Designer Beginnings: Their Lives Before Fashion

Ralph sold ties and Marc stocked shelves

Fashion designer Christian Dior with two models wearing his creations.
Fashion designer Christian Dior with two models wearing his creations. Getty Images: Keystone / Staff

Are you interested in a career in fashion? Have you ever wondered how your favorite designers got their start—because it might not be exactly in the way (or the place!) that you imagined. Some of the biggest names in fashion design got off to a modest start early in their careers. (Vivienne Westwood was once a teacher!)

Most of fashion's biggest names weren't born to design royalty: they weren't raised in fashion capitals like New York or Paris (Todd Oldham and Tom Ford both hail from Texas) and some didn't even start out in fashion (Christian Dior was an art dealer) or go to school for it (Miuccia Prada has a Ph.D. in Political Science).

Here are some of our favorite tidbits of information about how famous and successful fashion designers grew up and started their careers.

Point Of Origin: Where Were These Famous Fashion Designers Born?

  • Kate Spade is from Kansas City, MO
  • Yves Saint Laurent was from Oran, Algeria
  • John Bartlett is from Cincinnati, OH
  • Anna Sui is from Detroit, MI
  • Todd Oldham and Tom Ford are from Texas
  • Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein are both from the Bronx (in New York City)

Getting Started: How Did Famous Designers Begin Their Careers?

  • Marc Jacobs was a stock boy for Charivari, a New York clothing store.
  • Ralph Lauren was a road salesman for a neckwear manufacturer.
  • Halston was window dresser at Carson-Pirie-Scott.
  • Coco Chanel was a clerk in a hosiery shop.
  • Tommy Hilfiger was a freelance designer for Jordache jeans.
  • Tom Ford was an actor and model in TV commercials.
  • Michael Kors was a sales assistant at a boutique.
  • Giorgio Armani started as a buyer's assistant for a department store.
  • Alexander McQueen began his career as a tailor's apprentice.
  • Jil Sander was a fashion journalist first.
  • Laura Ashley once worked as a secretary.
  • Manolo Blahnik was a jeans buyer.
  • Salvatore Ferragamo began his career as a factory worker making cowboy boots.

Education: Where Did Fashion Designers Go to School?

Fashion Institute of Technology

  • Calvin Klein
  • Norma Kamali
  • Jhane Barnes

Parsons School of Design

  • Donna Karan
  • Mark Badgley & James Mischka
  • Tom Ford
  • Anna Sui

Other Education:

  • Alexander McQueen attended St. Martins School of Art.
  • Issey Miyake attended Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne.
  • Gianni Versace had no formal training and learned to tailor from his dressmaker mother.

A Different Path: What did they do before they were famous designers?

  • Vivienne Westwood worked as a teacher.
  • Thierry Mugler was a dancer before he was a designer.
  • Christian Dior worked as an art dealer before becoming one of the most celebrated designers in history.
  • Miuccia Prada has a PhD in political science.
  • Joan Vass was a museum curator at one time.

Updated By Taylor Davies

Watch Now: Jean Styles You Can Wear All Year Around