Hugely successful fashion designers on what they would be if they weren’t designers at all

That woman on the left? That could have been Miuccia Prada.
That woman on the left? That could have been Miuccia Prada.
Image: AP Photo/Petr David Josek
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Career paths don’t always run in a straight line, even for those who reach the top of their profession. In fashion, that might be especially true, considering that the industry was much smaller and more exclusive just a few decades back, when today’s top designers were still figuring out what they wanted to do for a living.

Several of today’s most famous and successful fashion designers, in fact, didn’t initially set out to be designers at all. In school, many studied other things. Some came to fashion by accident, and others because their first career choice didn’t work out.

The seven examples below are reminders that unexpected career twists can have wonderful consequences.

Miuccia Prada, mime

Before there was fashion for the founder of Prada, there were politics—and mime. Despite her conservative family, which owned a shop that sold luxury leather goods, Prada was a committed leftist. But while studying for a PhD in political science, she found herself drawn to learning mime at the Piccolo Teatro. ”The theatre was a place where things were happening, where the avant-garde was taking shape,” she told the Guardian in 2012. “But of all that what I found strangest was mime.” She even performed in some operas and television commercials.

Prada never lost her taste for “beautiful things,” though, and after earning her degree, began working with her mother designing bags. In 1978, she got into an argument at a leather fair with a Tuscan entrepreneur, Patrizio Bertelli, who owned two leather-goods companies. They ultimately became business partners (pdf), then got married, then had two sons. Along the way, they built Prada into an international luxury brand, which for decades has been among the most influential in the industry.

Raf Simons, furniture designer

The former creative director of Dior and Jil Sander might have had a career making furniture, if not for an internship he did with designer Walter Van Beirendonck. “I don’t have a fashion background at all,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I found a book in school about architecture with information about what kind of studies you can do, and in the back there was information about industrial design.” Simons enrolled, and eventually focused on furniture.

But the program required an internship, and Simons reached out to Van Beirendonck, one of the “Antwerp Six” designers, including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, who introduced Belgian fashion to the world. He faked a fashion portfolio, but it was his actual work in the back of that portfolio—”the stupidest things, like an egg holder or something,” Simons said—that landed him the position. He subsequently changed course away from furniture, though his background proved useful in 2014, when he collaborated on a furniture collection with Danish label Kvadrat.

Thom Browne, Hollywood actor

Perhaps there’s a shared sense of theatrics in fashion and performance; Thom Browne, one of the most renowned designers in the US, tried to make it as an actor before settling on a career in clothes. He moved to Los Angeles not long after receiving a degree in business and made an attempt at stardom. No blockbuster hits came, though he did apparently make it into a commercial for pain-relief Motrin, playing a runner with a pain in his side.

In 1998, he gave up on Hollywood and moved to New York. “I really just needed a job and it just happened to be in fashion,” he told Business of Fashion. The job was a wholesale position at Giorgio Armani, which Browne eventually parlayed into a gig at Club Monaco. He had experimented with shrinking down his suits in the past, and the new role put him in touch with a skilled tailor, who Browne used to launch his namesake line in 2001.

Yohji Yamamoto, attorney-at-law

One of Japan’s most famed and successful designers, Yamamoto has said he didn’t even know one could design as a job when he started. In 1966, he graduated with a law degree from a Tokyo university, and only decided to abandon the profession because he didn’t think he would be successful. “My friends were secure about their future because of their connections, but I had no connections,” Yamamoto once told People magazine. “So I thought it over and over and I decided to change my future. I decided not to become a businessman.”

His mother was a war widow and a dressmaker, and Yamamoto set out to help her by learning her trade. He enrolled at Bunka Fashion College, and then spent years working with her, freelancing, and trying to build his own business. It wasn’t until 1977 that the press took notice of his work, and Yamamoto, along with designers Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, came to define a new generation of Japanese fashion.

Alber Elbaz, M.D.

Unique in this list, Elbaz, who resurrected the house of Lanvin but was recently forced out of his position, was actually a designer before nearly turning down a different path. He was Yves Saint Laurent’s chosen successor at YSL, but he was fired when Tom Ford and the Gucci Group took over in 1999. Devastated, Elbaz briefly left fashion.

“The big question was, ‘Do I want to stay in fashion, or study to be a doctor?'” he recalled to Business of Fashion. He reportedly also considered becoming a nurse, but didn’t want to be second-in-command. Ultimately, he remained in fashion, and secured the role of creative director at Lanvin, where he stayed for 14 years.

Karl Lagerfeld, illustrator 

The long-time creative director of Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld started his career in fashion at an early age, but he came to clothing through another channel. “I wanted to be an illustrator and a potter before I was in fashion, and I was in fashion nearly by accident,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. To hone his skills as an illustrator, he would study books of costumes and draw them, but he didn’t seriously consider a career in fashion design until later, since he wasn’t sure you could make a living from the job.

Marc Jacobs, video-store clerk 

Jacobs wasn’t exactly planning to be a clerk at a video store, but that’s what he says he would have been if he hadn’t been accepted to Parsons School of Design in New York. ”No plan B, I will go to Parsons or I will go work in a video store,” he recounted while accepting an award earlier this year.

“Luckily, I got accepted to Parsons. After all, I wouldn’t have had a very long career as a video clerk given the fact that there are no video stores in existence anymore.” His fashion career, during which he’s launched his own label and served as the creative director at Louis Vuitton, has been a decidedly more lucrative option.