How 10 Fashion Designers Got Their Start

November 22, 2014

Oftentimes, famous designers seem as though they were destined for success. One day they’re putting on their first show at Fashion Week, the next day the entire world knows their designs. At least, that’s how it can seem from the outside. But the fact of the matter is that most designers don’t graduate from design school and immediately launch into commercial success. Most put in years of hard work before they’re given any opportunity to sell their skills, let alone before they become famous.

Meanwhile, like the rest of us, they have to make ends meet, and sometimes that means working jobs that have little to do with fashion. Here are some examples of the jobs famous designers had before they became the household fashion names they are today. If you’re an aspiring designer, let their stories remind you it doesn’t matter what you study in college or what your first job is. A fashion career can be made on any foundation.

Coco Chanel: The legendary founder of Chanel actually got her start working as a seamstress and cabaret singer. She eventually began designing hats as a hobby, then became a licensed milliner, and eventually opened her own boutique.

Tom Ford: Designer Tom Ford worked for many years as an actor in commercials, and at one point was a PR intern at Chloe. His first real job in fashion was as an assistant for sportswear designer Cathy Hardwick.

Hedi Slimane: Though he’s now the creative director for Saint Laurent, Slimane was an Art History major and aspiring journalist/reporter who worked as a tailor before he broke into fashion.

Giorgio Armani: The designer and founder of Armani actually studied medicine and as a soldier, worked in an infirmary. Eventually he left the military and got a job as a window dresser at an Italian department store. He later became a seller, where he learned about marketing side of things and began designing menswear.

Vivienne Westwood: The pioneer of punk fashion actually started her career with jobs as a factory worker, and then a schoolteacher. While teaching, she made and sold jewelry on the side, and eventually began pursuing her interest in fashion full time.

Alexander McQueen: Given that he was famous for his dramatic couture designs, it should be no surprise that Alexander McQueen actually started out working for theatrical costumiers. He was also a noted tailor, and after establishing a name for himself doing that, he only then decided to study design.

Tory Burch: Before launching her own eponymous line, Tory Burch worked in public relations and advertising positions at several different fashion companies including Vera Wang and Polo Ralph Lauren.

Vera Wang: Wang was a competitive figure skater for years, and then moved on to fashion—on the editorial side. In fact, she was the senior fashion editor at Vogue and apparently she left when she wasn’t promoted to Editor In Chief and Anna Wintour got the job instead. Upon leaving, she joined Ralph Lauren as a design director and eventually launched her own brand.

Ralph Lauren: Lauren studied business, served in the military, and eventually ended up working as a salesman for a tie company. While there, he had an idea for a tie design that the company didn’t want, so Lauren quit to sell his tie designs which were eventually bought by Neiman Marcus, and helped launch his fashion career.

Miuccia Prada: Though Miuccia Prada inherited the Prada luxury goods manufacturer, the designer herself actually has a PhD in political science, and was a professional mime for 5 years. It wasn’t until later that she entered her family’s business and got interested in design, but since then she has won design awards and even launched her own line, called Miu Miu.

So the takeaway here is, whether you start your career as a soldier, a mime, or a retail employee, you can still end up with an amazing fashion career. But if you want to take a shorter route to the industry, check out our tips on How to Land a Fashion Job.

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