They may have been powerhouses of the fashion industry in later life, but many of our top fashion designers come from far less glamorous beginnings. We’ve explored their early lives and found a few surprises…
Tom Ford Was the Dropout Actor Son of Realtors
Tom Ford came from an unexpectedly mundane background: his parents Shirley and Thomas were both realtors. He was a keen actor in his youth, eventually dropping out of university to focus on acting in TV commercials. He was a regular at Studio 54, finding his place in gay culture, and drawing influence from the disco style that would appear in his later designs.
He spent most of his time at university studying and pursuing a career in fashion, although he actually graduated with a degree in architecture. He concealed this specialism in job interviews, leading interviewers to believe that his degree was fashion-based.
The young Tom Ford was keenly focused on career advancement, calling designer Cathy Hardwick every day for a month until she agreed to interview him for a position. Working as a design assistant for her for two years was his way into fashion and set him on track for the heights he’s reached today.
Christian Dior Was the Son of a Fertilizer Manufacturer and Brother to a Member of the French Resistance
Christian Dior was the second of five children, born in Normandy to Isabelle and Maurice Dior, a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer. His family hoped he would become a diplomat but Christian’s main love was always art. To earn money as a teenager he would sell fashion sketches on the streets and eventually, with financial backing from his father, he opened an art gallery. It closed after three years, however, due to the collapse of his family’s fortune.
His first fashion job was with Robert Piguet, where he learned the virtues of simplicity and elegance in design. When the second world war came, he was working for the fashion house of Lucien Lelong, surviving by dressing the wives of Nazi officers. This was in stark contrast to his sister, Catherine, who was an active member of the French Resistance, captured by the Gestapo in 1944. She survived the war in a concentration camp and was released in 1945. His later work with Yves St Laurent helped to establish the younger designer in a position of prominence similar to his own.
Ralph Lauren Was an All-American Tie Salesman
Ralph Lauren was the youngest of four, born in the bronx to Frieda and Frank Lifshitz. He grew up submerged in all-American culture, playing basketball and baseball and idolizing Frank Sinatra, John F Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio and Cary Grant.
He studied business at university but left after two years, first joining the army and then working as a menswear sales assistant. His next role, as a tie salesman, allowed him to start the Ralph Lauren Corporation; he convinced the manufacturer to let him have his own line. Expanding into other items of menswear, Lauren delivered his first line, Polo, to stores by hand. He started with a single drawer in 1968 but rapidly expanded, designing the entire men’s line of Bloomingdale’s by 1969 and moving onwards and upwards from there.
Yves St Laurent Was Completely Starstruck by Christian Dior
Yves St Laurent was the oldest of three children, with two younger sisters. As a child he created intricate paper dolls for his siblings, graduating to creating artful dresses for his mother and sisters.
He enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and his designs quickly gained prominence and recognition. He then won first place in a contest for fashion designers, rewarding him with a life-changing trip to Paris. There he met Vogue’s editor-in-chief, De Brunhoff, who suggested he pursue a career in fashion. He went on to study fashion and haute couture and quickly became a star pupil. He then entered the fashion design contest again, beating Karl Lagerfeld to first place.
De Brunhoff noticed that his sketches resembled Dior’s closely in style and tone, despite Yves St Laurent not being familiar with Dior’s draft work. He sent Yves St Laurent to Dior, who hired him immediately. He was fascinated by Dior but was initially so starstruck that he was unable to speak in front of him. Their later work together established him as a master of fashion design.
Pierre Cardin Fled Fascism and Worked for the Red Cross
Pierre Cardin was born in Italy to wealthy landowners. His parents, fleeing fascism, left Italy soon after, settling in France. Against the wishes of his parents (who hoped he would become an architect), Pierre pursued his interest in dressmaking. He became a clothier’s apprentice, learning how to construct the garments that would later make him famous.
After the outbreak of WWII, he worked for the Red Cross which influenced him deeply, leading to his work as a humanitarian in later life. He spent his time in post-war Paris working with Paquin and Dior, later founding his own house and focusing on futurism. His fascination with space is clear in his designs and he is one of the two people to have worn the spacesuit that first set foot on the moon — the other being Neil Armstrong himself.
Gianni Versace Brought Classical Greek and Latin Elements to His Designs
Gianni Versace was born in Italy, the middle child of three siblings. His younger sister, Donatella, rose to prominence during his lifetime and took on the role of head of design at Versace after his murder. As a young man he was fascinated with Latin and ancient Greek, both classical elements that would emerge in his later designs.
He began his fashion career working as an apprentice at his mother’s sewing business, and after briefly studying architecture he committed to his true love, fashion, and moved to Milan to focus on it. His first lines were for Genny’s, an Italian ready-to-wear manufacturer. This encouraged him to present his first signature line soon after, debuting at the Palazzo della Permanente Art Museum of Milan and leading to his meteoric rise prior to his death at the age of 50.
Calvin Klein Began His Career Making Cloaks
Calvin Klein is one of the many fashion designers who were born in the Bronx. He was born to Flore and Leo Klien in 1942. Flore was the daughter of an Austrian immigrant and an American dentist and his father was an immigrant from Hungary.
He pursued his interests in fashion from an early age, graduating from the High School of Art and Design and attending the Fashion Institute of Technology (but not graduating). He began an apprenticeship with Dan Millstein, a cloak and suit manufacturer, and later launched his first company. After becoming a protege of Baron de Gunzberg, he was hailed as the new Yves St Laurent and his first shows were incredibly successful. His signature jeans, beginning his rise to fame, launched in 1974.
Donna Karan Has Fashion in Her Blood
Donna Karen is another fashion designer to have originated in New York, born in Queens to Helen and Gabby Faske. Her family was already involved in the fashion industry, with her mother having worked both as a model and in showrooms and her father having been a tailor and haberdasher before his untimely death.
She worked for Anne Klein after college, becoming head of their design team and then launching her own label, DKNY, designing “modern clothes for modern people”. She focused on only designing clothes that she herself would wear, which many say has been the key to DNKY’s success.
Giorgio Armani Wanted to Be a Doctor and Then a Soldier
Giorgio Armani was born in Italy, the middle child of Maria and Ugo Armani, a transport accountant. As a young man he wanted to be a doctor, studying medicine. After three years’ study he left to join the army. His medical experience placed him in a military hospital in Verona where he worked for some time. In 1957 he began to look for a new, non-military career.
He began working as a window dresser for a Milanese department store then graduated to working as a menswear salesman, gaining a good understanding of the necessity of marketing within fashion. He began his career in fashion in 1960, working for Nino Cerruti and as a freelance designer for other houses. This widened his experience and lead to the success of his own, independent house upon its launch.
Coco Chanel Started at the Bottom and Used Her Wits, Skill and Beauty to Reach the Top
Coco chanel was born to an unmarried laundry-woman, Jeanne Devolle. Her father, Albert Chanel, was later persuaded (financially) to marry Jeanne, taking responsibility for his two children.
Her name was spelt wrong on the official registry of her birth. Her mother, still recovering from the birth, was too ill to attend and her father was away. The infant Coco’s surname was therefore entered as Chasnel, not Chanel.
She was the second of Jeanne and Albert’s five surviving children and grew up in poverty, all living in a one-room house. She and her two sisters were sent away to a convent orphanage after the death of her mother. Although the convent was harsh and the conditions strict it was where Coco learned to sew, forging her on her later career path.
She hoped to pursue a stage career but was unsuccessful. She instead became the mistress of Étienne Balsan, a french cavalry officer and textile heir with whom she became accustomed to a lavish lifestyle. With his financial backing she began designing hats, opening her first store, Chanel Modes in 1910. She began an affair with his friend Arthur Capel, who set her up in Paris and financed the opening of her subsequent stores. Their nine-year affair allowed Coco the funding to begin her design empire but Capel never committed to her fully.
Who can say how many of the future’s top designers are currently toiling away, waiting for their shot? The stories of these ten designers prove that fashion powerhouses can come from any background.