Your wardrobe is your professional armor

April 29, 2013, 4:04 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Nanette Lepore has a gorgeous showroom in Midtown Manhattan. Unlike many other fashion designers, though, Lepore has her clothes sewn in the area. It’s a cause of hers to revamp New York’s once-vibrant Garment District.

Lepore started her own line in the late ’80s, when she opened an East Village boutique called Robespierre between a gas station and a soup kitchen. After about 10 years of slow growth, Lepore was granted space in a showroom called “Annette B.,” which she says launched her career along with other designers such as Rebecca Taylor and Anna Sui.

Now, Lepore has stores all over the world and has expanded her brand to shoes, swimwear, and perfume. In a recent conversation with Fortune, Lepore talks about why she is keeping her production operations in the U.S. and how to rock a proper pair of “battle heels.”

Fortune: Everything I know about fashion is from reality TV. Is it really that crazy to prepare a show for New York fashion week?

Nanette Lepore: Oh, it’s horrible. The stress is horrible.

How do you make sure people are productive in such a stressful environment?

I really like to establish a rapport with everybody so that we understand each other. When somebody has cut something wrong or upside down or backwards, you have your little meltdown, but then it’s over. My management style is to go back and say, “This isn’t going to happen again, we’re all okay now, and we’re going to move forward.”

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Sometimes, I feel like I am Tim Gunn on Project Runway with my designers. But in the end, when it’s all done, it’s rewarding because we have really good parties here, and that’s a little bit of the glue too. We have fun together.

How do you keep it together when the entire fashion community is looking at your clothes?

With my personal style or just my emotional state?

Your emotional state.

Well, I mean, it feels really good when people like what you did, but when you get bad reviews, it’s kind of devastating. You just have to stay positive, and then within a couple weeks, whatever stress you have from shows kind of erases, and you get back into your groove because work takes over and you can’t dwell on things.

But even the smallest thing gets you when you’re exhausted. Reviewers say one little mean thing, and you’re like, “I can’t get out of bed.”

How has fashion changed since you first started?

More women are looking at runway shows way in advance and figuring out what they need for that season. I do think there is this need to address the idea that runway shows are so far ahead of the product. Digital media is turning the whole press world upside down. People are shopping closer to season or right in season, and the way we’re shipping things needs to be changed.

Somebody has to change the way it’s done. Maybe I’ll do it.

You already manufacture differently than other designers, because you make all of your clothes in the United States. What’s the business case for that?

What we’re hearing out of China is that people really love a “made in New York” product. They don’t want one made in China.

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There are also problems in China because they’re raising the price on everything, and we’re really trying to keep costs down. Take that top right there with the piping on the sleeve: That’s a cool top, right? If I made it in China, I would save a dollar. Why would I even go through the trouble? I’d have to order it way earlier, and I wouldn’t have the inventory control I have when I make it here. So, for me, unless I’m going to get a bigger price differential, it’s not going to pay.

Maybe you’ll have an edge when people have to move shops back home because of the higher pricing abroad.

I hope so. That’s a nice thought.

This is something I’ll never experience — have you ever walked into a room wearing an outfit you designed and think, “I nailed this”?

I love that feeling. I do have to go out and wear my clothes a lot because I don’t like to go anywhere where I’m meeting people or socializing and wear someone else’s clothes. I’ve always got to represent myself, so I’ve got to feel happy about what I make. That’s important.

Do you have a favorite outfit?

I do love my printed track pants, I feel like I could wear them to an occasion. I’m really liking the jumpsuit we made this season, I want to wear that somewhere.

And there are days where I think, “Oh please, I just want to wear a sleeping bag to work,” especially when it’s one of those cold winters. But you have to constantly keep thinking about it and staying fresh and positive, because I know that the women that I’m dressing are going through exactly what I’m going through.

When I feel like I need help taking on New York, I wear my cowboy boots.

Oh my god, I know, New York will make you feel like you have to put your armor on.

What is your armor?

These are my new battle heels for this year because they’re so clunky and comfortable and I can just march around everywhere. I love a high heel that I can wear all day, because it does make you more commanding.

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Sensible heels?

These are sensible giant platforms.