Galib Braschler
In College of Human Ecology, Human Centered Design
Adam Lippes ’95 with students in front of Statler Hotel

Adam Lippes ’95 with current CHE students in front of the Statler Hotel

The key to success as a designer is listening to your customer, understanding what she wants and responding accordingly,  Adam Lippes ’95 told Cornell Human Ecology students on May 8.

Lippes, the fashion designer behind the successful sportswear label of the same name, was the invited speaker for the Laundress Lecture, an annual event that brings fashion industry experts to campus to share their experiences as both artists and entrepreneurs. The event is supported by Gwen Whiting ‘98 and Lindsey Boyd ’98, co-founders of The Laundress, held in honor of Professor Emerita Kay Obendorf, and co-hosted by Cornell Fashion Industry Network and the Department of Human Centered Design. 

“I talk to a lot of people just starting out, and they forget that we are not just artists,” said Lippes. “We are also in commerce. We have to sell things. No matter how beautifully we’re dressmaking in our design studio, if I’m not sure that my top 10 customers will wear that piece, then what’s the point?”

Lippes learned the value of putting the customer first from his early professional experience working at Oscar de la Renta, where he became one of the youngest creative directors in the luxury fashion world. After seven years at the fashion house, he launched his own label in 2004.

However, Lippes wasn’t always immersed in the world of fashion. As an undergraduate at Cornell, he majored in psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. After graduation, he secured a job at Bear Sterns and planned to carve out a career as an investment banker. But first, he spent a semester abroad in Paris, where he came face –to face with the fashion industry for the first time.

“I was exposed to a world that I didn’t know existed, meeting models and sewers,” Lippes told the students. 

Adam Lippes ’95 presenting with pieces from his company's collection on display

Adam Lippes ’95 explaining his design philosophy with recent pieces from his company's collections

He ended up working at Bear Stearns for only six months before leaving for a job in sales at Ralph Lauren. He rose quickly through the ranks there, and when his boss moved to Oscar de la Renta, he went too.

On his first day at his new job, Lippes spotted the eponymous fashion icon eating lunch in the dining room, so he decided to grab lunch at the same time and sit down next to him.

“I was brought up that you go to church early, and if you sit in the back that means you’re hiding something,” Lippes explained. “So I went and sat to the right of Oscar, and that had been a reserved seat for years.”  

Taken aback by the bold gesture and by Lippes himself, with long blond hair, gladiator sandals and cashmere sweaters wrapped around his neck, de la Renta asked, “Do you work here?”

“And I said, ‘Hi, I’m Adam.’

“‘I’m Oscar.’

“That began a friendship and a mentorship that lasted until the day he died,” recalled Lippes. He worked closely with de la Renta for the next seven years, with roles in design, marketing and new business development. Drawing on this experience, Lippes advised students to seek out opportunities for individual interactions with supervisors and other influential people.

“If you know what you want, and you’re competent in what you want, get in front of that person,” he said. “Make sure that designer knows your name.”

In 2004, Lippes ventured out on his own with the launch of ADAM + EVE, a collection of upscale cotton basics. After Oprah Winfrey declared that his company’s T-shirt was one of her “favorite things,” Lippes grew the company into a full line of sportswear under the name ADAM, sold in its own stores and the department stores Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.Further success followed when the American apparel manufacturer Kellwood Company acquired the brand in 2010.  

But Lippes said that he quickly grew disillusioned with the emphasis on quantity over quality after the acquisition. All the success led to a lack of control and pressure from investors. He decided to sell his shares and walk away.  

He traveled the world for a few months and briefly toyed with the idea of buying a Brazilian hotel. But Lippes said that he eventually realized, “Design is in my blood.” He decided to buy his name back from Kellingwood and return to fashion design.

“I never got to say what I wanted to say in fashion on my own terms. And so I decided to launch my own brand,” said Lippes. “I just felt like I had to do this.”

Fast forward to today. Adam Lippes the fashion label will celebrate its 10th anniversary this September. Its collections, based on Lippes’s core concept of understated yet luxurious sportswear with refined fabrics and tailoring, are available in more than 100 stores worldwide, including Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Net-a-Porter and Saks Fifth Avenue. The brand will open its second store in August.

“Looking back, it’s been really fulfilling to able to express myself in a way that I think I’ve always wanted to,” Lippes said. “If you love fashion – and I hope you all do – it’s in your blood.”