“I never grew up thinking I was going to work at Louis Vuitton, Céline, or any of the big fashion houses,” he says. He had his fair share of internships at the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Giles Deacon, but he must have done something right to have earned a seat at Céline when he was just 23 years old. At that time, Phoebe Philo had just started carving her legacy as the brand’s creative director and, under her realm, Norman René created and headed the first Global 3Dimensional department. He led a team in experimenting with techniques to create new shapes and silhouettes for each season, making it a career-defining six years in Céline, to say the least. Later on, he pursued a career at the houses of Lanvin and Louis Vuitton in Paris as senior designer for womenswear. These days, you’ll find Norman René in New York City as Calvin Klein’s senior designer, even after the departure of Raf Simons. To say his credentials are beyond impressive is an understatement, but it also didn’t come without its own challenges.
As an openly gay Catholic Filipino born and raised in East London by a single mother, Norman René had the odds stacked against him. “It wasn’t all fashion from the get-go,” he reflects. “I grew up in a poor family and my mother would always push us to work hard. Being gay, I also grew up thinking the only way my mom was going to accept me is if I’m successful.” Of course, that’s not how he thinks anymore. He has found a way for his religion and identity to go hand in hand, without losing the core aspects that make it a spiritual and fulfilling experience.
“There’s always going to be something against you, that’s inevitable. For me, it was more about accepting how I’m different from those around me and making it work in my favor.”
Despite being born and growing up in London, he still has a deep connection with his Filipino roots. Norman René grew up in the area of Stratford that’s brimming with Ilocanos , and he credited his understanding of the Filipino culture to that proximity. Much like any true Pinoy living abroad, it was instilled in him that “success is achieved when we give back to our family.” And he has done a lot of that.
But Norman René muses that it’s more the struggles he has within himself that he finds more difficult to overcome. “There’s always going to be something against you, that’s inevitable,” he says. “For me, it was more about accepting how I’m different from those around me and making it work in my favor.” He points to the birthmark on his face, for one. “At the beginning of my career, I didn’t think I was going to be accepted because the fashion industry is all about beauty. But some people actually remember me for my mark in all its glory, and then they take the chance to know me and my work.”