There’s something exceptional about European fashion designers. It’s in their personalities and the way they challenge the status quo without ever crossing beyond the line of sophistication. While other artists were deconstructing established techniques or maintaining prevailing trends, these designers reached a little further and grasped the mythical mixture of cutting-edge originality and classical rediscovery. In other words, they took what came before and made it better, becoming myths and legends in the process. The question of why it was specifically European men and women who attained this heightened sense of fame is still up for debate. Perhaps after World War II, the process of rebuilding a continent provided more opportunities to start afresh and rediscover rather than replace what had come before. Perhaps they just have unique sensibilities from growing up in a venerable Western society. Whatever it was, every true fashionista knows their names now. Do you?
Perhaps the singularly most influential fashion designer of all time, Chanel transformed fashion and beauty during the mid-20th century. Her iconic little black dress and trademark suits upped the ante for comfortable formalwear and Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume ever to feature a designer’s name in the title. Blended with her mysterious past as a supposed spy during the war, Chanel is the epitome of a fashion legend.
Respected though she was, Chanel could not endure forever. When the famed designer passed away, there was a scramble to find a worthy creative director for her brand. The search finally came up with a German designer who had a distinct eccentric personality much like Chanel. Thus, Chanel under Lagerfeld was born. An unmistakable industry character in his dark sunglasses and thick black ties, Karl carried on Chanel’s revered name and turned her brand into a modern fashion powerhouse.
The woman behind Prada has been a trendsetter since the 80s. Taking over her family’s luxury leather bag business, Miuccia transformed what was a baggage company into a respected fashion house in a few short years. By the early 90s, they were killing the competition using innovative new fabrics like nylon for handbags and couture backpacks. Miuccia manages to find time for both the powerhouse that is Prada and her personal project, the less expensive Miu Miu line. The only other woman to join Chanel at the top of the food chain, her scope and energetic ambition are quickly becoming legendary.
His tragic murder added an immortal quality to his life, but Versace had earned the respected of millions long before his untimely death. Known for bold colors, daring cuts, and the finest in celebrity glamor, his label designed for everyone from the everyday shopper to Princess Diana. Even superstars like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have nothing on the celebrity power of Gianni Versace.
HUBERT DE GIVENCHY
The king of Parisian chic, Givenchy was best known for his work with the beautiful Audrey Hepburn. He was her personal stylist, but also helped make many of her iconic on-screen outfits. He was famous for taking what was around him and making it even greater than it originally was. Take Holly Golightly’s gown, for example. It made Hepburn the personification of Chanel’s little black dress. Few designer knew how to seize the moment with as much wit and cultural sensitivity as Hubert Givenchy.
Dior redrew the modern woman. His designs presented a new way of expressing femininity through luxury clothing. Slopped shoulders, sleeker waistlines, and ankle-length skirts were all part of his attempt to rebuild the fashion sense of Europe after WWII. Both perennial favorites and decade-defining styles, Christian Dior’s extensive portfolio is proof one man can come pretty close to single-handedly defining an era.
YVES SAINT LAURENT
One of the eccentric geniuses people loved to fan over and hate, Saint Laurent took his inspirations from the thousands of new and different looks that came out of the mod 60s and 70s. He introduced gentlemen to the tuxedo smoking jacket and convinced women thigh-high boots were trendy. Yves was also the first designer to use non-white models in his photo shoots.
An Italian fashion mogul with indisputable flair, Armani made a name for himself as the one to beat when it came to luxury menswear. It was his suits that people adored most, with features like the soft shoulder and thin 80s pinstripes. After amassing his fortune, Armani went on to dabble in various other industries. His iconic name is now on watches, houseware, books, and even hotels.
Garavani made Valentino red the must-have shade for every 60s fashionista. An Italian at birth, this famous womenswear designer became a myth in American dressing celebrity women. His influence spanned Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Jacqueline Kennedy to name just a few. Unlike most of the designers on this list, Valentino was all about individual designs rather than creating a brand. He created the icons people admired rather than the outfits they craved.
In the 1950s, Balenciaga changed fashion when he reworked the classic silhouette. By removing the waist and broadening the shoulders, he gave women a new figure to aspire to and introduced the idea that perhaps comfort could be equally as important as fashion when assembling an outfit. From him, we get the tunic dress, chemise dress, and summer favorite balloon shirt.
Europe has always been the fashion capital of the world. Not only are its citizens well-dressed, but it has produced some of the finest names in haute couture for the last 100 years. With new names emerging from Central Saint Martin’s and other illustrious schools every spring, it’s a trend that won’t be dying off anytime soon. As you’re building that luxury wardrobe, be sure to include at least a few designers with European blood in their veins.
— Timothy Vest