Established Designers with Famous Mentors, Where Are They Now?
“Don’t be afraid to take time to learn. It’s good to work for other people. I worked for others for 20 years. They paid me to learn.” – Vera Wang
Providing practical advice, encouragement and support, mentors may be one of the most important and impactful people to ever grace one’s life. Besides learning from the experiences of others, they provide crucial insights which eventually boost the social, and professional confidence of those they inspire. While venturing into new career fields and environments is often viewed as daunting, immense research in the topic has proven the transformative power mentors have as leaders.
According to Olivet Nazarene University, people with mentors are happier at their current jobs than those without, and only 14% of mentor relationships started by asking someone to be their mentor, the other 61% of those relationships developed naturally. With so many of today’s influential and venerated names in various business sectors crediting their instructors as the supportive catalysts who forged positive work ethics into their consciousness and steered them into discovering the lucrative paths that made them who they are, it is clear that mentors exist across all professional fields, including the luxury fashion industry.
Beyond seasonal collections, beautiful clothes, and the glorification of ‘luxury’, much of the fashion industry operates behind the scenes. As such, there are the longstanding industry moguls – such as Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo, and Ralph Lauren – and the young bloods who appear seemingly out of nowhere. Contrary to how it looks, a young designer’s time spent in the limelight is by no mistake, but instead the reward of working closely with those who have inspired generations.
The Protegees of Miuccia Prada
Frequently pegged by the press as “the oracle of high fashion”, Miuccia Prada is the co-chief executive and co-creative director of the Italian handbag and fashion label Prada, and the creative director of Miu Miu. As the youngest granddaughter of Mario Prada, Miuccia established herself as a designer through transforming her family’s modest leather goods house into one of fashion’s ready-to-wear powerhouses. Armed with a PhD in political science, a history of mime artistry, and working at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, Miuccia entered the family business in 1978 and eventually began designing for her family’s then accessories house in 1985, producing a line of black lightweight backpacks that were an immediate success.
Regarded as the 79th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2017, Miuccia Prada was the esteemed recipient of the CFDA International Designer Award in 2004 and the first International Designer of the Year at the 2013 British Fashion Awards. Speaking to a broad range of cerebral concepts that are rooted in feminism and the female experience, Miuccia Prada was the ideal mentor to Stefano Pilati, and Gherardo Felloni — as she taught each man to dispel snobbish approaches to beauty, whilst seeing the value in every stage of production.
Trained as a land surveyor with early interests in architecture, Stefano Pilati never imagined himself joining the fashion industry but upon gaining an internship with Nino Cerruti at the prime age of 17, the designer finally found himself in his element. Catapulting from one job to another, it wasn’t long before Stefano Pilati was designing entire collections for small-time businesses and presenting them in Europe.
Eventually recruited by Prada to run the company’s research and development division for textiles and fabrics in 1995, Stefano Pilati swiftly rose through the ranks, thanks to his immense knowledge and an acute eye for detail. Promoted to assistant designer at Miu Miu in 1998, Pilati delved deeper into men and women’s ready-to-wear clothing and reported directly to Miuccia Prada.
Although Stefano Pilati eventually went on to greater opportunities including, an appointment as Creative Director of Yves Saint Laurent in 2004, and Head of Design at Ermenegildo Zegna in 2012, the designer has long accredited his success to his past industry experience and various mentorships. In a previous interview with GQ, the designer recounts, “I have repeatedly had close friends and colleagues advise me to listen to my inner voice and to believe in myself… My past positions at the houses where I have worked helped to teach me and eventually resulted in me working in the role I have today, as the creative director of my own brand, Random Identities, which is an especially authoritative and beautiful position to hold.”
Today, Stefano Pilati is based in Berlin and has been keeping a low profile. Having introduced his first-ever solo project in 2018, the designer remains focused on testing the personality of clothes and one’s interactions with it. Dubbed ‘Random Identities’, the project is an ode to the randomness of existence, and represents his response to that randomness. Conceptualised with a goal of integrating new codes indicative of the 21st century’s gender shift, whilst creating a space where people can identify themselves not with trends, but with personality, function, quality, and design – Stefano Pilati’s work is characterised by a sense of personal freedom and less limiting approaches to his life.
Born in Tuscany, Italy, to a family of shoemakers, Gherardo Felloni, unlike his family, found passion elsewhere. As such, the young designer spent much of his youth exploring, up till 1958 when his uncle and father founded a shoe factory, where they created samples for Hermès and Gucci. With the knowledge of shoemaking ingrained from a young age, it was not long before Gherardo Felloni followed in his family’s footsteps, carving a career path in shoemaking.
Eventually branching out of his family business, Gherardo Felloni found adventure in heading up the footwear atelier of Dior, before overseeing accessories at Miu Miu. Having worked for a variety of exceptional creatives including Helmut Lang, John Galliano and Raf Simons, Gherardo Felloni attributes different portions of his success to each of his past experiences. When reminiscing his time at Miu Miu, Gherardo Felloni remembers Miuccia Prada as being “the first to see beauty in trash”. In fact, in a prior interview with L’Officiel Singapore, Gherardo Felloni states, “I learnt to abandon a snobbish approach to beauty… and working for her was a long exercise in mental elasticity… I learned how to manage a brand, and I was one of the few people given the opportunity to express themselves within the Prada group, which I am extremely grateful for.”
Today, Gherardo Felloni is living his dream as the creative director of Roger Vivier, taking over from Bruno Frisoni, who stepped down after 16 years. Diving deep into the brand’s expansive archives, Gherardo Felloni is revered for his ability to transform ‘old’ into ‘new’, ‘traditional’ into ‘modern’, and ‘trash’ into ‘beauty’.
The Protegees of Rei Kawakubo
As the founder of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, this Japanese fashion designer based in Tokyo and Paris, is celebrated for her monochromatic, voluminous, and asymmetrical designs. Balancing a fierce sense of aesthetic independence with a strong business acumen, Rei Kawakubo is one of the very few creative individuals who have successfully bridged the seemingly impossible gap between artistry and commerce.
Despite positioning herself as a largely elusive and inaccessible public figure, Rei Kawakubo’s support and influence to young and emerging avant-garde designers is palpable. In fact, her retail brainchild known as Dover Street Market is the place where her forward-thinking acolytes are able to bring forth their unique perspectives to fashion fanatics who actively go against mainstream trends. After all, every Comme des Garçons designer, no matter how different in presentation, appeal or influence, shares one significant similarity with Rei Kawakubo: a desire to create something different, new, and creative.
Joining the Comme des Garçons family after graduating from London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins School for fashion design in 1997, Tao Kurihara dedicated eight years of her career working under the creative minds of Junya Watanabe and Rei Kawakubo. Under their supervision, Kurihara’s earliest work which involved the simple combination of knits and lingerie, quickly transformed into more elaborate, flowing, blustery one-piece dresses and suits. Her most notable collections include the 2005 concept involving vintage Swiss handkerchiefs, knitted haphazardly into trench coats, and the Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection dubbed ‘My Holy Tribe’.
Like all protegees of Rei Kawakubo, Kurihara, whose label is called just ‘Tao’, has since given the world some of the most brilliantly beautiful and proudly innovative designs that the past decade has ever seen. Heavily indulging in whimsical fantasies, Tao Kurihara is best known for her time as Head Designer of Tricot Comme des Garçons, and her ability to ‘create without compromise’ – unapologetically alternating between punk and childhood influences.
Born in Fukushima, Japan, Watanabe was educated at the Bunka Fashion Institute in Tokyo, graduating in 1984. Immediately beginning his career as an apprentice patternmaker for Commes des Garçons, it was not long before he established himself in the company, with his distinct avant-garde design aesthetics. As the unofficial protege of Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe worked his way up from ground zero, and in 1987, was named the design director for Commes des Garçons Tricot knitwear line.
Holding the position up till 1992, Watanabe eventually moved on to launch his namesake label under the Commes des Garçons umbrella, presenting his first collection in Paris, followed by a menswear line in 2005. Notoriously unconventional, Watanabe often utilises synthetic and advanced textiles and fabrics in his creations, whilst omitting advertising and avoiding traditional stores.
The protegees of Ralph Lauren
Drawing on the practical and active lifestyle of American sports, Ralph Lauren built his multi-billion dollar fashion empire from scratch. As one of four siblings born in the Bronx, New York City, to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who had fled Belarus, Ralph Lauren (or Ralph Lifshitz) began designing his own men’s neckties with a wider cut, while working for the tie manufacturer Beau Brummell in 1967. Branding his work under the name “Polo” and selling them at large department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Lauren eventually acquired a $30,000 loan which enabled him to expand his business.
Accredited for making American fashion just as glamorous as European styles while simultaneously forming a commercially successful aesthetic, Ralph Lauren is known for capitalising off an aspirational sophistication and key insignia which evoke the British gentry while also referencing the aesthetics of the American upper class. Offering a series of approachable yet fashionable looks, alongside luxurious collections, the Ralph Lauren brand has since diversified significantly to include clothing for men, women and children, interior furnishings, and fragrances, with hundreds of internationally placed stores, including factory stores that produce the majority of his sales domestically.
Once upon a time, not too far into the past, the bridal world was plagued by cliché and stereotypical designs which often incorporated an abundance of sequins, lacy bits, fancy puffed sleeves and full, stiff and poufy skirts. Having spent 15 years as a senior fashion editor at Vogue, and then a design director for Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang was well-equipped to understand everything that was wrong with the bridal design industry – but none could’ve predicted the illustrious career she has created as the leading couture wedding dress designer, she is today.
In Wang’s words, her experience working with Ralph Lauren was nothing short of incredible. Allowing her the liberty to be as creative or subdued as she saw fit, Vera Wang’s time with Ralph Lauren had exposed her to the endless possibilities fashion had to offer, “The budgets and the staff… as many ideas as you could come up with, that’s what they could execute. Very few companies can do that, myself included. So it was like a candy box.” Thus her experience as design director had in fact, played a significant role in cultivating the creative independence which inspired her to strive for more, not merely settling for what was already available in the market but instead to create something new.
Now the head of a prosperous brand that stretches beyond core bridal and ready-to-wear, into publishing, fragrance, beauty, accessories and home products, Vera Wang’s collections are positioned at the highest end of the luxury market, and are driven by artistic, modern and luxurious couture-like quality. As the designer once most notably said, “Don’t be afraid to take time to learn. It’s good to work for other people. I worked for others for 20 years. They paid me to learn.”
There are many things to be said about the esteemed Thom Browne. Devilishly charming, and often buttoned-up into strictly tailored suits, Thom Browne is the American fashion designer, best known for his eponymous fashion label and contributions as creative development head for Club Monaco, a casual clothing retail brand owned by Ralph Lauren.
Revered for his aesthetic and theatrical presentations, Thom Browne is otherwise known as the vanguard of New York’s fashion scene – thanks to his uniquely innovative and fashion-forward silhouettes for both men and women. Truly a jack of all trades, Browne is well-equipped with a business degree from Notre Dame, and has even tried his hand at acting in L.A. Guided and moulded by Ralph Lauren at some of the lowest points in his early life, it was clear even then, that Browne possessed an indisputably remarkable eye for fashion and a flair for all-things luxurious – thus beginning a new chapter as the face of Club Monaco.
Believing that the ubiquity of casual dressing had created a gap in the market, Browne began to view the idea of sophistication as almost synonymous with rebellion and ‘anti-establishment’ ideals. As a result, the designer tailored his first five suits, wearing them around town in a form of guerrilla advertising, whilst imploring friends and contacts to buy them from him. Having created silhouettes which have since transformed into an inseparable component of 21st-century tailoring, Thom Browne is especially renowned for his collection’s avant-garde sensibility, and made-to-measure services.
The 21st-century business landscape is ever changing, especially now with an ongoing global pandemic which has entirely transformed the way governments and industries operate. Increasingly, brands of various sizes are vying for attention online such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Collina Strada, as such, learning to navigate the unpredictable terrains of business with a combination of soft and hard skills is crucial. On some level, mentorship provides young professionals (even seasoned designers can benefit from having a mentor) with a peek into the future, allowing them to visualise their goals and manifest them at a rate quicker than it would have otherwise been. Providing a different perspective on everyday tasks and even bigger challenges, mentors are not only teachers but a source of inspiration, which motivate the growth of further ambition.