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Designers Offer Words of Wisdom for Future Fashion Leaders

On Wednesday the White House welcomed fashion’s elite to share their stories with over 150 students during the Fashion Education Workshop, an event aimed at showing young people what it takes to succeed in the fashion industry.

During a panel discussion, designers Diane von Furstenberg, Tracy Reese, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Edward Wilkerson and J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons, offered advice on finding internships, stressed the importance of hard work, and gave insight on the highs and lows every designer encounters.

Here are some of the panel’s highlights.

On The Early Years

Prabal Gurung: “When I told everyone—besides my family, my family was very supportive—that I wanted to come to America… that I applied to Parsons school and I told everyone that I wanted to study fashion, everyone was like, ‘Well that’s a good hobby, but what do you really want to do?’”

Diane von Furstenberg: “What is important is that the foundation is serious. That is the most important thing… Most of us, a lot of us, don’t know really where we are going to go and don’t know what we are going to do. And when you are young its most important that first you study, because that first moment of studying—that is what will stay with you forever. Life is full of possibilities and there are doors there, and sometimes it’s a door that you don’t think is a good door for you at all, but you push the door and your life changes. So my advice to anyone is keep your eyes open and be open. Be open to everything. Be curious, and you know, when I met a man who had a factory, a printing factory… He came and invited me to intern and look at what he did. I had no idea that this man was going to be the most important person in my life. And then I came to America and I made a few little dresses in a factory… At first I was very shy about it and then I walked into Vogue and there was Diana Vreeland—the Anna Wintour of my time. Nobody understood these dresses that didn’t look like anything else, but she said this is great. She encouraged me… that was 1972. In 1976, I was in this room having dinner. I was next to President Ford at the time and I was also on the cover of Newsweek at 28. That was my moment. It was just a few years, but it doesn’t mean that after that it has been all heaven and roses since because it isn’t. It is never roses. There are always difficulties. The challenges change and everything, but the most important thing is to be serious and to be true to yourself because truth will never fail.”

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Jenna Lyons: “I was super skinny and tall… I would shop in the big and tall section. There were no J Brand jeans or tall and skinny—that did not exist, so I looked a little strange because I was dressed in gigantic clothes. Anyway, I took a home ec class… and one of the things was we had to learn to sew… but what was incredible was we actually had to make something for ourselves and I had to measure my own body and actually make a pattern and when I did that I made this watermelon skirt, which I really remember distinctly. I went to school the next day and the most popular girl in the school asked me where I got my skirt. It was the first time anyone had given me a compliment on something that I had done, but also how I looked, and not only was it fun for me to make but I realized how transformative the experience was.”

Tracy Reese: “I won a scholarship for a Parsons summer program for high school students. And I was always very focused in school and very competitive, mostly in a good way, and it was important for me to achieve and get good grades. That allowed me to get scholarships. The summer program for high school students was amazing and I encourage you all to look for these opportunities. They are not going to present themselves to you, necessarily, but if there is something that you are interested in then do the research. Find out what opportunities are available to you. How can you access your dream?”

On Commitment

Edward Wilkerson: “At Parsons, during my junior year they told me they didn’t think I had what it takes… and I was already working. I got my first summer job at Anne Klein in my junior year of high school… I exposed myself to people. I actually got my job in junior year by walking to up and down Seventh Avenue and riding elevators to see who could see my portfolio. It’s amazing that I didn’t get any response from the smaller houses. When I went to Calvin Klein they said come back in an hour. I went down to Anne Klein and I was hired.”

Prabal Gurung: “I learned early on that fame is the byproduct of hard work… I always question, “How long are you willing to go on?” That kind of commitment is what I think is going to take you further because talent alone isn’t going to do it. Passion alone isn’t going to do it. I think the grit factor is extremely important… The willingness to make mistakes that is the first thing that you need to appreciate. Just go for it.

On Hard Work

Diane von Furstenberg: “When you are an intern, remember one thing: Be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave and they’ll notice you.”

Tracy Reese: “Do every job on the way up. Treat every experience like you own the company. If you are sweeping the floors then be the best floor cleaner. You have to experience everything… I’ve shipped, I’ve picked and packed, I’ve written invoices, I’ve calculated my orders—because this was before computers—and I’ve cut my production, I’ve sat in factories, I’ve put hangtags on my clothes and poly-bagged. I’ve gather them up and run them to receiving at stores.”

Diane von Furstenberg: “Hard work is actually fun when you like the work. If you like what you do, it is fun. And the most humiliating moments that you encounter will end up being your best souvenirs and stories when you are famous.”

On Making an Impression

Edward Wilkerson: “I learn so much from the interns I have because of the technology today. They teach me. They actually enhance my work.”

Jason Wu: “Be personal… Just by a simple note that has no frills can mean the world. I keep all of my notes, and I just think that they are something that I really remember—especially today with so much noise. There is so much disposable things that when someone takes the time to make something handwritten it stands out. Trust me, it always get to the person no matter how big the office is.”

Diane von Furstenberg: “Work on your portfolio. Your portfolio is not just important to the people you show it to but its important to you… And much later if you look at it, it actually said a lot about who you are and what you became.”

On Designing

Jason Wu: “Designers are like blenders. We take all of the things that we experience—not just the visual things—but things that we experience, things that we hear and see and things that we feel that may or may not happen in our industry. In fact, don’t look for inspiration just in your field. Look for it outside your field because that’s where I think you find fresh ideas.

Diane von Furstenberg: “I just like to make it practical and sexy and somehow combine it, you know. Everyone goes their own way, everyone finds their own DNA.”