The upcoming Costume Institute exhibit and Monday’s Met Ball honors two of fashion’s most beloved women designers: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. But what about the other female names that have helped to change fashion forever?
Recently, Style.com’s Nicole Phelps noted that in New York fashion today there is a surprising lack of big-name female designers, which begged the question: “Is it easier to succeed in New York fashion as a man?” Phelps certainly has a point: After all, in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s eight-year history, the prize has only been awarded to women designers twice.
The dearth of female designers in New York is particularly disheartening when you consider the important role women have played in shaping fashion’s past and present. From Coco Chanel to Phoebe Philo, female designers have provided a fresh–and needed–perspective on fashion and in many cases, they changed the industry as we know it.
So, in honor of those women that have blazed the trail in fashion design, we take a look at the 25 most influential female designers, with the help of Parsons’ Francesca Granata and Pratt’s Jennifer Minniti. Scroll through and get inspired.
She may not be a household name like Coco Chanel or Elsa Schiaparelli, but the fact is Madeleine Chéruit helped pave the way for female fashion designers, becoming one of the first women to control a major French fashion house, at the turn of the century. Chéruit got her start working as a dressmaker at Raudnitz & Cie House of Couture in the late 1880s, but her talent was so exceptional that she eventually took over the salon and its more than 100 employees in 1905, renaming it Chéruit. She helped launch the career of Paul Poiret by supporting his designs, won the praise of Vogue, and was one of the few couture houses that remained open during WWI. Though the house shuttered in 1935, Chéruit’s influence in fashion design–and particularly female fashion design–can still be felt. In fact, it was Elsa Schiaparelli who famously took over Chéruit’s 98-room studio and salon, forever tying the two designers together.
Considered by many to be one of the first female couturiers, Paquin was known for her fashionable eighteenth century-inspired pastel evening dresses, as well as for her “publicity stunts”, which in early twentieth century Paris meant organizing fashion parades (the runway show predecessor) and sending outfitted models to social events like operas and races. Sacre Bleu!
Obviously, Coco Chanel needs no introduction–her influence today is as strong as ever, as the house she founded remains one of the most coveted and respected labels in the world. “She introduced what are now staples of sportswear into womenswear, in part, by borrowing from the vocabulary of menswear,” Parsons’ Francesca Granata tells me. “Her relevance to fashion is incredible.”
Another female fashion designer whose house remains as relevant today as when she founded it is Jeanne Lanvin. Trained as a milliner and dressmaker, Lanvin began making clothes for her daughter that were so beautiful, a number of wealthy people began requesting copies for their own children, and the designer happily obliged. Lanvin was born–as a childrens wear label. Soon, though, mothers began requesting similar designs that they themselves could wear, and within years the business had grown to include womenswear, perfume and home design, making Lanvin the first designer to see the potential of a lifestyle brand.
“She really infused a level of humor into fashion and, in my opinion, is a precursor of what today we call experimental or avant-garde fashion,” Granata said. “In addition, she excelled at tailoring and was really influential in the development of structured jackets for women.” No wonder, she’s getting a whole–well, half–a Met Exhibit.
Considered one of the most influential designers of the 20th century, female or not, Madeline Vionnet is credited with introducing the bias cut and popularizing grecian style dresses, the shockwaves of which can still be seen today. “[Her] innovative techniques were widely studied and used by many of our great designers,” Jennifer Minniti, Chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Pratt, tells me.
“While not as well known as Vionnet, Chanel or Schiaparelli, Gres was also an influential couturier,” Granata said. The designer is best known for her classically inspired floor-length pleated gown, and Minniti calls her “the master of the wrapped and draped dress.”
Valentina designed dramatic evening gowns for Hollywood’s elite, pioneering the notion of red carpet glamour. She was also one of the first to be known by merely her first name.
“[McCardell] is known as the inventor of American sportswear or ready-to-wear,” Minniti says. Which is, you know, a pretty big claim to fame. Her simple silhouettes and frugal use of fabrics (particularly during WWII) helped shape the democratic and casual sensibility that we associate with American ready-to-wear today. Her influence was so great that in 1950, President Harry S. Truman presented her with the Women’s National Press Club Award, making her the first fashion designer to be voted one of America’s Women of Achievement.
Along with McCardell, Cashin pioneered the concept of American sportswear or ready-to-wear as we know it. The designer started her career designing clothing for chorus girls in Los Angeles, eventually making it to the silver screen, creating wardrobes for seminal films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Anna and The King of Siam. Among some of her innovations, according to Minniti, was the minimal use of seams and darts, and the introduction of layered outfits that suited her jet-set lifestyle.
Hulanicki’s Biba store, full of affordable mini-skirts, floppy felt hats, feather boas, and velvet trouser suits, became synonymous with the glamorous, rock n’ roll style of the period. She counted David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Marianne Faithfull all as clients and in 1964, she gave a 15-year-old nobody by the name of Anna Wintour, her first job as a sales assistant.
Quant was instrumental in the mod fashion movement, and is widely credited as the inventor of the miniskirt and of hotpants. While the new styles were certainly meant to be risque and sexy, they also represented growing liberation in women’s fashion–and we owe much of today’s skin-baring styles (and the ever-smaller outfits of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha et al) at least in part to Quant.
Rykiel’s super soft dresses and sweaters–and most famously “The Poor Boy Sweater,” which covered Elle in 1967–earned her title of “Queen of Knits,” a name, which the designer’s label continues to live up to today.
Not all influential designers are couturiers. Hamnett’s slogan t-shirts may seem run-of-the-mill now, but at the time they were revolutionary–and, as Minniti points out, their design “continues to be copied [by countless companies and designers today.]”
“In the 1980s, together with Yohji Yamamoto, she revolutionized Paris fashion, by introducing a style of dress that merged Western and Japanese influence and was notably distinct from 1980s high fashion,” Granata explains. “Following the principle of wabi-sabi, her 1980s work employed ‘poor’ and seemingly battered material and posed a challenge to body-hugging silhouette popular during the period.” To this day, Kawakubo remains one of the most beloved (and unconventional) designers of our time.
We can thank Westwood for bringing modern punk and new wave fashions into the mainstream. Without her, safety pin shirts, sky-high platform shoes (like the ones Naomi Campbell famously tripped in), plaid pants and, of course, expertly draped dresses would not nearly be so chic.
Johnson’s over-the-top, thoroughly modern designs captured the youthquake movement in the early 70s, making her a favorite of style icons like Edie Sedgwick, who was Johnson’s house model and wore only Betsey Johnson in her last film, Ciao Manhattan. Betsey also pioneered the end-of-runway cartwheel, for which we are forever grateful.
DIANE VON FURSTENBERG
As everyone knows, Furstenberg was instrumental in revolutionizing womenswear with the introduction of her famous wrap dress–but her work as the CFDA’s president, nurturing young talent and helping to set healthier standards within the industry, is equally as important.
The recipient of the CFDA’s prestigious Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, Herrera has built an empire on her elegant, chic wares and is credited with making the white shirt a must-have staple in every woman’s wardrobe.
Best known for creating some of the world’s most recognized bridal gowns (ahem, Kim Kardashian), Wang’s empire also includes a ready-to-wear line, diffusion line for Kohls, tuxedo line, and multiple fragrances, marking her as a formidable businesswoman as well as designer.
As the role of women in the workforce began to change, with more and more women rising to the top of the career ladder in leadership or managerial roles, so too did their wardrobe. Karan was responsible for developing stylish staples for the everyday career woman, that were comfortable and gave off an aura of power–clothes that Karan, as a career woman and mother, would also want to wear.
The breadth of Prada’s designs–from the nylon handbags in the mid-80s that made her famous to Spring 2012’s critically acclaimed fifties-inspired collection–is truly inspiring. Suffice to say she will remain an iconic designer for decades to come.
Besides the feminine, flattering, and easily wearable sensibility that has made her label such a success, McCartney has also been a pioneer in vegan and environmentally-conscious fashion.
It’s no secret that Philo is one of the most respected and powerful designers working today: She’s responsible for making Celine, and previously, Chloe, cool again and tops just about everyone’s list as #1 girl crush. In addition to being an excellent fashion designer, a pregnant Philo blazed a trail when she decided to scale back her Fall 2012 show due to a looming delivery date, garnering praise from other female designers for sticking up for her priorities.
KATE AND LAURA MULLEAVY
In the seven years since founding their Rodarte label in 2005, the Mulleavy sisters have taken the fashion industry by storm, winning numerous awards and honors, a multitude of A-list fans, and even a handful of museum exhibitions. If fashion’s history has so far been filled with talented, business-savvy women, there’s no doubt that these two will earn their place alongside those famous names in the future.