Nanette Lepore was destined to be a designer. She created her first look—out of a floral bedspread, beaded choker and face paint—at age nine and—voila!—a boho chic designer was born. The Youngstown, Ohio native studied at FIT and launched her eponymous label in 1992, bolstered by a $5,000 loan from her father, himself an abstract painter.
"My first job out of FIT I worked for a small boutique designing and traveling to Europe with the owner buying collections for her store," Lepore recalled. "I quit when I married my husband, but soon enough I was looking for work again. I spent a year sending out my sketches with no luck. I kept being told that I didn’t have the right experience to land a design job, but I knew from working at that boutique that I could run my own company. Out of the blue, I landed an interview at Ralph Lauren. I was beyond thrilled and thought I’d throw all my plans out the window. But when the woman at Ralph Lauren looked me up and down and said no thanks, I knew it was time to set out on my own. I opened up a shop in the East Village between a soup kitchen and a gas station and the rest is history."
Today, Lepore's business is a rousing success, carried in hundreds of stores worldwide (including her nine freestanding boutiques) and worn by stylish celebs such as Blake Lively, Taylor Swift, Frieda Pinto, Sharon Stone, Leighton Meester and Scarlett Johansson, among others. In addition to having launched the playful, lower-priced line, Oonagh, and adding fragrance and handbags to her signature ready-to-wear collection, Lepore is in the process of opening a flagship in the Ginza District of Tokyo and plans to expand into China over the next few years, as well.
The Fashion Informer's Lauren David Peden caught up with the free-spirited nomad—who lives in New York's West Village with her husband, Robert, and teenage daughter, Violet—just before the holidays to get the lowdown on her love of lattes, favorite Christmas memories and the benefits of manufacturing one's collection in the US of A.
What did you have for dinner last night?
We went to Eataly to buy groceries and spent the night at home eating delicious Long Island striped bass with fresh homemade pasta and sauce that my sister Michele made.
What's the last movie you watched?
Hugo—loved it! We laughed and cried...
Beverage of choice?
Latte in the morning. Champagne at night. Whiskey in a recession.
I've heard you say that one of the biggest misconceptions about fashion shows is that they do not make a business. What is another big misconception about the fashion industry?
The biggest misconception is that you can’t make a profit if you manufacture your line in NYC. But I’m living proof that you can. When you manufacture here, you can employ Americans, oversee every step of the process, and make a higher quality product. There is no downside.
Where else would you like to live if you weren't living in New York?
I’d love to live in Venice. It’s my favorite city in the world and I wouldn’t mind getting lost there every day.
What's your favorite holiday memory?
The whole family cooking together on Christmas Eve at my Dad’s house in Ohio. We’re very Italian—we make the feast of seven fishes, drink shots while we cook and stay up late into the night eating and drinking together.
What's the best holiday gift you've ever given? Received?
The best gift I’ve ever given was the custom hula hoops from Lola Star that I gave all the kids last year for Christmas, but I think I secretly enjoyed them the most. The best gift I’ve ever received? Besides the Betsy McCall doll that I got for Christmas when I was little, my husband gave me a gorgeous aquamarine pendant that I wear on ribbon around my neck.
What's the biggest/most valuable lesson your parents taught you?
They taught me to follow my dreams and know that nothing worth having comes easily.
What's the biggest/most valuable lesson your daughter has taught you?
Patience. And that there is one person in the world that won’t let me boss her around.
I know your father and husband are painters. What is your favorite work of art of all time?
My husband’s series of nudes watching television. They remind me of our crazy days of running in the East Village art scene.
How does your gypsy spirit manifest itself these days?
I’ll always have that wandering gypsy spirit from my childhood. I still can’t wait to pack my bags and run away.
Tell me about your favorite piece of winter clothing or accessory.
This winter I’m wearing my purple chiffon dresses with fisherman’s knit sweaters.
What never fails to make you cry?
I’m sentimental. I cry all the time!
When are you happiest?
In the Hamptons, dancing and having cocktails with my family on my deck overlooking the ocean.