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.
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 (www.etsy.com) 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–).