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The Real People Behind 10 Fashion Houses

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With all of the hype behind fantastically expensive one-named designers, we sometimes forget that somewhere down the line, one individual person actually opened up a store and probably never dreamed their clothes would sell for thousands of dollars (with a couple of exceptions, as you'll see). Here are the stories behind some of those one-named designers.

1. Gucci

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Guccio Gucci opened a small saddlery shop in 1906 and started selling practical leather bags to his horsemen customers sometime in the '20s. The quality of his work was so outstanding he quickly gained a reputation and started to expand his line. By 1938, he had a second store in Rome; the third store opened in Milan in 1951. By the time the fourth store opened in Manhattan in 1953, Guccio had died and his sons were running the business.

The brand was hot for a while, thanks to famous customers like Jackie O., Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. But the '80s were not good to Gucci—Guccio's grandsons were running the company into the ground. They started to dull the appeal of the high-end brand by agreeing to strange partnerships, like the time they designed the interior of the AMC Hornet station wagon. Knockoffs were everywhere, and the grandsons started fighting—physically. One business meeting ended in blows, and reportedly one of the grandsons bashed the other one in the head with an answering machine and knocked him out cold.

But when Rodolfo Gucci, one of Guccio's sons, died in 1983 and left his share to his son Maurizio, Maurizio pushed out his uncle Aldo and eventually sold the company, which went public. Non-Gucci-family-members were brought in as designers, presidents and CEOs, and the brand has flourished since. 

2. Prada

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Prada has a story similar to Gucci's, but the line is younger and the Italian city it started in is 155 miles north. Prada, founded by Mario Prada, dates back to Milan, Italy, 1913. Mario sold steamer trunks and imported handbags.

When Mario passed away in the '50s, his son wasn't really interested in taking over the leather goods store, and a woman running the store would have been out of the question. Prior to Mario's death; a female family member even working in the store wasn't possible as Mario didn't believe women belonged in the workplace. So he probably rolled over in his grave when his daughter-in-law took control of the business, but she maintained the store for 20 years. It wasn't until her daughter, Miuccia, took over in the late '70s that the brand really exploded. Miuccia started designing leather backpacks and totes, and she opened a second store—this one a boutique—in an upscale shopping district in Milan. Clothes were added to the line in 1989 and the name has been cemented in the high fashion market ever since.

3. Versace

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Versace is the newest brand on the list—it was founded just 31 years ago. Gianni Versace grew up helping his mother, a dressmaker, embroider dresses and do tailoring. He studied architecture and moved to Milan when he was 26 to work in fashion. After working for a couple of designers, he was ready to start his own line and opened his first store in Milan in 1978. The line was successful right away, exploding with boutiques around the world.

When Gianni was killed in 1997, his sister Donatella stepped in to run the company. The biggest share of the company belongs to Donatella's daughter, however: Gianni left 50 percent of the company to Allegra to inherit when she turned 18 (which happened in 2004). Donatella owns 20 percent and Santo, the oldest Versace brother, owns 30 percent.

4. Burberry

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By contrast, Burberry is the second oldest house on the list. In 1856, Thomas Burberry opened a store in Hampshire, England, focusing on practical outdoor wear. After some experimentation, Burberry invented gabardine in 1880, a fabric made from yarn that is waterproofed before the garment is woven. Based on this and on his growing reputation, Thomas was asked by the War Office to make a better coat for its officers; the result was the trench coat. The famous "Burberry Check" was first used as a mere lining for a trench coat in 1924. In 1967, the pattern was expanded to scarves, umbrellas, boots and just about everything else, which is part of the reason the brand is so ubiquitous today.

5. Chanel

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Chanel was founded, of course, by Gabrielle Chanel, better known as Coco. She was only 12 when her mother died, and to make matters worse, her father then abandoned the family. Coco and her siblings were sent to an orphanage, which is where she learned how to sew.

The moment she turned 18, she fled the orphanage and went to work for a tailor. There she met millionaire Etienne Balsan, where she no doubt found the money to open up her own hat shop in 1910. They weren't dating at that time, however. The shop quickly failed, but after starting an affair with Balsan's former best friend, Arthur Capel (also, conveniently, a millionaire), she opened another shop. This one was successful, and soon her hats were all the rage among French actresses. She introduced her women's sportswear next, and after that she never looked back. (Well, Coco did close all of her stores during WWII, saying that it wasn't an appropriate time to focus on fashion.)

She was briefly arrested after France was liberated because of her attempt to gain access to Winston Churchill—it was widely believed that she was helping the Axis side. Indeed, she did live in the same hotel that the Germans used as their headquarters while they were in France, the Hotel Ritz Paris. Churchill himself intervened on her behalf, but she was worried about the French retaliating against her and made her home in Switzerland instead.

During her self-imposed exile, her business partner, Pierre Wertheimer, took over the business and things were never quite the same for Coco after that. Coco died in 1971, and generations of Wertheimers have owned Chanel ever since. Alain Wertheimer took over in 1974 and is the one who convinced head designer Karl Lagerfeld to leave Chloe and come to Chanel.

6. Dior

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Dior was founded by Christian Dior, whose parents desperately wanted him to attend school to study politics. He appeased them at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques from 1920 to 1925, but he didn't give up his fashion dream: He sold his sketches for 10 cents each on the street.

A couple of years after he graduated, though, his family lost their fortune and he was free to pursue whatever he wanted—which was, of course, clothing. After putting in time at a couple of fashion houses in France, Christian opened his own line in 1946 and originally named it Corolle. He died in at age 52 of a heart attack, but the cause has been disputed. Some say he choked on a fish bone, which induced the heart attack; those close to him say it was brought on by a particularly vigorous sexual encounter.

7. Givenchy

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Givenchy was the brainchild of Hubert de Givenchy, who certainly didn't have a hardscrabble childhood like Coco Chanel did, and definitely didn't start small like Gucci and Prada. Hubert was born into French aristocracy—his father was Lucien Taffin de Givenchy, Marquis de Givenchy. And creative genes ran in his family: His great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather were both designers, creating for the Elysee Palace and the Paris Opera, respectively.

After seeing the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, Hubert (then 10) decided that he wanted to go into the field of fashion. He was just 18 when he started designing for family friend Jacques Fath, and after spending some time with designer Elsa Schiaparelli, he opened up his own House of Givenchy in 1952. He was only 25, but because of his connections and his innovative designs, age didn't matter. He met Audrey Hepburn in 1953 and they hit it off so well that he designed almost all of her movie wardrobe from then on. Givenchy retired from fashion in 1995.

8. Yves Saint Laurent

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Yves Saint Laurent (we know—more than one name) came to fashion by way of the theater, sort of. He was severely bullied at school as a kid and would come home and try to escape his troubles by acting out plays for his parents. He loved reading the theater reviews in the French Vogue and ended up being fascinated by the clothes as well. He began formal fashion study at the Chambre Syndicale and entered a design competition that led to him designing for Christian Dior. (Incidentally, he beat out Karl Lagerfeld to win that competition.) Dior liked him so much that he named young Yves as his successor, and as mentioned above, Dior died at a fairly young age, leaving Yves in charge of the House of Dior at the age of 21.

Despite his new status, he ended up having to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence in 1960 (there's rumor that some of the powers-that-be in fashion didn't want him heading up Dior and pulled some strings with the government), and when he came back, he found he had been fired from the company. After suing Dior for breach of contract (and winning), Yves decided to start his own company in 1962. It did very well, attracting the likes of Catherine Deneuve. Gucci bought YSL (the brand, not the guy) in 1999, and Yves himself died in 2008.

9. Armani

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Armani is another young fashion house compared to most on this list. From 1961 to 1970, Giorgio Armani was an assistant designer for Nino Cerruti. By 1974, he had decided that he wanted his own line, and with just $10,000, he launched one. He quickly became a Hollywood favorite, and when word got around that Richard Gere had worn an Armani suit in 1980's American Gigolo, he and his clean-lined designs immediately achieved icon status. And he's still outfitting movie stars today—he was responsible for Christian Bale's suits in The Dark Knight.

10. Hermès

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We started with a saddle shop and we'll end with a saddle shop. In 1837, Thierry Hermès opened a harness workshop for fine equestrians and European noblemen, and became very popular. After his son took over the business, the shop was relocated to a more citizen-friendly area, where they began selling saddlery as well as harnesses. The business became so renowned that the name was familiar as a purveyor of luxury goods internationally.

When Thierry's grandsons inherited the business sometime around 1910, they obtained the rights to use the zipper and started making clothes. They didn't start at the bottom—their first zippered golf jacket, made out of leather, was commissioned for the Prince of Wales. Handbags were added to the blossoming line in 1922 after one of the grandsons' wives complained she couldn't find a purse to her liking, and by 1924 they had two shops in the U.S. The famous (or infamous, if you're a Devil Wears Prada fan) Hermès scarf was introduced in 1937 and achieved instant cult status. When Grace Kelly appeared in Life magazine carrying an Hermès Haut a Courroie bag, they instantly renamed it the Kelly and it became one of the best-selling bags in fashion history. It's still a hot item. They're also the ones who make the always in-demand Birkin bag, named for actress and style icon Jane Birkin (though she recently asked for her name to be removed from the crocodile skin version).

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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