Greatest Fashion Entrepreneurs of All Time

UPDATED: May 6, 2008
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2008

Ralph Lauren b. 1939 The name Ralph Lauren conjures images of classic Americana ensconced in high-end luxury, and that’s exactly how the New York-born fashion designer intended it. Instead of selling just clothes, he sold a lifestyle that he portrayed with his distinctive advertisements of fair-haired boys in khaki chinos, elegant brunettes in sharp, white, dress shirts and bright-eyed children in preppy, seersucker shorts. Sure, he sold the clothes, but he also sold the fantastic, romanticized lives of the people who wear the clothes—the look of success. While his fellow fashion designers started at the high end and filtered their brand downstream, Lauren was visionary in offering luxury at all price points.

Quote: "Quality before quantity. The essence of style is understatement."

Phil Knight b. 1938 Nike founder Phil Knight made athletic shoes sexy with slick advertising campaigns and celebrity-athlete endorsements. “You can’t explain much in 60 seconds, but when you show Michael Jordan, you don’t have to,” Knight said, referring to his innovative ad campaigns. And considering many of the company’s advertisements show only the trademark “swoosh” symbol without the mention of the company name, Knight’s branding has worked.

Quote: "Minimize your costs, but pay attention if it turns out your suppliers treat their employees badly-and do something about it."

Levi Strauss 1829-1902 Depending where you’re from, they’re called jeans, chaps, dungarees or denims. But the true test of a product is when a proper name is used to definitively describe its product category, and no product is more recognized the world over than Levi’s jeans. Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant, went to San Francisco during the Gold Rush to strike it rich—not by panning gold but by offering his wares to hard-working Forty-Niners. He struck out selling tents and wagon covers made of a durable canvas but saw its potential as a heavy-duty, rip-proof material for pants—or waist overalls as the miners called them.

Strauss opened a factory in San Francisco and began adding copper rivets at the stress points in his pants. He switched from canvas to a heavy blue denim material called genes in France, which became jeans in America. In 1873, Strauss and Nevada tailor Jacob Davis patented the process for putting rivets in pants for strength, and the world’s first jeans—Levi’s jeans—were born. Strauss’ innovation spawned an entirely new fashion movement and became an indelible American icon, along with baseball and apple pie.

Quote: "Quality control matters. Make sure consumers can rely on your goods. There is no such thing as too durable."


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