“Fashion is about something that comes from within,” said Ralph Lauren. While no one can dispute that, the world’s cognoscenti looks to international fashion designers for their style statements. G2 profiles ten leading couturiers
THEY continually stretch the boundaries of style with their unique, innovative designs. They are the world’s most respected fashion designers with legions of devotees across the globe. Below is a peek into their style-soaked empires
There is a mystique that swirls around designer extraordinaire Calvin Klein not just because of his prodigious talent but also because of his charisma and lean good looks.
In 1968, Klein founded Calvin Klein Limited, a coat shop in the York Hotel in New York City, with an initial capital of just $10,000. He was taking a risk but it was one that paid of—and how! His first collection premiered at Bonwit Teller and was described as a line of “youthful, understated coats and dresses”.
By 1971, Klein had added sportswear, classic blazers and lingerie to his women’s collection and two years later was the youngest recipient to receive a Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for his 74-piece womenswear collection, an award he was to receive several times in the years ahead. His advertising has always created controversies beginning in 1980 with Richard Avedon’s campaign that featured a fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields who asks, “Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing!”
In mid-December 2002, Calvin Klein Inc. was sold to Phillips Van Heusen Corp. for about $400 million in cash, $30 million in stock as well as licensing rights and royalties linked to revenues over the following 15 years that were estimated at $200 to $300 million
“Life is difficult. ‘Happiness’ is a word I do not believe exists,” said Donatella Versace. She grew up in the shadow of her elder brother Gianni, working closely with him till he was gunned down on the steps of his Miami apartment in 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. She was then forced to wear the mantle of Creative Director of the Versace Group.
Both Donatella and Gianni learned about designing from their mother who had a dressmaking business. “I was the baby of the family,” she once said. “I was so spoiled. I was the best-dressed little girl in the city.”
Donatella has steered the company’s design vision helping to reinvigorate its product lines over the years. In 2009, she brought in Christopher Kane to design for Versus and reinvent the brand. After his departure, Versace collaborated with other upcoming designers on the line, also revamping the company’s haute couture line Atelier Versace. Today, Versace markets a variety of product lines, from home goods to perfume, clothing and furniture. The company even operates two hotels.
Donatella is the first ever fashion designer to use A-list celebrities to promote her designs on the catwalk, rather than opting for models. She chose Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Christiana Aguilera, Demi Moore and others to promote her brand in Hollywood. She has definitely and decisively stepped out of her brother’s mammoth shadow.
“I know what women want. They want to be beautiful,” says Valentino founder of the famous brand ‘Valentino SpA’. He should know. He has dressed some of the most beautiful women in the world including Princess Margaret, Queen Paola of Belgium, Begum Aga Khan, Queen Paola of Belgium, Jacqueline Kennedy and movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn.
Born in Voghera, Italy, he studied fashion design from a young age, completing his formal training in Paris and starting his own line in Rome in 1959. By the mid-1960s, Valentino was a favourite designer of the world’s best-dressed women. In his early shows, Valentino quickly gained recognition for his red dresses, in a shade that became widely known as Valentino red. In 1960, Valentino met Giancarlo Giammetti an architecture student. They became partners both professionally and romantically and together developed Valentino SpA into an internationally recognised brand. Valentino’s international debut took place in 1962 at the Pitti Palace in Florence.Soon after, he won the prestigious Neiman Marcus Fashion Award.
In 1998, Valentino and Giammetti sold their company for approximately $300 million to the Italian conglomerate HdP. In 2007, Valentino announced that he would hold his final haute couture show in January of the following year. This final show, presented at the Musée Rodin in Paris, featured legendary models including Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Eva Herzigova.
“I like the idea of having built this beautiful empire, but I still like to think of myself as the stable boy,” says the iconic clothing Italian executive Giorgio Armani. He may think of himself as a stable boy but his empire today is worth $6.1 billion and encompasses everything from fashion and make-up to hotels, restaurants and houseware.
After a stint in the armed forces, Armani dropped out of university and worked as a window dresser and then as a seller for the menswear section at La Rinascente, a department store in Milan. In the mid-1960s, Armani moved to the Nino Cerruti company for which he designed menswear. In 1973, his partner Galeotti persuaded him to open a design office. This led to a long and productive collaboration between the two. They founded Giorgio Armani SpA in July 1975. The company’s first collection—a men’s clothing line—debuted that year and was an immediate success. With his body-conscious yet understated clothing, he soon became one of the most popular names in fashion.
His popularity skyrocketed in America in the 1980s when his men’s ‘power suits’ appeared frequently on the television series Miami Vice and in the 1980 film American Gigolo, which starred Richard Gere in Armani’s signature garb.
As he said, “My vision was clear: I believed in getting rid of the artifice of clothing. I believed in neutral colours.” Soon, many top Hollywood stars started wearing Armani on the red carpet, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jodie Foster and John Travolta, among others.
In 2005, Armani debuted his first haute couture line. He launched this high-end venture because he liked the challenge. “Think how liberating it is for a designer to make one dress, perfectly, to satisfy only one customer,” he said. Today, Armani’s brand can be found in major department stores around the world along with 500 exclusive retail stores.
Armani is also the first ever designer to ban models who have a Body Mass Index under 18 after model Ana Carolina Reston starved herself to death due to anorexia nervosa.
Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in Saumur, France. With her trademark suits and little black dresses, she created timeless designs that are still popular today. She herself became a much revered style icon known for her simple yet sophisticated outfits paired with great accessories, such as several strands of pearls. As Chanel once said, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”
Her childhood was anything but luxurious. She grew up in an orphanage where the nuns taught her how to sew. Though she didn’t know it at the time, it was a skill that would lead to her life’s work. Her nickname Coco came from her brief career as a singer.
When she was 20, she became involved with Etienne Balsan, who offered to help her start a millinery business in Paris. She soon left him for one of his even wealthier friends, Arthur Capel. Both men helped launch her first fashion venture.
Opening her first shop in 1910, Chanel started out selling hats. She first realised her talent for fashion design when she made a dress for herself out of an old jersey. In response to the many people who asked about where she got the dress, she offered to make one for them. “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville,” she once told author Paul Morand.
In the 1920s she launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5 and her now legendary Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Her designs borrowed elements of men’s wear and emphasised comfort over the constraints of then-popular fashions. She helped women say goodbye to the days of corsets and other confining garments.
Another 1920s revolutionary design was Chanel’s little black dress. She took a colour once associated with mourning and turned it into a style statement.
When World War II broke out Coco closed her business. During the German occupation of France, she got involved with a German military officer, who granted her special permission to stay in her apartment at the Hotel Ritz. Though she was not charged as a collaborator, after the war the tide of public opinion turned against her and she took to spending more time in Switzerland.
At the age of 70, Chanel made a triumphant return to the fashion world. She first received scathing reviews from critics, but her feminine and easy-fitting designs soon won over shoppers around the world.
A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took over the reins of her company to continue the Chanel legacy. Today her eponymous company is held privately by the Wertheimer family and continues to thrive, believed to generate hundreds of millions in sales each year.
“People ask how can a Jewish kid from the Bronx do preppy clothes? Does it have to do with class and money? It has to do with dreams,” said Ralph Lauren. In 1972, he earned his fame when he introduced a notable short sleeve shirt with the Polo logo on it. He is best known for his sportswear line Polo, the centrepiece of his fashion empire and one that appeals to the country’s preppies. His brand now includes fragrances, home furnishings, luxury clothing and dining.
Born Ralph Lifshitz in New York City, his parents were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who had fled Belarus. At the age of 16, Ralph and his brother Jerry changed their last name to Lauren after having been teased consistently at school. After a brief stint in the Army, Lauren took on a sales job at Brooks Brothers.
In 1970, Lauren was awarded the Coty Award for his men’s designs. Following this recognition, he released a line of women’s suits tailored in a classic men’s style.
Then in 1972, Lauren released a short-sleeve cotton shirt in 24 colors. This design, emblazoned with the company’s famed logo—that of a polo player, created by tennis pro René Lacoste—became the brand’s signature look.
Lauren subsequently broadened his brand to include a luxury clothing line known as Ralph Lauren Purple, a rough and rustic line of apparel dubbed RRL, a home-furnishing collection called Ralph Lauren Home and a set of fragrances.
Polo currently produces clothing for men, women and children and has hundreds of internationally placed stores, including factory stores that produce the majority of his sales domestically.
During the 1970s Lauren made his foray into the film industry by outfitting cast members for the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as well as Diane Keaton for Annie Hall.
Polo expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, opening boutiques across the United States and abroad. With Goldman Sachs having purchased more than a quarter of the company in the mid-’90s, Polo Ralph Lauren went public on June 11, 1997, trading under the symbol RL. As of October 2015, the success of Polo has earned Lauren a personal fortune estimated at more than $6 billion, ranking Lauren among the 200 richest people in the world.
Multi-talented Thomas Carlyle ‘Tom’ Ford is not just a fashion designer but a film director, screenwriter and film producer. The international spotlights were trained on him when he overhauled Gucci when it had been relegated to a fashion Sahara.
“If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky. It’s looked down upon to be too stylish. Europeans, however, appreciate style,” he said when relocating to Italy.
In his first year at the helm, he introduced Halston-style velvet hipsters, skinny satin shirts and car-finish metallic patent boots. By 1999, the house, which had been almost bankrupted when Ford joined, was valued at more than $4 billion.
When Gucci acquired the house of Yves Saint Laurent in 1999 he was appointed Creative Director of YSL as well and once again brought the House back into the fashion mainstream. When Ford left in 2004 over creative differences, the Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion.
It was only in 2006 that he launched his namesake label with a line of menswear, beauty, eyewear and accessories
Michelle Obama wore an ivory floor-length evening gown designed by Ford to Buckingham Palace in 2011. Ford is also the designer
of choice of Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, Daniel Craig, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling and Will Smith. He designed Daniel Craig’s suits for his last three James Bond films: Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre.
Unlike most designers Marc Jacobs enjoyed success early. While he was studying at the Parsons School of Design, he sold out his first ever stack of knit sweaters. With a number of prestigious awards under his belt from Parsons, Marc moved onto working for women’s-wear designer Perry Ellis, but was let go from the label after designing a ‘grunge’ collection.
It was an early fall but he rose to start his own label and continued to impress the fashion world. He is the head designer of ‘Louis Vuitton’, ‘Marc by Marc Jacobs’, ‘Diffusion Line’ and ‘Marc Jacobs’.
In 1987, he became the youngest designer ever to win the Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent.
In 1997, Jacobs was named creative director of the Louis Vuitton house of luxury goods in Paris.
He launched Louis Vuitton’s first ready-to-wear line while expanding his own label. His three Marc Jacobs collections—two for adults and one for children—are sold at dozens of Marc Jacobs boutiques worldwide. He has also licensed his name to perfumes and accessories. Years after his debut as the “boy wonder” of the fashion world, Marc’s work continues to excite fans and critics alike.
Like so many other artistes, the Second World War would forever change the sensibilities of Christian Dior. Born in 1905 in northern France, this French designer exploded onto the Paris fashion scene with designs that flew in the face of wartime restrictions and reintroduced a femininity and focus on luxury.
It would revolutionise the way women dressed. He was best known for his distinctive New Look silhouette. His designs have been worn by film stars and royalty alike.
The son of a wealthy fertiliser merchant, Christian’s family had dreamed that he would become a diplomat. He fortunately had other ideas and made money selling fashion sketches. In 1928 his father financed a small art gallery which he ran selling the works of artists like Picasso.
The family’s finances unfortunately spiralled downwards during the Great Depression and the gallery had to be closed. Christian soon went to work for fashion designer Robert Piguet who encouraged him to design three collections.
“Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come,” he once said. True elegance is what Christian gave the world in the years ahead.
Christian died in Montecatini, Italy, in 1957, at the age of 52. Today, the company is owned by Groupe Arnault with talented designer John Galliano carrying on Dior’s rich legacy.
The House of Dior’s dramatic couture ball gowns, chic prêt-a-porter and luxurious accessories continue to make it a creative force to be reckoned with.
“Life is difficult. ‘Happiness’ is a word I do not believe exists,” said Donatella Versace. She grew up in the shadow of her brother Gianni, working closely with him till he was gunned down on the steps of his Miami apartment. She was then forced to wear the mantle of Creative Director of the Versace Group
“I’ve done it all! I even have my own water! I’ll do perfumes, sardines. Why not? During the war, I would have rather smelled the scent of sardines than of perfume. If someone asked me to do toilet paper, I’d do it. Why not?”
Pierre Cardin’s insouciance has brought him the censure of fashion purists around the world. He has never cared. His fashion house has
grown into an empire, protean as well as avant-gardist. Fashion, accessories, jewellery, fragrances, furniture, theatre costumes, tableware, and even Maxim’s restaurants make up the Cardin world.
Everything represents an inexhaustible source of inspiration to the designer: Japan and China’s lifestyle during the 1960s and ’70s, unusual encounters, everyday life and also the social, cultural and industrial evolutions and revolutions. Each of his collections is an evidence of a fierce appetite for experimentation.
Pierre Cardin, born Pietro Cardin in San Biagio di Callalta near Treviso, moved to Paris in 1945, at the end of World War II. During his first five years there he moved from the Paquin fashion house (started by famous dress designer Jeanne Paquin), to the Schiaperelli fashion house. The same year French film director Jean Cocteau hired Cardin to design dresses for his film La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast).
The following year Cardin began work at Christian Dior’s newly-opened fashion house helping to design Dior’s New Look. His cuts are often said to be planar, geometric and even irreverent of the female form. Cardin left Dior to start his own company in 1950. He started out by designing clothing for stage productions but soon built up a loyal client base.
In 1953, Cardin released his first collection of women’s clothing and in 1954, he opened his first boutique for women called Eve. That same year, his unique bubble dresses became an international success proving that he could be appreciated by clients and critics alike.
The Italian-born French high fashion designer is best known for his geometric avant-garde designs. In the 1960s his use of stark tunics, goggles and helmets launched the Space Age look.
During the 1960s, Cardin began a practice that is now commonplace by creating the system of licences that he was to apply to fashion. A clothing collection launched around this period surprised all by displaying the designer’s logo on the garments for the first time.
One of the most influential and wealthiest fashion designers of his era, now at the age of 94 he still works, designs and licenses new products in Paris. In 1971, Cardin redesigned the Barong Tagalog a national costume of the Philippines and the straight-cut design was favoured by President Ferdinand Marcos and began to be seen at state appearances.
As the iconic Coco Chanel once said, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”