10 (odd) First Jobs of Famous Fashion Designers

They say sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs to find your price, and that can apply to finding your career, too. Not everybody — and actually, these days it seems like hardly anybody ends up on a career path that they originally thought they would take. Even in the fashion world, where lots of people talk about it always being the dream to become a designer, there are plenty of cases where today’s big-name designers started out as something quite different.

If you’re not quite sure about where you’re headed professionally, let these stories assure you that you’re in good company! Here are ten examples of major fashion designers who tried something else before they became famous.

Coco Chanel worked as a cabaret singer 

Coco Chanel is a name known to even people who aren’t interested in fashion. But her beginnings were a far cry from the glamorous image her name brings to mind today. She came from a very poor family, and her mother died when she was 12. Her father sent her to a convent that ran an orphanage, where she learned how to sew. When she turned 18, she had to leave the convent and became a cabaret singer, though she didn’t find much success. 

Eventually, she found her way into hat designing and the rest is history. 

Johnny Cupcakes used to work at a comic book shop

This edgy T-shirt brand got it start when the founder, Johnny Earle, ordered a few screen-printed tees with a cupcake design for himself while he was getting tees for his metalcore* band. The design was inspired by a nickname his coworkers had given him at the comic book shop he worked at. Soon, customers started noticing the tees and asked where they could get one themselves. Johnny got more printed, and started selling them literally out of the trunk of his car.

And if that story wasn’t cool enough, he did this while he was still a teenager. And before he was 16 years old, he had already started 16 other businesses.

* Musical genre which is a fusion of extreme metal and hardcore punk.

Ed Hardy was (and still is) a tattoo artist

Once you know that Ed Hardy started out drawing tattoos, a lot of his fashion designs start to make a lot more sense! The California native studied with artist Sailor Jerry Collins and the traditional Japanese style in the country itself. By mixing these two techniques he began to gain notoriety, but didn’t become world famous until he launched his clothing line in the early 00’s.

Today, they sell everything from clothes, shoes, perfumes, accessories, and even condoms — all with the Ed Hardy brand.

The guy who founded Lacoste was actually a tennis player

If you’ve seen Lacoste’s signature sporty styles, you may not be too surprised to learn that the line was founded by a former tennis player. René Lacoste was actually the number one tennis player in the world for a while! He got his nickname “The Crocodile” from the American press because of his long nose, and that’s why Lacoste’s items bear the small crocodile logo today.

Sadly for sport but happily for fashion, Lacoste was forced to retire from tennis due to health problems. But he didn’t sit still for long; he quickly became an inventor and filed 20 patents over two decades. He also started his clothing line inspired by his preference for short-sleeved shirts on the tennis court. His instinct that more people would go for the style was right!

Rick Owens worked at a knockoffs factory

If you’d taught Rick Owens at design school, you may never have predicted that he would become the next big thing in Paris Fashion Week. That’s because Owens actually dropped out of studying fashion design (because it was too expensive) and on top of that, his first fashion-related job was actually cutting patterns for designer knock-offs. During the late 90’s, the American designer started his own label and quickly expanded internationally in 2002 when Kate Moss wore one of his leather jackets for Vogue Paris.

Former Yves Saint Laurent creative director started as a marketing assistant 

Slimane tried his hand at a couple different things before ending up as a fashion rebel. Today, the French designer is known for his skinny silhouette and rock and roll inspired clothes, but when he was a student he majored in art history and wanted to become a journalist. Funny enough, his first job in fashion was as an assistant in the marketing department of Yves Saint Laurent, the same house he would lead years later. In April 2016, Hedi Slimane left the French label without a word about his future projects — we’re still waiting.

Kate Spade curated accessories before designing them

For the fashion conscious crowd, Kate Spade is synonymous with handbags. Still, most ignore that in her early career, this Kansas City girl wasn’t designing clutches but reviewing them instead.

After graduating Arizona State University with a degree in journalism, Spade packed her hopes and dreams and moved to New York City in search of success. There, the new journalist landed a job at Mademoiselle magazine where she rose through the ranks to become senior fashion editor/head of accessories. The design part starts, when Spade leaves the company and launches her own line of bags backed up by the hard-earned fashion knowledge that had been gathered through the years at the publication.

Nowadays, the Kate Spade brand covers a lot more than just handbags. You can also find glasses and sunglasses, shoes, beauty products, clothing, perfume and paper products, among others.

Vera Wang almost made it to the Olympics as a figure skater

Vera Wang is one of the most well-known fashion designers in the US, in large part due to her famous wedding gowns, but as everyone else on this list, she started out as something a bit different. As a teenager, Wang was a competitive figure skater and was good enough to try out for the Olympic team. She didn’t make it though, and went into fashion instead, but as an editor at Vogue rather than a designer.

Wang became one of the youngest fashion editors in the publication’s history and after 15 years in the position, she was on her way to become editor-in-chief, but it didn’t happen thanks to a certain woman with a pageboy haircut and big sunglasses. In 1987, Wang left the Condé Nast magazine after the coveted title went to Anna Wintour and got a job at Ralph Lauren instead. There, the former figure skater finally started designing, but only for two years until she quit and went on to make her own wedding dress — the rest is history.

Fun fact: Wang designed an ice skating outfit that former figure skater Nancy Kerrigan wore at the Olympics. So, in a sort of way, she did make it. 

Vivienne Westwood used to be a primary school teacher

Though she probably comes to mind as a punk rock fashion icon, Vivienne Westwood’s beginnings are a lot less rebellious in nature. She originally started out as a primary school teacher, of all things. For a while she taught to children and crafted jewellery on her spare time, until she met the future manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, who introduced her to the world of design and the punk movement. The two quickly fell in love and between 1974 and 1976, the new couple opened and ran the infamous boutique “SEX” where they sold her creations. 

The primary teacher from Cheshire eventually became the biggest influencer in the punk fashion movement which eventually led her to become one of the biggest figures in British fashion history.

Miuccia Prada was a mime

One word: mime. Yes, that’s what Miuccia Prada was before she decided to try her hand at fashion. She trained at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro with dreams of someday becoming a mime. Presumably, this dreams never materialised as she joined the family business of manufacturing luxury handbags in 1978. The first success as a designer came in 1985 when she produced a line of nylon purses and backpacks which put the Italian house on the map. Other highlights include the launch of Prada’s sister, more affordable, line Miu Miu in 1992 (which is named after her nickname) and the men’s line in 1996.

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