From YSU to runway – An alumna’s fate in fashion

Nanette Lepore is a YSU Alumni Success Story and noted fashion designer in New York.

Nanette Lepore

Nanette Lepore, ’83

“If you can’t find an opening, make one. If you can’t find a job, create it.”

They’re the words of one person who did just that.

New York fashion designer and YSU alumna Nanette Lepore is an international name in women’s fashion today, with boutiques across the United States, Asia and Europe and a booming, self-made business in what she calls “one of the scariest, most intimidating fields imaginable.”

Lepore came back to campus this spring to receive an honorary degree and speak at commencement – her neon pink and orange platform sandals boldly complimenting the black cap and gown. Sharing her story with new YSU graduates, she encouraged them to take the creative Youngstown spirit into the real world.

“That’s what I hope Youngstown has instilled in you – the idea that one person can make a difference.”

Lepore knew this motto by heart even as an undergraduate at YSU. The daughter of a YSU professor, she fashioned an independent curriculum for herself out of finance, art and home economics courses and earned her “very arty business degree” in 1983 before attending New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and landing her first sketching gig.

“My first job lasted all of three weeks,” Lepore remembered, adding that her second was not much better. “Those were the days when fashion was mean, and I was working for some of the meanest.”

For Lepore, the third job was the charm, and she found it as a designer at a high-end boutique on the upper east side of New York City. Travelling to fashion shows in Paris, Milan and London, she caught runway fever and was inspired by other 20-somethings who were selling their garment creations out of flea market booths.

“There was no big machine behind them,” Lepore said. “They were doing it all on their own.”

The nudge of encouragement from her husband was the last thing she needed; Lepore decided to start her own design business.

“Neither of us had any idea what we were getting into,” said Lepore. “We set up a shop in the East Village in the cheapest storefront we could find – it was between a gas station and a soup kitchen.”

Debts, a mortgage and 10 years later, and Lepore finally found the lifeblood her business had been waiting for – a New York runway show that introduced her to the fame her brand knows today.

“We’re opening six stores in China in the next six months, we have a belt line and a resort collection on the way, and a Lepore L’Amour line for juniors out in JCPenney next spring,” said Lepore. She also stays active in fighting to preserve American manufacturing jobs, especially in the fashion industry and her own company.

But the big name always stays rooted to her small town.

“Never forget that your time in Youngstown has given you an advantage – the advantage of … a strong sense of creativity,” Lepore concluded at commencement. “You can make it anywhere. You’ve got the moxy to do it.”

Nanette currently lives in New York with her husband, Robert Savage, also a YSU grad (’78 BFA), and their daughter, Violet.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Summer 2012.)