Many years before the genesis of what would become Women’s History Month, female fashion designers began creating their paths to empower women with clothes that would make them feel confident and create jobs that sustained livelihoods. Even today, most people associate fashion with women, and the standard runway, clothing boutiques, and stores predominately serve women’s fashion. But, looking back on the biggest labels in history, most of them were founded by men.
Fashion was, and is, a business and women were limited from decision-making. However, after eons of struggle, women gained more fiscal independence and paved the way to create their brands and make way for others. In celebration of International Women’s Day, we remember some of the most prominent female fashion designers. From Jeanne Lanvin, who began Lanvin as an entrepreneur even before the 19th century, to the avant-garde Rei Kawakubo, who has made a triumphant niche of fashion-meets-art, these dynamic women crafted designs that changed the fashion scene and influence us even today.
Female Fashion Designers Who Steered Change
In 1927, Schiaparelli’s trompe-l’œuil signature style began her career in fashion. It was an instant best-seller and defined her oeuvre: well-defined pieces with a twist of the unanticipated. She was the first to employ zippers as a discernible statement element and also made her mark by collaborating with surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali and Meret Oppenheim. Her unique style led her to the cover of TIME magazine — the first female fashion designer ever to earn the honor.
Considered a phenomenal fashion force, Coco Chanel created a fashion spirit and influenced numerous young designers globally. Prior to her death at the age of 87 in 1971, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel had been working on her couture collection until the last minute. For many decades, Chanel epitomized her trademark styles just by donning them herself. Freeing women from corsetry and other confining clothing, she took inspiration from menswear and created comfortable casual chic styles. Democratizing shoulder bags for women is what changed the handbag industry and made Chanel one of the most remarkable designer labels.
She was the eldest from a modest family of eleven children, and from an early age, her strength of character foretold Jeanne’s extraordinary fate. She was a true visionary of her time, and her creations became popular among elite Parisians. In 1889, the 32-year-old Jeanne Lanvin launched her own House of Lanvin, the third oldest European fashion house still in operation, thus commencing a legacy that lives on.
Largely responsible for bringing high fashion and punk together, Dame Vivienne Westwood was also a businesswoman, activist, and fashion designer. From civil rights and climate change to fast fashion, she addressed all the relevant issues of her time. The late British designer left people in awe and shocked every time with her collections and also left behind one of the last independent global fashion labels in the world.
Tokyo-born designer Rei Kawakubo established Comme des Garçons in 1973 then displayed her first collection in Paris in 1981. Kawakubo challenged conventional constructs of fashion and made only black-and-white clothing until the late 80s, after which she began branching out more colors. Her colossal, geometric frames and deconstructed, ripped dresses have established her fiercely modern style among fashion lovers.
Diane von Fürstenberg
The Belgian-American designer married Prince Egon von Fürstenberg and dropped her title as she set forward to make a name: Diane von Fürstenberg. In 1969, a youthful and pregnant newlywed, von Fürstenberg, went to New York and into the fashion club like other designers did — dragging a suitcase full of her ideas around to buyers and magazines. The wrap dress she became popular for made its debut in 1974. Its success led to a cosmetics line and other opportunities. By 1976, DVF and her signature wrap dress landed on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and the rest would be fashion history.
Ever since she launched her eponymous label in 2001, Stella McCartney has advocated for sustainable and cruelty-free fashion. She banned the employment of animal leathers, fur, and feathers in her brand, took many initiatives to use recycled materials to drive a change for her activism. Her pieces are both chic and wearable for the modern woman.
As we talk about influential female fashion designers, we cannot miss Vera Wang. She is a woman who whirled her passion for everything bridal into a successful empire at the age of 40. Her first boutique opened in 1990, and soon, she disrupted the bridalwear market by making awe-inspiring gowns at every price point. Her clientele includes Kim Kardashian, Victoria Beckham, and Chelsea Clinton. Recently, Wang also introduced a plus-size wedding dress collection, bringing inclusivity to designer bridal fashion.
Other female fashion designers such as Miuccia Prada, Carolina Herrera, Donatella Versace, and Donna Karan have not just created a name for themselves but also a legacy to continue. Women in fashion may be something we have always heard about, but some have left a mark, and some are living legends that are striving to bring a change. These women of the fashion world inspire us and remind us of the beauty that lies in art.