Influential Fashion Designers of the 20th Century
“Fashion changes Elegance endures” by Coco Chanel
The world of fashion was dominated in the 20th century by French and Italian designers. With incredible imagination, with daring attitude and undeniable flair, all of them were obsessed by enduring elegance.
The most influential designers left an individual mark, made a statement, changed the norms, and created an identifiable style; in the process they redefined the image of the modern woman and paid her tribute.
Driven by enormous energy and inflated egos, but most importantly blessed with talent and originality, their craftsmanship was impeccable. Authentic in their creations those giants of haute couture dictated fashion trends and imposed a style that will endure time.
COCO CHANEL. The fascinating world of high fashion begins with Coco Chanel whose name alone conveys prestige, impeccable quality, unique taste and unmistakable style. As early as the 1924 she was setting trends for women of all ages, instituting what will be later called “haute couture”.
Her design was simple, practical and sophisticated all at the same time.
After her success with Chanel nr. 5, she was well established and in 1926 her “little black dress” was the new and definite stone marker of her career.
She introduced the jersey suite, the chemise, the pleated skirt, the turtleneck sweater and the strapless dress.
Coco Chanel started the pants revolution and the craze for bobbed hair style using the philosophy “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise is not luxury” as well as another famous quote “elegance is refusal”. She firmly believed that “a woman has the age she deserves” and that every time a woman leaves the house she should “be prepared to eventually meet destiny that day”.
Convinced that “fashion is architecture and a matter of proportion” she dressed some of the most beautiful women of her time, from Marlene Dietrich to Ingrid Bergman and Princess Grace.
Her style of simple elegance never changed much with time and it is easily recognizable. Since taking over the House of Chanel, designer Karl Lagerfeld kept the image of distinguished elegance.
CRISTOBAL BALENCIAGA known as “The Master” was the only Spanish giant in the fashion world dominated by French and Italian designers. His first store opened in San Sebastian in 1919 and was followed soon after by stores in Madrid and Barcelona. Eventually he moved to Paris, the undisputed capital of the fashion world and he was known both as a designer (anticipating trends) and a craftsman obsessed with perfection.
He was seeking simple essence, elegance and simplicity. His most productive era was the ’50 when Balenciaga introduced the “sack” dress and the “Baby Doll look”. His preference was for deep black and rich brown colors. Young and talented designers as Givenchy and Emanuel Ungaro regarded him as their mentor.
NINA RICCI. After working most of her life for other designers, Italian born Nina Ricci found fame and fortune in Paris when she opened her own fashion house in 1932 at the age of 50. She created elegant, sophisticated dresses in classic style that addressed a specific need of the older Parisian high society woman.
Her strength was in discovering and highlighting the personality of her clients rather than trying to fit them into the dress already created.
She favored refined femininity at a time when Coco Chanel was the dominating force of the high fashion and boyish styles were being celebrated.
SALVATORE FERRAGAMO was a leader in the shoes industry for more than 70 years. As a very young boy he immigrated to United States and made imaginative, but also absolutely comfortable shoes for Hollywood stars as Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn.
In 1927 he returned to Italy and introduced innovative materials as raffia and jersey, Bakelite heels, wooden soles and in 1937 the most famous invention of them all the cork wedge. He is also the father of stiletto heel and platform shoe introduced in 1947, only to be revived in the ’70 and than again in the early 2000. He was more interested in perfumes and cologne at the beginning of his career, until he come in contact with Yves Saint Laurent and together created the “New look” presented at a fashion show in 1947.
Through his designs he imposed opulence as a rebellion against the austerity of the war era; the fitted jacket, the full calf length skirt was his first statement, followed by evermore extravagant designs. Some of his dresses will use up to 80 yards of fabric, most of them 35 to 60. His rounded shoulders, small waist, wide skirts and little hats made the trade mark of the “Dior woman”. A few short years later Dior presented the “Second look” characterized by a loose fitting shape, elongate torso, narrow shoulders and triangular shapes.
EMILIO PUCCI was born into a Neapolitan aristocratic family. He was the first member of his family to actually work in over 1000 years, so in order to spear additional embarrassment to his noble and reluctant family, he signed his collection simply as Emilio. In 1949 he opened his first boutique and introduced the “Capri pants” which took the world by storm. In the ’50 he gained a reputation as a brilliant designer of patterned sport wear and relaxed daywear, creating a line of light weight, wrinkle free, comfortable dresses.
YVES SAINT LAURENT was the creative force at the House of Dior and after the death of Christian Dior in 1957 he took over and imposed a new and personal style. His first collection called “The trapeze” was very successful and his talent was credited with the imposition of the triangular shape and the “bubble dress”. His sense of practicality and a desire for new energy made him abandon the dreamy, romantic, overly sophisticated Dior woman for a more dynamic one; the length of the dress was just below the knee but the shoulders remained narrow.
BILL BLASS study fashion in New York in the late ’40. His name will always be associated with true American fashion; modern, practical, tailored clothing. Most of his designs went into mass production, but some exclusive ones were made for First Ladies Nancy Regan and Barbara Bush, as well as Barbara Streisand and Barbara Walters.
GUCCI made his contribution to the high fashion industry by bringing accessories to a status of elegant necessities. His passion was leather goods, from handbags to shoes and luggage; later on he extended his influence to watches, jewelry, silk scarves, ties, eyeglasses, perfumes and cologne for men and women alike. Many celebrities as Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy will happily display a Gucci bag as the ultimate touch of elegance.
EMANUEL UNGARO was a follower of Balenciaga, but developed a personal style by accepting the changes of the time in terms of practicality and the sense of independence that the new woman was displaying with a renewed confidence. His trade mark is the printed patterns and bold colors and he said more than once “my dresses speak for themselves”. Ungaro is also known for high quality perfumes and cologne.
VALENTINO emphasized the feminine style and accentuated the delicate side of every woman, her liberated spirit. In 1960 he introduced the gypsy look with the full skirt, mixed prints, knotted fringes, making it an inspiration for the hippy era. A new collection presented in 1962 was called “No color” and every single dress was a shade of white, cream, sand, ecru and beige. His biggest contribution to the world of fashion was the introduction of the first “pret a porter” (ready to wear) line in 1969.
The success was immediate, but Valentino’s ego was not satisfied; his heart was forever in high fashion, his dream was to capture the imagination of the very rich and very famous, the most beautiful women of our times. In the early ’80 he went back to luxury and sophistication, his designs become characterized by puffed sleeves and ruffles intended to balance tight bodices; light and ethereal fabrics were used adding mystic to a translucent look.
His dresses are not only romantic, youthful and beautiful, they are also impeccably made. The king of the red carpet, Valentino designed the wedding dress for many celebrities, including Jacky Kennedy (when she married Onassis), Claudia Schaffer and Jennifer Lopez.
Princess Diane, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and many other legends enjoyed his unique sense of beauty; his quotation “I design energy not dresses” explains best his enormous success.