It’s Not Too Late: Famous Design Entrepreneurs Who Started After 30

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Today, the most popular images of entrepreneurs are young leaders. However, some of the greatest designers became successful entrepreneurs later in life.  With time, they gained the wisdom and clarity that allowed them to strategically build their empires.  Their stories prove that it doesn’t matter how late you start, you can still be great at what you love.  There is no age limit on realizing your dreams.

Vera Wang  – 40

Went from writing about designers, to being one.

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Before entering the fashion world as a wedding dress designer, Vera Wang was creating a career in sports and publishing.  When she failed to make the US Olympics team for figure skating, she entered the fashion industry as a senior fashion editor at Vogue. She held that title for 15 years before taking a job as design director for accessories at Ralph Lauren. However, Wang did not create her first dress until the preparation of her wedding, where she sketched her own design and commissioned a dressmaker to tailor the gown. The following year at the age of 40, with some financial backing from her father, Wang opened her own bridal boutique in the upscale on Madison Avenue in New York City.  Currently, Wang continues to expand her fashion empire with international bridal boutiques, fashion lines in David Bridal and Kohl’s, a homeware collection, eyewear, jewelry, and even a fragrance.

Jack Weil – 45

Followed his vision to take Western fashion across the country.

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Jack Weil was the founder and CEO of Rockmount Ranch Wear – a western clothing manufacturing company.  At the age of 45, Weil abandoned his career as a garter salesman, and moved his family to Denver to start his company.  His vision was to create a fashionable and practical identity for western ranchers, believing that “The West is not a place, but a state of mind.” Weil’s products have been featured on the big screen worn by Clark Gable in MisFits and Health Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.  Weil is credited as the first person to put snaps on Western shirts, patenting the saw-tooth pocket design on Western shirts and inventing the bolo tie.  Weil passed at the age of 107 as the oldest CEO in the US and his company continues to respect his principle of by producing its products domestically.

Tory Burch – 37

Ivy league graduate to Oprah’s “next big thing in fashion.”

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After graduating with a degree in art history fromUniversity of Pennsylvania, Tory moved to New York City.  She worked in public relations and advertising for Vera Wang, Polo Ralph Lauren and Loewe.  It wasn’t until February 2004 that Burch launched her fashion label, “TRB by Tory Burch,” with a retail store in Manhattan’s Nolita district.  Burch’s style has been described as preppy-boho and preppy-bohemian luxe, and is associated with her T-logo medallion. After its launch, her brand catapulted to success due to an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey as “the next big thing in fashion.” Today, the company has grown internationally to include ready-to-wear, shoes, handbags, accessories, watches, home decor, and a beauty collection, available in 160 Tory Burch stores and over 3,000 department and specialty stores.

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Christian Dior – 41

From WWII officer to Parisian fashion pioneer of femininity and luxury.

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Despite coming from a wealthy family, french fashion couturier, Christian Dior had to overcome many obstacles before establishing his iconic brand.  After the death of his mother and brother, Dior began to sell his fashion sketches to make ends meet. Dior held several jobs, including magazine illustrator, design assistant, and even officer in the French Army during WWII. Six years after Dior’s return to Paris, he founded his fashion house at the age of 41 with the backing of Boussac. Shortly after its launch, Dior exploded onto the Paris fashion scene with designs that defied post-war fabric restrictions and that reintroduced a femininity and luxury to women’s fashion during a grim post-war.  Throughout his career, Dior experienced much success as the first couturier to arrange licensed production of his designs, a mentor to his design assistant Yves Saint Laurent, and a fundamental pioneer in re-establishing Paris as the joyful fashion capital it had once been.

Rick Owens – 32

Fashion design dropout that was named groundbreaking designer.

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Before Rick Owens’ breakthrough Vogue show at New York Fashion Week, he was a design school dropout. Owens stopped his fashion design studies in Los Angeles to take classes in pattern-making and draping at a trade-technical school.  He started his career creating knock-offs of designer clothing.  In 1994, at the age of 32, Owens began his own fashion label selling exclusively to Charles Gallay, a hip, pioneering Los Angeles retailer.  In 2001 the designer, seeking international expansion, accepted a distribution deal with Eo Bocci Associati, relocating his production to Italy.  French Vogue’s publication of an image of Kate Moss  wearing one of his now famous leather jackets was key to Owens being respected as a new designer in the industry. Owens continued to establish himself as a groundbreaking designer through the recognition of many awards, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Perry Ellis Emerging Talent Award and Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award.

Giorgio Armani – 41

Left a career path in medicine for a journey in fashion and design.

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Giorgio Armani was pursuing a career in medicine before being captivated by fashion.  While completing his required military service he got a job at a department store in Milan where he assisted the photographer and designed the windows.  When his military service ended, Armani dropped out of university to pursue a career in fashion, starting at department stores then as a designer for Nino Cerruti. However, it wasn’t until Sergio Galeotti encouraged Armani to pursue freelance design work that the two became business partners.  In July 1975, Giorgio Armani S.P.A was founded.  The company’s first collection—a men’s clothing line—debuted when Armani was 42 years old. Today, Armani’s brand can be found in major department stores around the world along with 500 exclusive retail stores. He has also expanded his design ventures by opening hotels in Dubai and Milan.

Vivienne Westwood – 30

Left teaching to bring modern punk and new wave fashion mainstream.

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Did you know Vivienne Westwood was a teacher before launching her modern punk fashion line? At the age of 30, Westwood opened a boutique “Let It Rock” with her partner Malcolm McLaren, who was also a designer.  The business really took off when McLaren started managing the punk band Sex Pistols.  As the band famously rocked Westwood and McLaren’s designs their brand was credited for bringing modern punk and new wave fashions into the mainstream. In addition to the original boutique (which is now called Worlds Ends), Westwood went on to open four shops in London, eventually expanding throughout the United Kingdom and the world.

Amancio Ortega – 36

Hand-made clothes locally before creating an international retail empire.

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Amancio Ortega’s very low profile makes him a name unknown by many of his supporters. Ortega is responsible for creating the fashion-forward giant, Zara, at the age of 36. Ortega’s humble beginnings as a shop hand for a local shirtmaker taught him how to make clothes by hand.  A few years later, Ortega started Confecciones Goa, where he sold quilted bathrobes produced by local women.  He used those same bathware and lingerie to launch Zara in 1975. By the mid-1980’s, Ortega had opened many big Zara Stores throughout Spain, and was ready to take his brand international. Today Zara is part of the Inditex group, of which Ortega owns 59.29%, making him the 4th richest billionaire according to Forbes.

Oscar de la Renta – 33 

Feminine and flirty fashion fit for U.S. first ladies.

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Oscar de la Renta was raised in a middle-class household in the Dominican Republic before moving to Madrid to study painting.  At the Academy of San Fernando, de la Renta pursued becoming an abstract painter but instead became captivated by fashion design. He started his career in fashion as an apprentice to Spain’s most renowned couturier, Cristobal Balenciaga. In 1963, he had moved to New York and joined the American design house of Elizabeth Arden. Finally at the age of 33, he began his own ready-to-wear label, establishing his signature feminine and flattering style. By the late ’90s and early 2000s, his work became the preferred wear of American first ladies like  Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. During his career, de la Renta was a patron of the arts, serving on the boards of The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and Channel Thirteen/WNET. He also supported several cultural institutions, including New Yorkers for Children, the Americas Society and the Spanish Institute.

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