Honouring women who blazed the trail in the fashion industry, we shine a light on the 12 most influential female designers in the history of Haute Couture
Since the beginning of the industry, fashion has always been aimed at women. The big players whose names have been etched in the annals of history, however, have mostly been male. Yet, behind the scenes, numerous women have silently been at work, playing a very important role in the evolution of fashion.
Long before Women’s History Month came about in the 1980s, a string of female designers and entrepreneurs were not only carving out their own paths in the industry but also paving the way for other women to follow suit. They developed bold, unique lines to empower women with clothes that would instil confidence and help them find their inner strength in order to make a living in a male-dominated society. And this March, as we once again honour the role of powerful women in society, we shine a light on the most influential designers, pioneers in fashion and entrepreneurs who revolutionised the way women dressed.
The ultimate female designer, Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel is considered by many as the greatest fashion icon to have ever lived. Up until her passing in 1971, at the age of 87, Coco Chanel had been working on her couture collection. In her lifetime, she defined the notion of wardrobe staples by introducing her trademark 'little black dress', which is timeless even today. She started her career during World War I and became the first mainstream designer to use jersey fabric in her Haute Couture collection. She often borrowed from the vocabulary of menswear to create pieces that emphasised comfort for women. As such, she freed women from lace, frills and the corsets that they wore under their skirts and dresses by offering them sailor shirts, wide-leg pants and suits instead.
Unlike Chanel, Madame Louise Chéruit, known as Madeleine Chéruit, isn’t a household name, but she paved the way for women in fashion by becoming one of the first women at the helm of a major fashion house in France. Chéruit started out as a dressmaker at Raudnitz & Cie House of Couture in the late 1880s. Her exceptional talent didn't go unnoticed and, eventually, at the turn of the century, she took over the salon, renaming it Chéruit in 1905. Though the house shuttered in 1935, Chéruit's influence in fashion design can still be felt today.
She might have been a major rival to Coco Chanel – the two tried to outdo the other’s style with every collection – but Elsa Schiaparelli made her own mark. The Italian designer’s legacy began with her collection in 1927 that comprised hand-knitted sweaters featuring surrealist “trompe l’ceil” images, which is an art method that uses realistic imagery to create optical illusions. This went on to become her signature style that captured the world’s attention.
She would later go on to become the first designer to use zippers as a visible statement piece while launching unique collections of bathing suits, ski-wear, and divided skirts which are known as tennis skirts today. She also went on to collaborate with artists such as Salvador Dali and Meret Oppenheim. Her unique style landed her on the cover of TIME magazine, making her the first female fashion designer to ever earn the honour.
Such was her legacy that Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee became one of the very few people in the fashion industry – and the world – to be known exclusively by their first name. Hailing from Russia, she was a popular costume designer in the late 1920s known for her dramatic evening gowns, which quickly gained Hollywood’s attention. She had her own couture dress house called Valentina’s Gowns, where she designed gorgeous made-to-measure, flowing dresses, pioneering the notion of red carpet glamour.
French couturier Madame Grès founded former haute couture fashion house Grès and perfume house Parfums Grès, which still exists today in Switzerland. Grès was famous for her floor-length draped Grecian goddess gowns that showed her respect for the female body.
Mary Quant is widely credited as the creator of the miniskirt and hotpants. She found her inspiration on the streets that surrounded her in London of the 1960s. She wanted to create easy, youthful, simple clothes in which women could not only move with ease but also run and jump – all of which represented the growing liberation in women’s fashion.
The convergence of high fashion and modern punk came about as a result of Vivienne Westwood’s efforts to bring these bold styles into the mainstream, an approach designers usually shied away from. Without her, safety-pin shirts, sky-high platform shoes, plaid pants and draped dresses would not be so nearly chic. But it’s not just the fashion world that has felt Westwood’s impact. She is also an activist and supports everything from civil rights to climate change, while addressing these challenges through her work.
The designer who made the white shirt a must-have wardrobe staple in every woman's closet, Carolina Herrera built her empire on elegant, chic fashion for women. Often pictured in a white button-down shirt with a taffeta skirt, her look has inspired many women to follow suit. She's also widely credited as the creator of the shirt dress, which is quite popular even today.
Diane Von Furstenberg
The easiest dress to throw on, the iconic wrap dress is Diane Von Furstenberg's proudest creation, which over the years her empire has built on with unique collections of mini, maxi and midi dresses, all featuring the signature wrap style in a host of prints and colours. The dress first launched in 1974 and instantly made waves. Industry watchers consider her success as revolutionary as Coco Chanel's little black dress.
American fashion designer Vera Wang is best known for designing some of the world’s most recognised bridal gowns. In 1989, she designed her own wedding dress after finding nothing that suited her unique style. This inspired her to turn her passion for all things bridal into a burgeoning empire and she opened her first boutique in 1990. Now, 31 years in the business, at age 72, Wang continues to challenge herself as a creator, producing bold, unique bridal gowns at every price point.
Another designer who made waves for her bridal gown collection is closer to home. Reem Acra pursued degrees in business administration and fashion design before starting her own line of bridal gowns. It is said that she found her passion while designing a dress for her friend’s wedding in a span of three weeks. Her line of evening gowns also gained much traction, with a plethora of stars sporting her on the red carpet.
Saudi Arabian designer Honayda Serafi designed her first outfit at age 13 under her mother’s watchful eye. Later in life, she turned her vision of establishing her own brand into a fashion empire with covetable collections that are strongly rooted in her heritage. While she certainly has the world’s attention – as she has dressed global figures from Olympic skater Lindsay Vonn to Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra – the designer has used her success to inspired a new generation of creatives by launching several initiatives to support their endeavours.