In their sunlit showroom in the Garment District, Nanette Lepore and Bob Savage talk about their journey from Youngstown, Ohio to the epicenter of the New York City fashion scene.
Located in the heart of New York’s bustling Garment District, the Nanette Lepore showroom is an oasis of calm and vibrant color. Soft light and white walls highlight the racks upon racks of exquisite clothing in Lepore’s trademark ultra-feminine, playful yet elegant style.
The section of the showroom designated for the Spring 2012 pieces is especially bright and appealing, a carefully organized rainbow of the saturated neon hues that define the collection. “We worked really hard,” Lepore says, holding out a delicately pleated dress in the royalist of royal blues. “The pigments were actually painted on – pigment printed – to get that kind of saturation.” Behind her, a screen plays a video of the runway show on a continuous loop.
Lepore and her husband, Bob Savage, are the creative and business forces behind the label that bears her name. With eleven retail stores around the world, a coveted spot at New York Fashion Week and a client list that includes Sharon Stone, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Longoria Parker, Taylor Swift and Abigail Breslin, their immense success belies the label’s rather humble beginnings.
Their story starts in Youngstown, Ohio, where both Lepore and Savage grew up. It’s the same Youngstown of former steel mill glory that Bruce Springsteen sang about, and the eponymous city of a “Youngstown tune-up.” Savage describes it as “Sort of like a miniature version of The Sopranos. Cleveland had a mob and Pittsburgh had a mob, and Youngstown was in between. Prostitution and gambling and all of this stuff was going on, and Cleveland and Pittsburgh were fighting for territory. They were always shooting at each other and blowing each other up. It was crazy.”
Still, both recall their childhood homes fondly. Savage’s family has roots in Hollymount, Co. Mayo, and the Irish were among the first ethnic groups to settle in the small Ohio city, which grew increasingly diverse. “The Irish were not known for their cuisine, at least when I was growing up,” Bob jokes. “My mother would always say when she discovered Cheese Wiz she thought she was a chef, and then when she discovered Cheese Whiz with pimentos, she thought she was a gourmet chef. The interesting thing about the neighborhood was my Italian friends. I’d go to their houses and it was like – food! It was a very interesting childhood, I had a good time growing up interacting with all those different cultures.”
Lepore’s home was Italian and Irish. “My husband likes to say I can cook and drink,” she laughs. In her recollections, the Lepores (the Italian faction) and the McGarrys (her mother’s family, with roots In Cork and Mayo), come across as strong but fairly complementary forces. In a touching Huffington Post blog entry from 2009, she recounted how both sides of her family worked together to construct her parents’ dream house in a rural area of Youngstown. Grandpa Lepore and his sons laid the bricks, while Grandpa McGarry and his son did all of the carpentry. She describes some of the hidden finishing touches he added as “like the surprise of a beautiful lining in a coat.” “My Irish grandfather used to go crazy over the way the Italians were doing things, because he was more methodical and the Italians would just plunge in. It was such a difference, but they both made beautiful things.”
Demonstrating a talent for fashion design from an early age, Lepore was encouraged by her father – himself a painter – and her stylish mother. “I did a couple of funny little sewing classes at the Singer store; I would go buy patterns (especially Betsey Johnson) and fabric – no one else was allowed to have that kind of freedom with money in our family, because money was tight.”
She describes her parents as having been opposites when they met in high school – her dad the class clown and her mother the valedictorian. “Their marriage wasn’t approved of in the beginning, but then everyone grew to love each other.”
But the McGarrys had to be understanding. After all, “My Irish grandparents eloped on a Harley Davidson. She was from the Maryland area and she was underage. Three brothers married three sisters. Her last name was Michael – three Michaels married three McGarrys.”
Lepore and Savage met in Youngstown when Bob, whose first passion is painting, was studying art with Nanette’s father at Youngstown State University. “He actually fixed his daughter up with somebody, I’d never do that!” Bob says, shaking his head and evidently thinking of their thirteen-year-old daughter, Violet.
Nanette and Bob came to New York so that she could complete a two-year course at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She wound up finishing in just one year and working for a variety of high-end boutiques and design studios before venturing out on her own in 1992.
“She promised me that she would be a famous designer and I could become a painter,” Savage says, sighing dramatically. “I didn’t say famous designer,” Lepore counters. “I said you could be a painter and I would earn the money. But I thought I would be working for someone, I never had any intention of running my own business. That was your idea.”
Savage and Lepore began their professional partnership two years into the business, after she and her initial partner had parted ways. It started with a small store in the East Village, which they rented for $500 a month. “It was in between a soup kitchen and a gas station,” she recalls. “It was crazy.”
A new, trendy boutique would be right at home in the neighborhood today, but as little as 20 years ago it was a bit of a gamble. Their initial company name was a riff on the French inspiration behind Lepore’s early collections and the shop’s gritty surroundings. “We had to come up with a name for the company, and Nanette wanted something French,” Savage explains. “One day there were guys making drug deals right outside at about ten o’clock in the morning and I said to myself, this place is like a reign of terror. So I said ‘Nanette, I got the name, it’s French and from the reign of terror: Robespierre.’ And we’re still incorporated under Robespierre, doing business as Nanette Lepore.”
As much of a departure as it was from painting, Bob was well-suited for his new role as company president. “I’ve thought about that,” he says, “because my grandparents were entrepreneurs and my great-grandfather built and ran a hotel in Pennsylvania. On the other side, my great-uncle had a small oil company in Ohio, so there’s this entrepreneurial streak there. It skipped my parents; my dad worked for a steel company for forty years and he planned the production for manufacturing a pipe in Ohio, but he wasn’t really an entrepreneur. As a kid, I was always mowing lawns or shoveling snow and trying to make a dollar here or there, so I do think there’s a DNA factor in all this.”
Citing the legacy of craftsmanship in her family, Lepore agrees. “I think the whole family mentality of not being intimidated by creating something, by building something, sort of comes through. I was terrified to start a business but once I did it, it was a lot easier than I thought. I think that was because of growing up with people around you who are working in a practical way, but also creating beauty.”
The orders began pouring in, but they were all COD and the fledgling company lacked the funds to manufacture enough pieces to meet demand. Bolstered by a loan from Lepore’s father and a “kitchen remodeling” loan from the bank, they found a local factory to work with, and grew fairly steadily from there. In the meantime, Savage continued to support them by working as a waiter. “I waited tables for twelve years. Seven of those years were while we were a very small company, so I would work three or four days a week, with five or six shifts to bring home the money. It was hard, but it was worth it.”
Eighty-five percent of Lepore’s line is still produced in New York, in the fabric stores, factories, and the workshops of pattern makers and design cutters that sit within a ten-block radius of the showroom. With this in mind, Nanette and Bob are strong advocates for the preservation of the Garment District. The local businesses are under threat from landlords raising rents and city officials reconsidering the zoning laws that have reserved a portion of the area from 34th street to 42nd street for the fashion industry. Savage and Lepore have petitioned local politicians, organized protests, partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers and even traveled to Washington three times to plead their case with officials.
Aside from the re-structuring it would mean for their own operation, their protest against the waning of the Garment District stems from concern over what a lack of smaller, local resources would mean for young, emerging designers. “It’s not just for us,” Savage says. “It’s all the jobs. It’s FIT, Parsons, these young people coming out that want to do what she did. To come out of school and start a business will be very difficult if there are no factories, because no one would be making your samples. Even if Barney’s were to buy 100 or 200 pieces, no one in China is going to make 200 pieces for you. They want 5,000 pieces minimum. So if you eliminate the core here, you eliminate the possible future of the fashion industry in America. That’s how serious it could end up being. And that’s what we’re really trying to preserve.”
Their own business has also felt the effects of the recession. “We went through about eight years of complete growth, just adding stuff and adding stuff and then we hit a standstill,” Nanette laments. “We had layoffs, and we had never laid anybody off. It was very difficult,” Savage adds. Lepore admits that it has also been tougher from a creative perspective. “It’s been hard trying to understand what’s going to make the costumer excited. I wouldn’t want to have to go through another recession, let’s hope that isn’t what’s going to happen.” Still, she is optimistic. “Sales for the spring are higher than they were last year, and our own store retails are higher than they were a year ago.”
Lepore is also at work on her next collection, which draws inspiration from a Francesco Clemente exhibition at the Uffizi in Florence, based on the Tarot. “The colors are going to be beautiful and the prints are really lush,” she says, not giving away too much information.
Before the recession hit, the label was enjoying something of an Irish moment. “We had so many Irish accounts. It became almost funny, we would come back from showing in Europe and we’d have ten new Irish accounts. We must’ve been shipping to fifty, and now I think they’re almost all gone,” Lepore says. Savage wanted to open a shop in Dublin as a base for European business, but found that “The rents were outrageous. They were more than New York. I found a little spot on Dawson Street and I was disappointed because somebody else got it instead. Then I just recently went back there and they were gone. So it’s probably better it didn’t happen.”
He has, however, just found a personal base in Ireland – a little cottage near Cong, Co. Mayo. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. And it’s great,” Bob says, displaying a map of Mayo with a proud pen-ink circle to mark the cottage’s location.
Both share an interest in their Irish heritage. Their daughter’s middle name is Oonagh, because, as Lepore puts it, “We wanted something Irish, and the double O’s are so beautiful.” Lepore also chose the name for her recently launched line of luxe basics.
Bob’s interest may be a bit more vested, though. On the couple’s first trip to Ireland, Nanette balked at the weather. “We landed in Dublin and only made it as far as Newgrange. I think we were headed west when I panicked and said “I’m getting out of here, it is too cold,” she says with a laugh. “We were sitting in this cafe and talking about leaving, and the waitress said to us ‘Well, certainly you didn’t come to Ireland for the weather!’” Nanette now makes a yearly trip to Italy, to connect with her Italian side.
On another trip to Ireland, Bob caught up with some long-lost relatives. His great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland during the famine with his five brothers. Illness spread throughout their ship, however, and they had to return to Ireland before they even had a chance to dock in New York. One of the brothers died, but the four returned to America and survived the second crossing.
Though Savage grew up in an Irish-American household, he didn’t feel an intense connection to his Irish roots until he began exploring the culture – the music and literature in particular. A friend of his came back from a trip to Ireland and gave him all of the sheet music and songbooks he had picked up; he told him all about The Clancy Brothers and The Dubliners. Another friend introduced him to Yeats and Joyce.
He now travels to Ireland a few times a year and has a repertoire of about 150 songs, though he doesn’t seem to think that’s a drop in the bucket compared to “the millions that are out there. You go into a pub to sing a song and they’ll say ‘Oh, but do you know this one? Do you know that one?’ I still have a lot to learn.”
“It doesn’t take much to get him going,” Nanette teases. Proving her correct, Bob treats Irish America to an impromptu rendition of The Dubliners’ “Dirty Old Town.” And for a few minutes, between the deep resonance of his voice and the tranquility of the showroom, it’s almost like we’ve left New York.