Paris,  France, has  been  the  center of the  fashion world  for  centuries, and  any fashion designer desiring fame  and  fortune went  there. Parisian fashion gained its foothold on  history during the  reign  of Louis  XIV, “The  Sun  King,”  in  the 17th  century. Skilled tailors  spent  hundreds of hours clothing the many courtiers as they flew through a flurry of outfits  for various  occasions throughout the  day. This kept those  at court so occupied with fashion that they had little time to cause any trouble for the  king  and  he was free to do as he pleased. This  French tradition  of being  at the  forefront of fashion is less related  to political  machinations in today’s world, but  it is no less integral to those  with the power  and  prestige to indulge in such  luxuries.

19th-Century Founders of  Haute Couture

Charles  Worth   (1826–95), an Englishman, is considered to  be the  father   of  haute couture, literally high sewing or high fashion. He moved to Paris in 1845. Although there  was no  established fashion house system at that time, the legacy of Louis  XIV was still strong. Worth rose  quickly  through the ranks  of society  and  became the couturier for Empress Eugenie in the  1860s.  By the  1870s,  Worth’s designs  were  featured prominently  in the fashion magazines of the  day  and  he  soon  became a  household  name   among the wealthy   elite.   Although  Worth died in 1895, the House of Worth would  flourish under his descendants  until  1952  when  his greatgrandson would  finally retire  and close the house for good.

Following closely on the  heels of Worth was Paul  Poiret  (1879–1944).  He  was  a  young, French fashion sensation who joined  the House of Worth in  1901  before expanding into  his own establishment in 1903.  In 1911,  he launched the world’s first total  lifestyle fashion offering,  including perfume and  makeup lines  named after his eldest daughter, Rosine. This was followed by a decorative arts line named after  his  other daughter, Martine. Poiret  was most  famous for his  use  of harem pants  and the slim, narrow-hemmed gowns called hobble skirts. He embraced Art Nouveau and the trend of Orientalism in all of his designs. He designed clothing meant to be worn  without corsets and  petticoats, something not  done  since  the Renaissance. His  designs  were  simple  and  relied  more  heavily  on  draping than tailoring, taking  the  costumes of Japan, Ancient Greece,  and  the  Middle  East  as his  inspirations. Poiret  was called  the  King  of Fashion and  Le Magnifique; he  is credited for being  fashion’s first  modernist and  for bringing the  art  of couture into  the 20th  century.

One  designer who  really took  advantage of this  bourgeoning modernism was Coco  Chanel (1883–1971). Chanel rose from  poverty  to become of one  the preeminent designers in history; her  name  still resonates strongly with  consumers today. Chanel opened her first shop  in Paris in 1913  and  sold a small line of hats and  women’s garments made  out  of jersey knit  fabric. Although she chose  jersey for  its  practical cost,  she  also  found that  it draped well and  was  easy  to  work with, following  in Poiret’s  footsteps of simple,  modern garments. Chanel quickly established a loyal clientele and  by 1919,  at the  age of 32, she  had  founded the House of Chanel and enjoyed a worldwide following.  Chanel continued to design through the  1930s  and  created signature pieces  such  as the  little black  dress.  In 1939, however, she closed  her house when  France  declared war on Germany, signaling  the  beginning of World  War  II. She  returned to fashion in 1953,  partially in response to Christian Dior’s  New Look,  which  she found to be unsuitable for postwar women used to working out of the home. Chanel continued her devotion to practical designs  crafted  from classic textiles and the Chanel suit soon  became a status symbol  for women everywhere. Chanel also produced a full range  of accessories and  a large  perfume line,  the  most  famous of which  is Chanel No.  5. Designer Karl Lagerfeld  (1938–) took  control of the house in 1983  and  has continued to be a major  force in modern fashion.

A contemporary of Chanel was Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973). Despite a cordial business relationship and recommendations from Poiret,  Schiaparelli struggled in her early years as a Paris couturier. It was not  until  she began  a knitwear line  that  was very heavily  influenced by Surrealism that  she  began  to gain  the notice of the  fashion industry and  the  buying  public. Known  for her  whimsical items  such  as a hat  shaped like a shoe  and  a dress  decorated with the  image of a giant  red  lobster, Schiaparelli also  created a perfume called  Shocking that was sold  in a vibrant pink  bottle  in the  shape  of a woman’s torso. But  Schiaparelli  could  not  adapt  to the  postwar fashion trends, and  she closed  her  house for  good  in  1956.  During the  heyday  of her  career,  Schiaparelli was hailed  as a genius and  created a legacy of fun  and  whimsy  in fashion design  that  is still important in  today’s  industry, paving  the  way for  other avant-garde designers such  as Paco Rabanne (1934–), Issey Miyake  (1938–), Comme des Garçons (Rei Kawakubo, 1942–),  Jean-Paul Gautier (1952–),  and  Christian Lacroix  (1951–), among others.

Christian Dior  (1905–57)  began  his career  in design  in 1935  as an illustrator and  assistant. He opened his own house in 1946  and  launched his very first collection  in the  spring  of 1947.  He  called  it the  New  Look,  as it was a departure from  wartime  rationing, and  it made  him  an instant success. The  New Look  featured softly rounded shoulders, a narrow corseted waist, and a full, sweeping skirt supported by stiff petticoats. He also paired his wasp-waisted torso  silhouette with a narrow pencil  skirt, always focusing on a highly  feminine shape  that  borrowed nothing from the boxy looks  associated with the Depression and prewar  eras. He enjoyed historical references and  trompe-l’oeil details.  Dior  also  created parallel accessories lines  of handbags, shoes, stockings, jewelry, and  perfume, mostly licensing out  his name  and  designs  to other manufacturers. In 1948,  he was the first designer to create  licensing agreements, something that  is ubiquitous today. Dior  died in 1957,  just  10 years after the  launch of his groundbreaking line, but the House of Dior  remains a thriving business today.

One  of Dior’s  most  trusted associates was Yves Saint  Laurent (1936–2008), who  took  over the  House of Dior  in 1957.  But Saint  Laurent’s styles were considered too revolutionary and dramatic for the house and, in 1963, he left to form his own  company. Considered one  of the  most  influential designers of the  20th century, Saint Laurent created such  innovative looks as Le Smoking, which  combined  menswear with  graceful  femininity for  an  androgynous look  that  would remain popular through the  1960s  and  beyond, as well as his Mondrian dresses that  used  the  geometric paintings of the  Dutch artist  as the  main  decorative element  on simple tent  dresses. Saint Laurent officially retired from fashion in 2002, although he remained very active both in his own house and the industry in general until  his death in June 2008.

Paris has never lost the spotlight as the fashion center of the world, but during World  War  II when  most  of France  was occupied by the  Nazis,  consumers were forced  to look  elsewhere and  the  way was cleared  for designers from  the  United States,  the  United Kingdom, and  beyond to step  up  and  keep  the  industry running.  New York City, London, Los Angeles,  and  later,  Milan  all became areas  of fashion industry focus.  Coming out  of the wartime  era of design  were names like Claire MacCardell (1905–58), a pioneering American designer of women’s sportswear, and  Charles James (1906–78), an Englishman living in New York City who created elegant  and  structural gowns  like the  Four  Leaf Clover  dress.  Balenciaga (1895–1972) was a Spanish designer who rose  to prominence in the  wartime  era and redefined the fashion ideal in the 1960s  with his sleek and far-thinking tunic dresses.

Contemporary Trends

Today, fashion does  not  rely on a single silhouette or on a single designer. Fashion  design  superstars exist  in  their  own  realms  of style.  Choosing to  address fashion to the  young  was a new angle  introduced in the  1960s.  Previously, high fashion had  been  the  purview  of socialites and  ladies of wealth  and  rank.  Young women proved  to be an audience ready  to take  part  in the  fashion system;  they desired a look  that  was different from  what  their  mothers wore. Vivienne  Westwood  (1941–) made  her  mark  on  fashion in the  London-born punk movement and  has  moved  into  the  fashion mainstream with  a focus  on  a young  and  edgy target  market. Betsey  Johnson (1942–)  and  Mary  Quant (1934–)  also  became involved  in  grassroots social  movements of the  1960s  and  1970s,  and  created youth-oriented fashion lines that  remain popular today.

In the  21st  century, becoming a designer is a completely different act than it was in the days of Chanel and Dior. Although training and apprenticeship are still an important part  of the  industry, many  designers are able to gain public  notice by a number of original  means. With  the  advent  of MTV  (Music  Television) in 1981,  new designers had  a larger  platform upon which  to display  their  creations through the  music  video. As the  Internet gained  popularity through the  1990s, ideas  and  designs  would  be  disseminated instantly. The  use  of blogs,  Internet video  ( YouTube), and  online boutique Web  sites  ( have  made  it possible for  a designer to  become personally accessible to  potential customers the  world  over. The  television reality show  Project Runway and  its many  spin-offs have also changed the  course of fashion careers. Previously unknown designers can suddenly be launched into stardom by the show’s judges, who are established quantities in the industry, such  as Michael Kors (1959–) and Tim  Gunn (1953–).

Fashion has  never  lost  its status as social  symbol,  but  the  language of fashion  has  changed. In the  current industry, the  personal expression of style and  a focus  on  specific  target  markets are integral to any 21st-century designer’s success. Fashion is no longer  dominated by a single look or label, but  as it did in the 17th  century, the  industry relies  on  consumers willing  to  indulge their  inner courtiers and participate in the flurry of fashion.

Other designers who have had an impact  on the fashion industry include Azzedine  Alaïa (1940–),  Giorgio  Armani (1934–),  Laura  Ashley (1925–85), Pierre  Balmain  (1914–82), Geoffrey  Beene  (1927–2004), Dana  Buchman  (1987-),  Pierre Cardin (1922–),  Oleg  Cassini   (1913–2006), Liz  Claiborne  (1929–2007), Andre Courrèges (1923–),  Oscar  de la Renta  (1932–),  Jacques  Fath  (1912–54), Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949), John  Galliano (1960–),  Rudy  Gernreich (1922–85), Hubert du  Givenchy (1927–),  Madame Grès  (1903–93), Halston (Roy Halston Frowick, 1932–90), Edith Head (1897–1981), Norma Kamali (1945–), Donna Karan (1948–), Calvin Klein (1942–), René Lacoste (1904–96), Jeanne  Lanvin  (1867–1946), Ralph Lauren (1939–),  Bob Mackie  (1940–),  Jessica McClintock (1930–),  Isaac  Mizrahi (1961–), Thierry Mugler (1948–), Todd Oldham (1961–), Jean Patou (1880–1936), Emilio  Pucci  (1914–92), Zandra Rhodes (1940–), Sonia  Rykiel (1930–), Anna  Sui (1955–), Ellen Tracy (Linda Allard, 1940–), Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975), Diane von  Furstenberg (1946–),  Emanuel Ungaro (1933–),  Gianni Versace  (1946–97), Louis  Vuitton (Marc Jacobs, 1963–), and Vera Wang  (1949–).

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