Priceless Career Advice From L.A.’s Top Millennial Designers

Photography by David Cortes.
Everyone has a dream job: For a lot young people, it involves striking out on your own and launching a business where you get to call the shots. But, how does one get there — much less before even turning 30? In the spirit of gleaning some primo professional inspiration, we talked to a handful of L.A. fashion designers all in different stages of their careers.

They each have their own unique stories, but one big thing in common: None of these women have had any formal design training. Not one of them went to fashion school, and they've all funded their collections themselves. These women all got where they are today through good old-fashioned hard work. Translation: They're the perfect people to turn to for inspiring career advice — no matter your industry.

We visited each of them in their work spaces, homes, and stores for a hefty dose of professional insight. (And yes, we also lusted after all of their designs on our way out.) Now sit back, click through our slideshow, and prepare for an exhilirating buzz of career inspo. 
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Photography by David Cortes.
Janessa Leoné, 28
Designer, Janessa Leoné
Leoné grew up in San Diego and moved to Los Angeles after studying English at USD. She runs her business in Santa Monica with a small handful of employees. Her line is in its second year and can be purchased at stores like Barneys New York and Nordstrom.

Tell us about your background.
"I studied English literature in college and I was planning on going to law school, but then I decided that wasn’t the path for me. I knew I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what that was. So, I just started nannying to try and figure it out."

Have you always been a hat person?
"I didn’t know there were ‘hat people’ until I started the line, but yes, I am!"

How was the line born?
"I had this idea that I wanted to make hats, so I just kept nannying and saving money so I could do it. I moved to Los Angeles three years ago, made samples, and a friend gave me the addresses of a few editors and stylists. I started sending people hats and everyone was very supportive; it was kind of a crazy, whirlwind experience. From there, I just started really trying to focus on it, but I was still nannying and doing this on the side. I continued to develop this idea, shot a lookbook and line sheets, then decided to just go for it."
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Photography by David Cortes.
How did you know how to get started?
"A year or two of Google searching. I was living in San Diego and started calling people I found online — real hat aficionados — from Maine to Texas. I ended up talking to a bunch of cowboys, because they have these bespoke milliners that make their hats. They were all really excited to help me; I found that milliners all kind of want to bring real hat-making back to the mainstream, so people were really enthusiastic. Then, I finally found my first manufacturer in Canada, from a recommendation from someone I spoke to in Texas. I went to Canada, and started working with them immediately. It was a lot of legwork, a lot of really frustrating Google searches!"

When did you decide to quit nannying and do this full-time?
"Years later, I had employees and I was still a part-time nanny, because everything was being funded by me; I haven’t taken any investor money. I was getting paid well, so it made sense for me to keep working both. I have only been fully doing this for about a year now. It was a hard decision to quit, but I just got to the point where it made the most sense for me to do this full-time. It was a scary decision, but it ended up being a great decision. I just took a leap and went for it."
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Photography by David Cortes.
What is the most challenging part of this journey?
"One of the biggest challenges is to try not to get bogged down by the business side, and continue to create good things. My biggest personal challenge is putting that all on the back burner. Even though it’s stressful, and the business side is so pressing, you have to focus on creating good stuff.

"I don’t have a business background, so it's been hard trying to run a real business and maneuver production and finances. It's constant frustration and a big learning curve."

Being in Barneys New York has been huge for you. How did that happen?
"They found us; I’m not even sure how or where, but they’re really good at breaking emerging designers. When I'm starting something new, they'll get on the phone with me and give me advice."
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Photography by David Cortes.
Have you had any moments when you wanted to quit?
"Every day. Truly, every day. Most recently, I have had moments when I say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ But, at the end of the day, it’s self-indulgent to feel that way, because I am so lucky to be doing what I’m doing."

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?

"I would say, ‘Just do it!’ I had that internal struggle for a long time. When I was in college, I knew that I wanted to do something like this. And, even after college, I knew it was the only thing that would make me happy, but I didn’t feel like I had what it took. I constantly made excuses and constantly put it off. Then finally, on my 25th birthday, I said ‘I need to do this.’ From that point forward, I decided not to look back. You just have to make that decision that you’re going to do it, and do whatever it takes."
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Photography by David Cortes.
Cynthia Sakai, 33
Designer, Vita Fede
Sakai was born and bred in Southern California. She foundedVita Fede in 2008, and currently runs the company out of offices in downtown Los Angeles (the company also has a second small space in Italy). She has dozens of employees, and her jewelry can be found in stores around the world.

How did you get your start in fashion?
"I started an accessory line when I was 18; we had jewelry, bags, and nail polish, and I did that for three years. Then, I opened a showroom downtown when I was 21; we had lines that ranged from contemporary to high-end."

Wow, you really hit the ground running!
"Well, when I first started my business when I was 18, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what an invoice was, and I didn't know anyone in the industry except for my mom, who owned a retail store. All that I knew is that I wanted to make something and I needed to sell something. I literally went door to door myself to sell my products."
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Photography by David Cortes.
How did you launch Vita Fede?
"At the time, I was in the Cooper building, and my friend who owned a showroom across from me had just gone on a buying trip to Italy. She came back and gave me a few of these bracelets that are very iconic and really represent Florence. I thought, 'Wow, these are so cool and they’re really well made.' I had never seen them here, and I said, 'I really want to show them at the showroom!'"

How did you find them?
"I scrounged up all of my money and got on a flight to Florence the week after. I walked all over Florence with the bracelets in my hand, and went to every retail store looking for more. Keep in mind: I don’t speak Italian and had never been to Italy! I went from door to door, and I finally found a retail store that had them! I said, ‘I want to get a bunch of these, but I want to change the colors. Can you make me samples?’ They worked with the factory to make them, and a few days later I brought them back with me to the showroom. That season, we sold about 10,000 units. We sold them to Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Fred Segal. It was really cool."

How did you transition from that into a full-blown jewelry brand?
"After we sold the 10,000 units, the factory found me because they wanted me to buy directly from them. We started working together, and now we’re working with five different factories in Italy. I closed the showroom to focus on Vita full-time."
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Photography by David Cortes.
What have been your biggest challenges?
"They have changed every few years, depending on where I am in the business. When I first started, it was how do we keep up with production, how do we keep the quality good as we produce more? Then, it became how do we brand and market the products? Now, it's how do we keep innovating and pushing ourselves forward?"

What are the not-so-glamorous parts of your job?
"99.99% of my job is unglamorous! People look at fashion like they look at entertainment. They look at it as designers are celebrities, but behind all of that is 16- or 17-hour days. It’s being on a plane, getting off a plane, getting back on a plane. I'm in 17 countries this year; I travel seven months out of the year. You’re constantly running and you never have enough time."
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Photography by David Cortes.
Is there anything you wish you knew when you started?
"It’s really important to know what everyone else in your industry is doing, but that shouldn’t consume what you’re doing and where you want to go. The most important thing is to come up with a fresh idea, or look into the market and see where the void is. Sometimes, the ideas that you think are crazy are the ideas that push you to create and become who you end up being."

Do you have any inspiring words for someone who wants to work in fashion?
"My advice to anyone is to have a clear vision of exactly what you want to do. It can be as crazy as, 'Someday, I want to have a store and the door is going to look like this, and the shelves will look like that.' It's good to be as precise as possible in your vision, because you are your brand. And, if you don’t have a clear-cut vision, you’ll never be able to show people on your team what your vision is, or be able to stay on a straight path. When you know what your path is, then every day you work toward that goal, and it becomes a building block to get there."
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Photography by David Cortes.
Anine Bing, 32
Designer, Anine Bing
Bing is Swedish, but was born in Denmark and has been living in Los Angeles for over 10 years. She began modeling at age 15, became a recording artist under the name Kill Your Darlings, and blogs at Anine's World . She operates her company in downtown Los Angeles with her husband (he does production; she designs). She has stores in Los Angeles and New York, and sells to over 400 stores worldwide. Her line is in its third year.

You've been in the industry for years as a model. When did you decide to move on to the other side of the business?
"I started thinking about it four years ago, but I started the actual line three years ago. I just felt that something was missing in the market. I like basic clothes with a rock-'n'-roll twist, and I was always looking for the perfect pair of jeans, but I couldn’t find them. I started the line to create the perfect jeans, then slowly I started adding in basic tees. Then, it grew into jackets, shoes, and finally, jewelry."

You guys move fast! What have been some of your biggest advantages?
"I'm lucky that I knew a lot about social media. I started at the right time, when not a lot of people understood digital marketing. I didn’t do it the traditional way; I just launched my line through Instagram and with bloggers."

What have been some of the biggest challenges?
"It is so much hard work. And, there are so many challenges in production. From samples being wrong, to jean sizes being too small — there are a lot of things that can go wrong."

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Photography by David Cortes.
What were your biggest successes early on?
"After only thee months, we sold to some big stores in L.A., like Satine and Madison, and a few really good stores in Europe. It all happened really quickly, and I realized, 'Wow, this is a real brand and not just a hobby.'"

What was the transition like from jeans and tees to shoes and accessories?
"Shoes happened really quickly, after just a few months. I added boots, which is what got us on the fashion map, because a few celebrities started wearing the brand. Jewelry was a year later."

How do you stay fresh and relevant to your consumer three years in?

"We do about 20 new pieces a month. I go in and start the design process, then I have a team that works on it, and I go back in and finish it up. Basically, whatever I want in my own closet is what I design, and I get inspired everywhere. I couldn’t find the perfect bra, so I just made my own. I guess I design very selfishly — but, luckily, the rest of the world seems to like it, too."
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Photography by David Cortes.
Were there ever any moments when you wanted to quit?
"Yeah, I [often] feel that it’s a little bit too much, but especially in the beginning. And, working with my husband means there is never a break — even when we're home, we work. We put the kids to bed, then we work. But, you have to take those moments to work super hard in the beginning. Eventually it’s important to take a day off, take a weekend off, to reward yourself."

What are the best and worst parts of being an entrepreneur?
"The best part is that you get to build your own company. And, in my case, I own everything, so that’s a really rewarding feeling. The hardest part is that there is never a stopping point; there isn’t an off switch. When normal people go home from their office at 5 p.m., they’re off. That's not how it works when you're the owner."
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Photography by David Cortes.
As you've grown, what are the things you won't compromise on?
"I focus on designing in really good materials, a lot of silks and linens, good leather, and cashmere. The goal is that I want everything to be really nice, so you can build a good, basic closet."

Do you have any inspiring words for young entrepreneurs?
"You have to be smart and know what you’re good at, and what you’re not. Maybe you are a great designer, but you don’t know how social media works. There are so many connected parts starting a business. You have to find out what you’re good at and focus on that. If you’re not good with numbers, you have to find a person who is. In the beginning, I tried to do everything, and it was just draining and frustrating, because you can’t be everywhere and do everything yourself."
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Photography by David Cortes.
Lulu Chang, 29
Designer, The Fashion Club
Chang was born in Shanghai, grew up in San Francisco, and lived in New York briefly after studying at UC Berkeley. She cut her teeth as an intern for Alexander Wang, and blogs at Lulu and Your Mom. The Fashion Club is in its second season, operating out of a live/work space in the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Tell me about your background.
“I was born in Shanghai, but my family came to San Francisco so my father could finish his MFA; he’s a really amazingly-talented painter. So, I really grew up between two worlds. I didn’t go to fashion school and I don’t have a traditional fashion résumé. I went to UC Berkeley and studied English and political science."

Was living in San Francisco inspiring?
“There are a lot of art schools in San Francisco, but less jobs, so there were a lot of angsty kids who had graduated, but didn’t want to leave their friends. So, there are a lot of creatives in the city. I was there when all of these warehouse parties and creative things were happening. Now it's different, and a lot of those kids have moved to L.A.”

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Photography by David Cortes.
How did you end up in Los Angeles?
“At UC Berkeley, I took a class on utopia and dystopia, and the example of dystopia was Los Angeles. It’s gritty and kind of messed up, but you can’t fix it. I had never been here and just thought, 'What is this place?!'”

And, how did you get your start in fashion?

“I don’t have training in fashion, but I feel like if you’re smart and you have passion for it, who cares? You’ll figure it out. I interned with Alexander Wang when I was young; I was their sample-sale girl, and would help out when they were getting ready for runway shows, which I liked. But as far as design, I’ve never felt that I’d found myself more than during the process of becoming a maker.”

You're in your second season. What’s the biggest expense of starting The Fashion Club?
"People don’t realize how much of an investment it is to start a ready-to-wear collection. In the beginning, all of your money is going to go to your sewers, especially in L.A. This city known for fast fashion, so it’s hard to find good sewers. When you do, you have to hold onto them, give them work, and make sure that you’re paying them well."
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Photography by David Cortes.
What's been the biggest challenge?
"I run my own production...and I hope not to one day!"

How are you funding your line?

"I helped build this digital network called Chictopia when I was 22, and I still freelance in digital tech, mostly UI and UX stuff. Sometimes, you have to do jobs that are part of your skill set to pay the bills."

Your collection is very curated. How do you decide what to create?
"I want to make wearable clothes, but nothing is a compromise. If I add even a T-shirt, it means something; it has a purpose. It grows a little bit more organically that way."

What are your long-term goals?

"I love the idea of creating a lifestyle label. I want to throw parties, and make shoes and bags; I want to do a 360 brand."
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Photography by David Cortes.
How has the line grown from last season?
"This season, we’re introducing so much stuff — knits, denim, and a print for the first time — all of these things that I couldn’t do before [because I didn’t have the resources] that I can now!"

Do you have any advice for young designers?

"I think you find success when you’re ready for it. If the line had started any earlier, I wouldn’t have had all my numbers and customer figured out — and I do now, so I feel really good. Also, you have to find your team!"

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