether we realized we had hit a nerve.”
Band of Outsider’s Scott Sternberg is another case of a Hollywood power-player looking to abandon the rigors of Tinseltown brokerage in lieu of an equally challenging turn in fashion. During his first week as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency in 1997, he realized he didn’t want to be a talent agent – although the entrepreneurs he met on the job fueled his desire to start his own business which would ultimately happen in 2003. According to Business Week, “With $30,000 in savings, he enrolled in sketching classes and, in 2004, produced a run of 300 lumberjack-chic shirts. He says sales were $300,000 in 2005, $1 million in 2006 and $8 million last year. He now has 12 employees based in Los Angeles and designs five Band of Outsiders micro-lines.”
During his formative years in Sussex, James Jebbia actually worked in the Duracell Battery Factory. After his parents’ divorce, he would move to the States in 1983 – first living in West Virginia before moving to Staten Island into a $500-a-month apartment. Over the next six years, he worked his way up at Parachute, the ’80s minimalist clothing store in SoHo, and sold fashionable backpacks and vintage clothes at a flea market on Spring Street. His first retail venture, Union NYC, was opened in 1989 carrying an experimental mix of mostly English brands like the Duffer of St. George and Fred Perry, before partnering with pioneering streetwear retailer Shawn Stüssy from 1991 to ’94. He then only went on to found Supreme in 1994.
Ben and Bobby Hundreds
The partnership between Ben Shenassafar and Bobby Kim, the two founders of Los Angeles brand The Hundreds, was formed in law school. While neither would go on to practice, Kim spoke glowingly about a mentor he encountered there during his time at the Los Angeles Superior Court under the watchful eye of veteran research attorney, Abram Edelman. Edelman was just starting to succumb to cancer as the initial seeds of The Hundreds were being sprouted. Following his internship, Edelman told Kim, “Do you want to die at 40 and realize you spent your life doing something you weren’t passionate about? At least I can say I did something I cared about and loved. You don’t love being a lawyer. You’re not passionate about this. You’re passionate about The Hundreds. I see it in you, I see how you talk about it, it’s all you ever think about, man. Do The Hundreds. Life’s too short.”
Some of Hood By Air‘s Shayne Oliver’s earliest memories involve fashion, but it was a field that seemed more of a calling than a career choice. In an interview with Vogue he said, “My grandmother was a seamstress in Trinidad and she didn’t want me to go to day care, so she would have me sitting with her. It became my play and my enjoyment to be around fashion. When I came back to America around age six, I was living with my mom. Everyone in America was wearing T-shirts. I would glamorize mine with paints and sew different T-shirts together. And then I just knew what I wanted to do. It never dawned on me that I was a designer. It just continued.”
After graduating from Tokyo’s Keio University with a law degree in 1966, Yohji Yamamoto would tell WWD about the period. “After I graduated from college, I didn’t want to wear a business suit or tie. So I went to work at my mother’s neighborhood clothing shop, but she got very mad because I had studied law, and graduated, but I still didn’t want to work. She said, ‘At least you have to learn how to sew and cut properly,’ and I was happy because I got to be a student again.” Later on, he would attend Bunka Fashion College – whose notable alumni include UNDERCOVER‘s Jun Takahashi, COMME des GARCONS‘ Junya Watanabe and NIGO.
Jean Touitou of Atelier de Production et de Création, or A.P.C., initially had a desire to be a history teacher because in his own words, “I didn’t want to be involved with money. I had this complex of all my friends being sons of professors or architects and my father was a merchant. I thought working for money was somehow filthy or something.” But he never did pursue becoming a teacher because “that wasn’t an option either because you had to take the train at six in the morning going far into the suburbs, which I didn’t fancy…So instead I went around South America in a car for one year and then I got back to Paris.”
In speaking with Interview he said, “I became involved strictly by accident. I just wanted to join a group of people doing things differently from what I could see around me in Paris back then. So by chance I bump into some people who were working at KENZO, and that was in ’77 or ’78. There was a very raw unsophisticated energy there in those days and whatever those people would have done, I would have joined them. It was that simple.” Funny enough, his initial work with KENZO was as an accountant. As he pursued A.P.C. more full time he was a ghost designer for brands like Joseph of London.
Even at a young age NIGO was drawn to the fashion world, saying in a 2005 interview, “At 12 my parents bought me a pair of Levi 501’s and some white adidas Superstar sneakers. At the time I wasn’t too bothered but later I discovered a magazine called Popeye & Olive. One day I read an article about Tokyo and they spoke about the best shopping areas. From there I developed an interest in ‘5os fashion and music, which at the time was very trendy in Tokyo. I liked Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. At the same time a Japanese band called the ‘Checkers’ broke through; I liked the way they dressed, Rockabilly style; but until 18 I used to always wear denims and white sneakers.” At that time, he enrolled in college where he looked to pursue a career in fashion journalism and would meet Hiroshi Fujiwara – and earn the nickname “NIGO” which means “number two” and plays off the notion that the two look like one another. From there he got a part-time job in the Popeye & Olive editorial office in 1993 where Hitomi Oukawa hired him as a stylist, and the seeds for the Harajuku store “NOWHERE” were formed. NIGO went on to found A BATHING APE (aka BAPE), the streetwear brand that might have had among the most influence on the entire market in the last few decades.
Although he wouldn’t dabble in the medium for several years, Shawn Stussy’s parents owned a printing shop where at the tender age of 12 he’d begin to understand the ins-and-outs of screen-printing. By the age of 13, Stussy began to design and shape his own surfboards in the family garage. After graduating from high school in the early 1970s, he lived a free lifestyle, spending the winters living in a trailer and working as a ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain and summers making surfboards at Laguna Beach. As the legend and story has been told thousands of times, Stussy took a large marker and scrawled his signature on the finished boards. While Stussy may have viewed his clothing ventures as a sideline that helped spur the sale of his surfboards, an old friend named Frank Sinatra, Jr. (no relation to the family of the famous singer) saw greater potential. They had surfed together as teenagers, but now Sinatra was an accountant and possessed the business expertise that Stussy lacked. Sinatra convinced Stussy that his nascent apparel business held much promise and offered to invest $5,000 to become his partner. In 1983, they joined forces and in 1984 established Stussy Inc. with Stussy handling design and Sinatra shouldering the business responsibilities. It was on March 27, 1986 that the company registered the Stussy trademark in the United States.
Phil Knight was a talented middle-distance runner from Portland, who enrolled at Oregon in the fall of 1955 and competed for legendary coach Bill Bowerman – who was constantly seeking ways to give his athletes a competitive advantage, including cobbling his own shoes for his runners. Upon graduating from Oregon, Knight earned his MBA in finance from Stanford University, where he wrote a paper that proposed quality running shoes could be manufactured in Japan that would compete with more established German brands. But his letters to manufacturers in Japan and Asia went unanswered, so he called Onitsuka Co. in Kobe, Japan, and persuaded the manufacturer of Tiger shoes to make Knight a distributor of Tiger running shoes in the United States. When the first set of sample shoes arrived, Knight sent several pairs to Bowerman, hoping to make a sale. Instead, Bowerman offered to become his partner and to provide his footwear design ideas to Tiger. The formation of Blue Ribbon Sports started with a pledge of $500 USD from each man – with Knight selling the shoes out of the trunk of his green Plymouth Valiant. Eventually Knight and Bowerman would found sportswear giant Nike.
Adi & Rudi Dassler
Prior to the Dassler brothers producing hand-sewn shoes unlike any other athletic shoe on the market, and driving from Bavaria to Berlin in 1936 to give Jesse Owens a pair, Rudi and Adi were living in Herzogenaurach where they had just returned from World War I. Although their father, Christoph, was a shoemaker himself, he envisioned a bakery career for Adi. According to The New York Times, The origins of the split between Rudolf and Adolf are hard to pinpoint, but an Allied bomb attack on Herzogenaurach in 1943 illustrated the growing tension. Adi and his wife climbed into a bomb shelter that Rudolf and his family were already in. ‘The dirty bastards are back again,’ Adi said, apparently referring to the Allied warplanes. Rudolf was convinced that his brother meant him and his family. The damage was never repaired.” The two brothers end up founding none other than German sportswear brand adidas.
According to The Los Angeles Times Magazine, “Owens’ story began in Porterville, an agricultural town in the San Joaquin Valley. The only child of a social-worker father and a teacher mother, he went to Catholic school and recalls ‘being swept up in Bible stories of people in dragging robes in dusty temples.’ He was mesmerized by seeing early Thierry Mugler ads in French Vogue and listening to opera with his parents.” After high school, Owens moved to LA and studied painting at Otis Art Institute for two years, then switched to LA Trade Technical College for pattern-making courses. He worked at various designer-knockoff houses until, at 37, he set up shop in a tiny studio on Hollywood Boulevard with an assistant and a seamstress and began presenting his clothes directly to retailers, store by store.
Browne has made an impeccably tailored suit his uniform, so it seems quite apropos that he attended the University of Notre Dame where he was a collegiate swimmer, and eventually got his degree in economics. After moving to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting, Browne would discover his love for vintage apparel – reworking vintage suits and tuxedos – despite being surrounded by T-shirts and flip-flops. He would eventually leave LA and head to New York – working first at Giorgio Armani’s showroom, then for Ralph Lauren at Club Monaco. “When I was working for Ralph, you couldn’t give away what I designed, which was exactly the same stuff as I’m designing now. To their credit, they let me do what I wanted. But it just didn’t work. The timing – the late nineties – was all wrong,” he later told The Wall Street Journal.
As Vogue put it, “The Blass name came to be associated with tailored, sporty classicism, with an accent on tweeds, cashmere sweaters, impeccable evening gowns and his signature blazers.” At 15, he was already selling sketches of evening dresses for $25 each through the mail to a fashion manufacturer in New York. At 18, he would become the first male to win Mademoiselle’s Design for Living award, for his $12.95 rayon shirtwaist dress. All of this success prompted him to enroll at Parsons School of Design. Like many men in the early ’40s, he committed to the United States war effort by joining the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the 603rd Camouflage Battalion. Their goal: with a group of writers, artists, sound engineers, theater technicians and other creative professionals, their mission was to fool the German Army into believing the Allies were positioned in fake locations. They did this by using recordings, dummy tanks and other false materials. Nicknamed the “Ghost Army,” he’d have a hand in the Battle of the Bulge, before resettling in New York City and working at different Seventh Avenue brands like Anne Klein, Anna Miller and Maurice Rentner.
While many now know that En Noir‘s Rob Garcia cut his teeth as a designer at Black Scale, he initially sought out to be a Hollywood power player by enrolling in the agent trainee program at Paradigm in Los Angeles. Just as his Tinseltown aspirations were starting to fizzle, mutual friends introduced him to Mega, and the two began to forge the brand – with Garcia first learning design and product development.
Responsible for some of the most sought-after and culturally significant shoes in sneaker history, Tinker Hatfield’s roots were the foundation for his career as a legendary Nike designer. During his prep days in Oregon, Hatfield was was an all-state selection as a basketball player, football player, and an All-American in track and field at Central Linn High School, leading to him being named as the 1970 Johnny Carpenter Prep Athlete of the Year for Oregon high schoolers. He would later attend the University of Oregon where he ran track under legendary coach Bill Bowerman who would also become one of the most influential men at Nike in his own right – having been credited with some of the initial prototypes that Phil Knight would approach Onitsuka Co. with. After graduating with a degree in architecture, he worked as an independent architect in Eugene, Oregon and for the Balzhiser Group. In an interview with designboom he said of Nike, “my first job with the company was to illustrate a marketing book for Geoff Hollister (the third Nike employee ever) in the early 1980’s.” From there, he would use his architectural skill set to work on the companies’ retail spaces – “which gave me a view into the design culture at the company from the outside. Shortly after I joined the Nike design team.”
According to The New York Times, “As a young student, Hiroki Nakamura’s parents encouraged him to study where there was very little Japanese spoken. So he chose Alaska, a place he had grown to love on family whale-watching, camping and snow boarding trips.” Having cultivated a brand since 2001 known for its rugged yet elegant execution, Nakamura spent eight years at Burton Snowboards in Japan designing accessories before venturing off to start his own project. After Burton Nakamura started working on his own brand, visvim.
In 1992, Jeremy Scott moved to New York to study at Pratt Institute and told The New York Times, “It was a rigorous education in tailoring, drawing and patternmaking. If it wasn’t made right, they’d rip it in front of you and tell you to make it again. You only want that to happen once.” Designing crazy and over-the-top outfits for “club kids/personalities” who registered like celebrities in their own pockets of downtown NYC culture, they would serve as models for his graduation show – a collection inspired by the Chernobyl disaster – with pieces like quilted vinyl skintight hazmat suits, face masks and sheer floor-length gowns with corseted boning. After graduating in 1996, Scott moved to Paris where he’d launch his own brand a year later whose first show was based on car crashes and was the first runway appearance of Devon Aoki. Today the designer is known for his namesake line, but also for his on-going collections for adidas and recently also Moschino.