- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

Nanette Lepore’s route to fashion’s inner circle has had a few more bumps than she expected when she left Youngstown, Ohio, for New York.

For starters: She was fired after just three weeks on her first fashion job. Her second job lasted three months. When she went out on her own and the orders began to roll in, she didn’t have enough money in the bank to make the clothes and had to turn to her father.

Nevertheless, in the 20 years Mrs. Lepore has worked in the industry, she has cultivated a devoted following — and because things didn’t always come easily, she savors her success even more. She has six stand-alone stores, including a new one in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood; two fragrance lines; and a shoe collection that will debut next spring. Keds just announced a partnership with Mrs. Lepore that will result in a dozen styles, some of which will be featured during New York Fashion Week in September.

Top department stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, carry her clothes, which interpret a modern woman’s wardrobe through romantic, rose-colored glasses.

“The Nanette Lepore collection is always ultrafeminine with a nod to retro style and a touch of whimsy, which very much fits with her personality,” says Gregg Andrews, a fashion director for Nordstrom. “It’s always beautifully detailed.

“They’re for the woman who is looking for something that is a little unique, a little out of the ordinary without being outlandish.”

That description of Mrs. Lepore’s clothes could be a description of the designer herself. She’s funky and fashionable, but there’s also an underlying Midwestern wholesomeness.

Mrs. Lepore’s other passion is her family. She recently returned from Italy with her husband and business partner, Robert Savage; her sister; and her 8-year-old daughter. The now-annual trip to the Amalfi Coast is one of the perks of success that Mrs. Lepore likes best.

On the most recent jaunt, however, Mrs. Lepore mixed a little business with pleasure, checking on the Florence factory that’s making her shoes. She readily admits she didn’t know exactly what she was seeking, only that she would know it when the shoes were “right.”

She has made a habit of learning the industry through trial and error. She set her heart on fashion while in grade school, and she would dress up her neighbor in floral bedspreads. Her father, an art history professor and painter, and her style-conscious mother encouraged her to pursue her passion, and in return, Mrs. Lepore found much inspiration in her parents’ bohemian style.

Somehow, though, she ended up at Youngstown University studying business. Next stop was the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to learn the technical side of design. Her sister supported her that year, Mrs. Lepore explains, which is why she is entitled to an unlimited supply of Nanette Lepore frocks.

Mrs. Lepore’s first job was as a sketcher at Soo Yung Lee, an old-fashioned dress company located in the heart of the Garment District. It didn’t take long for her — and the company — to realize she didn’t fit in.

Then she worked at Tric Trac, a sporty knitwear line. Mrs. Lepore was hired as an assistant designer but ended up doing duties more similar to those of a personal assistant.

In the late 1980s, Mrs. Lepore met Carol Rollo, who needed a combination in-house designer-buying assistant for her fashion-forward shop Riding High on the Upper East Side.

“It had a solid metal door. It was very contemporary,” Mrs. Lepore says . “She sold Claude Montana and Jean Paul Gaultier. I did a collection in the basement — I was designer, patternmaker, everything.”

As much as she enjoyed Riding High, Mrs. Lepore quit as soon as she married Mr. Savage. A year later, she decided it would be best to become her own boss. In 1992, she opened a small store in the East Village called Robespierre.

She made a profit of $100 a week for the first three years. Then she showed her collection at the trade show Coterie, known as a source of up-and-comers, and she took in $250,000 in orders, far more than she expected. When she couldn’t pay for production, her father stepped in. She went into debt anyway, and it took five years to pay off, still managing to keep her store open.

Then came Mrs. Lepore’s real break: Her line was picked up by powerful saleswoman Annette Brindell, a fashion kingmaker with a well-regarded showroom on Seventh Avenue. She was tough, Mrs. Lepore says, but her stamp of approval meant stores would buy the merchandise. Even when they parted ways, Mrs. Lepore made sure it was on friendly terms.

In 2000, Mrs. Lepore staged her first New York Fashion Week runway show using plastic shoes from a discount store, replacing their laces with grosgrain ribbon. The company has grown with each season and now employs more than 100 people. Mrs. Lepore’s well-received fall show featured her signature flirty dresses in red.

Colleen Sherin, fashion market director for Saks Fifth Avenue, says Mrs. Lepore is one of the retailer’s top contemporary resources. “She has great embellishments, great color. It’s very feminine and playful and fun.”

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