These designers have had a lasting impact on the fashion world (and popular culture) throughout the decades. From classic to eclectic, their distinct styles will always influence the way people dress, and the way new designers approach their work. Here is our list of the top ten fashion designers of all time.
5. Elsa Schiaparelli
This Italian designer was known for her love of surrealistic art and she used this influence to great effect in her offbeat, irreverent designs. She is also known as the inventor of a bright pink shade known as “shocking pink”.
Born in Rome in 1890 to an aristocratic mother and an intellectual father, Schiaparelli soon rebelled against the conventional life of the upper classes. Her desire for exploration and experimentation landed her in hot water as a teen, when she published a book of poems with decidedly sensual overtones. Her work deeply offended her parents, who punished her by placing her in a convent. Schiaparelli was so determined to escape from the nunnery that she initiated a hunger strike which resulted in her release. By her early twenties she had fled to London, where she could live under less scrutiny. Later, during a foray in New York, she joined with artist friends and they all made their way to Paris…
In the City of Light, during the years from 1927 to 1940, Schiaparelli’s reputation for daring designs grew steadily. Soon, Parisians developed a passion for her unusual dresses, sweaters, and accessories. Her signature style always encompassed some whimsical elements, such as lobster motifs or skeleton ribs and bones (made with trapunto quilting); however, the construction of the garments themselves was often quite strict and tailored…this dichotomy made for original pieces that were often “knocked off” by other designers.
In fact, Schiaparelli’s designs were often all too simple to copy, unlike the work of her chief rival, Coco Chanel. After World War II, Schiaparelli, who had lived in New York during the war, returned to Paris and found a different sensibility among its people. The post-war desire for simplicity and practicality made the unique embellishments of her designs less popular, and the endless knock-offs also cut into her profits.
Schiaparelli’s fashion house closed its doors in 1964, but her achievements continue to inspire and amaze. In every sense, she was a pioneer, and her friendships with artists, such as Surrealist Salvador Dali and Modernist Man Ray, gave her work an unforgettable edge.
4. Christian Dior
Born in January of 1905, this French designer was best known for his distinctive “New Look” silhouette. First shown in 1947; his suits and dresses revolutionized the way women dressed after the Second World War.
A designer with a notorious past, Christian Dior was also known for being in cahoots with the enemy during WWII, when he dressed Nazi wives and French collaborators in his designs. Despite this questionable choice, he still rose to prominence during the late-forties when the war was over…primarily due to his unparalleled mastery of line and shape. He gave women a desirable “flower silhouette” which always featured a nipped-in waist, a full, voluminous skirt, and a feminine, corseted bodice. Often, the hips of his suits and dresses were padded to balance the bust line and accentuate the wasp-waisted effect.
Dior died in 1957 under mysterious circumstances. It was rumored that he succumbed to a heart attack during a sexual encounter; others have reported that choking on a fish bone spurred his cardiac arrest.
Today, gifted designer John Galliano carries on the legendary designer’s legacy in Paris, where he creates dramatic couture ball gowns, chic prêt-a-porter, and luxurious accessories for Dior. Galliano’s talent and his over-the-top runway shows have ensured that the brand remains strong and viable in today’s world…
3. Gianni Versace
Flamboyant and so very Italian, Gianni Versace was born in December of 1946 in Reggio di Calabria, Italy. Gianni’s mother owned a tiny tailoring shop, and she supported her children through her sewing. The young Versace watched and learned as a boy, adopting techniques that he would put to exemplary use later on.
After years spent helping his mother embroider and tailor garments, he decided to study architecture; by the time he was 26, he changed directions again…he knew that fashion would be his life’s work. Versace moved to Milan to pursue his dreams…
Talented and charismatic, he soon drew the attention of VIP’s in the fashion world; they appreciated his chic knitwear and his creativity. Always influenced by art, Gianni Versace drew inspiration from ancient Roman and Greek paintings and sculpture, as well as modern abstracts and Pop Art – producing bold, current designs using color, prints, and careful fitting that accentuated the lines of the body,
A steady ascent through the ranks of the fashion world led to Versace’s creative independence, by the mid-Seventies he was producing lines under his own name. He began with women’s wear, but soon starting designing for men as well.
Versace was a homosexual and lived openly as a gay man; he found true love in 1982, when he met his life partner, an Italian model named Antonio D’Amico. They remained together until Versace’s shocking death in 1997.
This man, who was known for being kind, generous, and a doting uncle, succumbed to a gunshot wound inflicted by bitter social climber Andrew Cunanan, who killed himself just a few days afterward. Versace was only 50 years old when he died.
It is a sad fact that the lurid details of Versace’s murder sometimes overshadow the vast achievements of the designer, whose over-the-top, glamorous pieces gave the supermodels of the 80’s even more power and sex appeal.
2. Yves Saint Laurent
Born in Algeria in 1936, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent’s gifts were apparent from a young age. After winning third prize in an important contest held by the International Wool Secretariat, he made his way to Paris and met with French Vogue’s editor, who was very impressed with the innate talent of Yves Saint Laurent.
Shortly thereafter, he began to work closely with Christian Dior, who was nearing the end of his life. Dior recognized the skill and creativity of his young protégé, and he chose him as his successor. When Dior died of a heart attack, Saint Laurent found himself holding the reins of one of France’s most venerable fashion houses: he was only 21 years of age.
Known for his stunning couture designs and his sophisticated women’s tuxedo jackets (known as le smoking), Saint Laurent was destined to carve out his own identity, but his career was not without its challenges. After a poorly received collection at Dior, which featured hobble skirts and other unusual designs, he was sent into mandatory military service. The stress of being in the army (although he lasted only 20 days) took a tremendous toll on the sensitive designer. He suffered from teasing and hazing by his fellow soldiers, and he soon plunged into a nervous breakdown; he was sent to a mental hospital for treatment.
During his short military service, the House of Dior fired him. A series of harsh treatments (including powerful drugs and electroshock therapy) at France’s Val-de-Grace Mental Hospital were thought to be the trigger for Saint Laurent’s later drug addictions and ongoing emotional issues.
He rebounded in the 60’s and 70’s, designing his own line and stunning Paris and the entire fashion world with his own brand of French elegance. However, the stress of his work led him to abuse booze and drugs; in time, the fragile designer’s health became precarious. By 1987, he was unable to fulfill his responsibilities, and allowed others to design his prêt-a-porter line.
In 2008, after living a life of a hermit for several years, Yves Saint Laurent succumbed to brain cancer and died.
1. Coco Chanel
Born in August of 1883, Gabrielle Chanel was a French native who was destined to liberate women from the constraints of corsets and other uncomfortable garments. A true rebel and visionary, Chanel, who changed her name to Coco after a brief career as a singer, preferred to wear clothes she could move freely in; often, her style were imbued with a mannish aesthetic. Indeed, Coco Chanel, who designed her first cardigan to avoid pulling any garment over her head, was really the originator of modern women’s sportswear. Her desire for freedom and self-expression gave women style without sacrifice…
Her childhood was not easy; her mother died young, when Gabrielle was just six years old, and in time, the young girl was sent to live in an orphanage…the nuns who cared for her also taught her the rudiments of sewing.
Intelligent and pragmatic, Chanel used her powers of seduction to gain a foothold in the competitive fashion world; in succession, she became the mistress of two powerful and wealthy men. Both of her lovers were quite happy to use their money and influence to give her a start in business. From a beginning as a milliner, she rose to prominence in 1920, when her signature fragrance, the incredibly iconic Chanel No. 5, was launched.
The first true “Chanel suit” was produced in 1925; Coco used chains to weigh down the fabric, so that it hung “just so”. She favored ornamentation such as ribbons, pretty buttons, and ropes of pearls. Her feminine touches added style and impact to her wearable designs; in fact, even vintage Chanel designs remain remarkably timeless and easy to wear.
Chanel led a long and fascinating life, which included some darker episodes, such as an affair with a Nazi officer during World War II. He used his influence to ensure that she could continue to live in comfort at the Hotel Ritz during the conflict. Many wondered why Chanel was not charged for collaborating when the war ended – it is believed (and very likely true) that friends in high places protected her from retribution. Coco Chanel died in Paris, at the Ritz, in 1971.