Donna Karan, chief designer, Donna Karen International
I lied about my age. I think you had to be 16 to work, but I was 14. An old 14. I was a customer at a boutique called Shurries, in Cedarhurst, Long Island, when I said to the owner, "Listen, can I work here?"
How much money I made, I have not a clue. But I vividly remember painting the wall in the dressing room—my first major fashion illustration. It was a model walking a dog. Is it still there, that painting? God, I want it.
We had contests to see who could merchandise the floor the best—how the hangers looked, if the pants and skirts were aligned. I took pride in how neatly I kept things, but all the "put this here, put that there" was too precise for me—my ADD would kick in. My strengths were working with the customer and styling the clothes. What I became quite good at was working with younger kids; parents used to call me on my days off to come in and dress their kids. I dressed them for socials; I'd send them off to camp. If a parent wanted the child to look a certain way, I'd say, "I'll take care of this." Believe me, if you put me in another job, I'd never have that kind of confidence. In fashion I'm secure.
I learned a lot working with those teenagers at Shurries. I learned how to listen to what they felt comfortable with, and to show them how to wear clothes they thought they couldn't. (To this day, I tell all my designers that once a month they have to work in retail for a day, though nobody takes me seriously.) But my first true job—my first challenge, the first time real emotion was involved—was at Anne Klein. It started as a summer job, when I was in college. I wanted to be an illustrator, but at the interview they said I wasn't good enough and I should try designing instead. So I went to work there, and when summer ended, Anne Klein told me I didn't need to go back to school. Nine months later she fired me.