Hitting Their Stride
The idea that you’re supposed to have “made it” by the time you’re 30 — or even 40 — is unrealistic enough, even for ambitious women. But what about the idea that, at age 50, your biggest career successes are behind you? Or that your career is now stagnant? That was clearly not the case for these five outstanding ladies, whose illustrious careers reached new dimensions after 50.
At age 25, New York City–based fashion designer Patricia Field began her notable style career in 1966 when she opened her boutique, Patricia Field, in Greenwich Village. Her shop was — and still is — considered a “fashion landmark.” Patricia also started costuming for television in 1986 and for films in the 1990s. (She won an Emmy in 1990 for her work on a kids’ show called Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme.)
But it wasn’t until 1995, at the age of 54, when Patricia reportedly met actress Sarah Jessica Parker while working on the film Miami Rhapsody, that her career reached new heights. Three years later, Sarah asked Patricia to design some outfits for her character on the soon-to-be iconic show Sex and the City.
For her signature work on Sex and the City, Patricia was nominated for five Emmys (one of which she won) and six Costume Designers Guild Awards (she won four). She went on to be the costume designer for Ugly Betty (for which she won a Costume Designer Guild Award, was nominated for another, and received an Emmy nomination), the film version of Sex and the City, Sex and the City 2, and The Devil Wears Prada, earning her Academy Award and BAFTA nominations and making her one of the most renowned costume designers in the film industry.
Coming up through Wall Street, Martha Stewart always had a head for money. After quitting the financial industry in the 1970s, she rerouted her career and decided to start a catering business. A decade later, her self-named business flourished into a million-dollar empire. After the glittering reception of many cookbooks, Martha went even bigger.
At the age of 50, Martha transformed her brand into a lifestyle business with the launch of her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, in 1991. That was just the beginning. That same year, Martha Stewart, Inc., was renamed Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. to house a successful cable television show, a syndicated newspaper column, how-to books, a radio show, and an Internet presence — basically, the Martha Stewart brand as we now know it. By 1998, annual retail sales for Martha’s merchandise came in at $763 million.
In 2004, Martha famously served five months in prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and two counts of making false statements. Since her release in 2005, her daytime TV show has remained on the air and Martha Stewart Omnimedia has added new magazines, like Everyday Food and Body + Soul.
Shortly after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Syracuse University, Betsey Johnson won Mademoiselle's Guest Editor Contest and spent a summer working in the publication’s art department. A mere year later, she was working as a designer in New York City and, by 1970, had moved on to take over design of sportswear company Alley Cat. During her first year on the job, the company grossed $5 million. At 29 years old, Betsey became the youngest designer to ever win the coveted Coty Fashion Critics Award.
But all those early triumphs began to wane by the mid-1970s, and the brand that Betsey had made so rich went out of business. Out of a job, Betsey started freelancing, designing children's and maternity clothes.
By 1978, though, the punk movement had begun to change mainstream fashion. Betsey Johnson and Chantal Bacon, a former model, founded the Betsey Johnson label. The brand continued to grow in popularity and successfully became a lifestyle brand in 2004, offering everything from intimates to luggage to fragrances to branded tissues. Betsey was 61 years old. In 2011, her brand swelled to 65 stores across the U.S. with about $150 million in annual sales.
The Betsey Johnson brand filed for bankruptcy in 2012, but Betsey has reportedly been hard at work on other projects — including affordable collections at department stores and a stationery line for Michael's — at a spry 73 years old.
Judi Dench first graced the stage in 1957 when she played Ophelia in a production of Hamlet. By 1961, she had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. She would reportedly stay with that playhouse for 30 years, playing every leading female Shakspeare role. Nevertheless, Judi’s first starring role in theater would not come until she was 34 years old: Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Between film appearances and her robust theater background, her fame in her native U.K. continued to grow (her career includes 26 BAFTA nominations).
But Judi’s career kicked into a whole different gear when, in her sixties, she achieved notoriety — and therefore visibility — in the United States. First, she appeared as James Bond’s boss in the 1995 film GoldenEye. Then, three years later, she assumed the role of Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Despite appearing on screen for just eight minutes, Judi was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance (to add to her 11 BAFTAs and two Golden Globes). She was 64.
In 1971, 30-year-old Vivienne was doing well for herself professionally: Her partner at the time, Malcolm McLaren, had opened a boutique in London and was furnishing it with her punk fashions. When Malcolm became the manager of the Sex Pistols, Vivienne started dressing the band, making her designs even more visible. Her career started picking up speed in the 1980s when she and Malcolm began showing collections in Paris and London (they eventually split in the early ‘80s).
Vivienne would later be credited with envisioning the iconic mini-crini skirt of the 1980s and the frayed tulle and tweed suits of the 1990s — just in time for her fiftieth birthday. Her impact on the fashion world cannot be understated: The Independent called her “arguably the most influential British designer of the past century.” As of 2014, Vivienne, now in her mid-70s, has a net worth of £50 million.