French Fashion Icons
We take a look back at some of France's most iconic designers from Mugler to Chanel.
Long Read Special
Paris is often regarded as the fashion capital of the world with chic boutiques spread across the city and many top end fashion houses headquartered there. Louis XIV whose lavish taste, evident in the stunning Palais de Versailles situated just outside the capital, is largely to thank for France's love of fashion and luxury. The country's luxury goods market is now worth over €16bn and is a major draw for tourists who travel from all four corners of the earth to experience the best in fashion.
With Paris Fashion Week in full flow, we take a look back at some of France's best, most loved and most iconic designers.
- Yves Saint Laurent
- Louis Vuitton
- Thierry Mugler
- Jean-Paul Gaultier
- Pierre Cardin
- Jean Patou
- Jacques Doucet
B: 21 January 1905, Granville, Normandy
D: 24 October 1957, Italy
Stand Out Piece(s): The Bar Suit
Pronunciation: KREEST-yahn DEE-or
Image (to right): Christian Dior photographed at his home in the South of France by Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Picture courtesy Lord Snowdon/Camera Press/Gamma
Up until 1940, Paris has been the centre of fashion boasting more fashion houses than any other city in the world. But as the war took hold and the Nazis began occupying parts of the country, fashion houses either closed their doors or began working for the Nazis. This gave rise to American fashion houses who have, until now, been overshadowed by French couture and largely based their trends on what was already being made in Europe.
During the war, clothes were simple, fabric was rationed and production had slowed. Many women who had previously been housewives were called upon to fill the jobs of their husbands including mechanics, engineering, shipbuilding, factory work, and air raid wardens, jobs previously seen as unsuitable for women. This resulted in a sharp fall in sales of haute couture as women took to sporting war uniforms and simple garments that could be made at home.
As the war came to an end in 1945, fashion houses began to reopen. Rationing continued on some items including food and petrol but fabric was restored.
At 30 Avenue Montaigne on 16th December 1946 Dior was established. His first collection was presented in early 1947 and the then editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar exclaimed: "It's such a new look!".
At the time of its launch, most were shocked at its extravagance and the sheer amount of fabric used.
Hubert de Givenchy
B: 20 February 1927, Beauvais, Hauts-de-France
D: 10 March 2018, Paris
Givenchy, founded: 1952
Stand Out Piece(s): Black Givenchy Dress, Balloon Coat
Image (to right): Hubert de Givenchy in 1960 in France. Photograph by Robert Doisneau/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images.
Before establishing his own fashion house, Givenchy worked with the then still unknown Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior. He also worked with Elsa Schiaparelli, an avant-garde Italian fashion designer who was Chanel's greatest rival but is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two wars.
It wasn't until 1952 that Givenchy opened his own fashion house. He launched his first collection at the age of 25 and became the youngest couturier on the Parisian fashion scene. The collection was named "Bettina Graziana" after Paris's top model at the time and was seen as innovative in comparison to Dior's more conservative designs.
Givenchy is often associated with Audrey Hepburn, for whom he designed one of the world's most iconic fashion pieces, the black Givenchy dress, which she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's. He went on to form a close friendship with the actress and model and designed much of her personal and professional wardrobe.
Other notable clients include Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and the controversial American socialite Wallis Simpson whose relationship with Edward, Prince of Wales lead to constitutional crisis and eventually his abdication.
Yves Saint Laurent
B: 1 August 1936, Oran, French Algeria
D: 1 June 2008, Paris
YSL, founded: 1961
Stand Out Piece(s): Smoking Suit, Mondrian Dress, Bolero Jackets, Turtlenecks
Pronunciation: eve sahn LA-rahn
After moving to Paris aged 17, Saint Laurent was introduced to the giant of the fashion world Dior who tutored him. On multiple occasions, he entered a competition organised by the International Wool Secretariat for young fashion designers and won beating Spanish fashion designer Fernando Sánchez and young German student Karl Lagerfeld. Upon winning, he was hired by Dior and by the age of 21 he was head designer of the Fashion house.
His first collection for Dior in the spring of 1958 is said to have saved the company from financial ruin. It was praised for its sharp lines yet softer features and it catapulted him into the international fashion spotlight.
In 1960, Saint Laurent was conscripted to serve in the army during the Algerian War of Independence. He served for just 20 days before being admitted to hospital where he found out that he had been fired from his role at Dior. The news worsened his condition and he was given large doses of sedatives, psychoactive drugs, and electroshock therapy.
Saint Laurent successfully sued Dior upon being discharged from hospital and went on to open his own fashion house in 1961. He popularised fashion trends that defined the 60s and 70s such as the beatnik look, safari jackets, tight trousers, thigh-high boots and perhaps the most famous of all his designs the Smoking Jacket, a tailored tuxedo for women.
He also created the renowned Mondrian collection, a set of garments including six dresses inspired by modernist artist Piet Mondrian.
Saint Laurent was the first French couturier to launch a full prêt-à-porter line. British fashion journalist Alicia Drake credit this move with Saint Laurent's desire to democratise fashion. In 1983, he also became the first living fashion designer to be honoured by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a solo exhibition.
In 1987, just days after the "Black Monday" stock market crash, Saint Laurent launched his new prêt-à-porter line which featured $100,000 jeweled jackets. The move was seen as insensitive and the collection was shot down by the press.
"He imagined a contrasting fashion: a subversive elegance where masculine met with femininity, street-wear with couture and where chastity and sexiness encountered." - The Red List
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
B: 19 August 1883, Saumur, Loire
D: 10 January 1971, Paris
Chanel, founded: 1909
Stand Out Piece(s): Chanel suit, Little black dress, the Chanel bag, Chanel No. 5
Born in 1883 to an unmarried mother in a poorhouse run by the Sisters of Providence in Saumur, Chanel had a troubled childhood. Aged just 12, Chanel's mother died and she was sent away to the convent of Aubazine orphanage. It was here that she learned to sew.
Chanel opened her first millinery shop in 1910 at 21 Rue Cambon, an address that has become synonymous with her name. She later opened a boutique in Deauville selling luxury casual clothes and sportswear made from materials such as jersey, which at the time were almost exclusively used to make men's underwear, and then in 1915, she opened a store in Biarritz.
She expanded her boutique on Rue Cambon to encompass numbers 23 - 31, which was situated in one of the most fashionable areas of the city. It was here that she established her maison de couture.
Arguably the world's most iconic perfume, Chanel No. 5 was launched in 1921 which would go on to earn Chanel a small fortune. Its scents, created by perfumer Ernest Beaux, echoed moments in her past including her time at the Aubazine orphanage and stood for the liberation of women during the 1920s.
Her fashion empire continued to grow through the 20s and by 1935 had over 4,000 employees. But then came the war. Chanel closed all her shops and stepped away from designing claiming "It is not a time for fashion".
Fifteen years passed. In 1954 aged 70, Chanel made her comeback. After the war, male couturiers reigned the fashion scene and Chanel initially found it difficult to regain her reputation. She launched her comeback collection at a runway show on February 5, 1954 - 5 was her lucky number. The French press tore her apart ridiculing her designs and sneering at her age.
As the decade progressed, Chanel reclaimed her influence. LIFE Magazine writes "At 71 years old, Gabrielle Chanel brings more than a style, a REVOLUTION". Soon orders started to pour in from the States and beyond.
In the early 1960s, she revisited one of her most legendary garments, the Chanel suit. Its military-inspired jacket and braided tweed, pat pockets, buttons like jewels and a unique fit thanks to the chain concealed within its hem was a timeless fashion piece even though Chanel herself once stated: "fashion is made to become unfashionable".
Latterly, Chanel became lonely and at the age of 87, she died at the Hotel Ritz, where she had resided for more than 30 years. She was buried in Switzerland and had designed her own tomb. She quoted "Without stone above me, I would want to leave if I had the wish to go to heaven and dress the angels".
B: 4 August 1821, Anchay, Jura
D: 27 February 1892, Asnières-sur-Seine
Louis Vuitton, founded: 1854
Stand Out Piece(s): leather luggage boxes
Image (to right): Portrait of Louis Vuitton (1821-1892), founder of the House of Vuitton. By Unknown - Zoot Online, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...
In 1854 in Paris Louis Vuitton founded his leather trunk label which would change not only his life and the future Vuitton generations but the world. His cases were revolutionary as, prior to the launch of LV cases, trunks generally featured rounded tops to facilitate water runoff which made them difficult to stack. Vuitton's canvas flat-top trunks were stackable, lightweight and airtight.
To protect his products from duplication from other makers, he changed the plain grey Trianon canvas fabric to a beige and brown striped canvas before eventually adopting the Damier canvas - light and dark brown checker - which is still used on some of its products today.
The first Louis Vuitton store was opened on Oxford Street, London in 1885. It took another 28 years for the company to open another store.
It wasn't until Vuitton died in 1892 and his son Georges took over that the company became the iconic brand that it is today. He introduced the signature LV monogram pattern and opened a flagship store on the Champs-Elysees in 1913. At the time it was the largest travel-goods store in the world. Stores began to pop up across the globe including in New York, Bombay, Washington, Alexandria, and Buenos Aires.
The company continued to grow and launch new travel products throughout the 1920s and 30s. Georges died in 1936, his son Gaston-Louis assumed control.
During the Second World War, LV collaborated with the Nazis and profited from their regime. The Vuitton family even set up a new factory dedicated to producing glorified Pétain artifacts - Pétain was a French General Officer remembered mainly as a Nazi collaborator. After the war, he was sentenced to death for treason.
After the war, LV expanded its lines to accessories while still producing its legendary trunks and in 1987 the company, under the direction of Henry Recamier merged with spirits and wine merger Moët Hennessy to form the LVMH conglomerate.
B: 1 January 1867, Paris
D: 6 July 1946, Paris
Lanvin, founded: 1889
Stand Out Piece(s): Arpège fragrance
One of a handful of fashion houses with over 120 years experience, Lanvin was founded in 1889 by Jeanne Lanvin.
At 22, fresh out of her apprenticeship at Madame Félix, Paris, Lanvin opened her first store, at milliners on rue Boissy d'Anglas and just 4 years later obtained a commercial lease on the prestigious rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris and opened her eponymous fashion house.
In 1895 she met and married Count Emilio di Pietro, an Italian nobleman and had her first and only daughter two years later. Lanvin made clothes for her daughter which attracted attention from wealthy socialites wanting designs of their own from the then relatively unknown couturier.
Lanvin became a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in 1909 thus becoming a registered couturier.
Having opened her first dedicated department in 1908 for children, she went on to open departments for young ladies' (1909), women (1909), furs (1913), sportswear (1923), Men's Tailoring (1926) and even a standalone store for interiors (1920).
Perhaps the most significant expansion of the Lanvin fashion empire came in 1924 when Lanvin Perfumes set up shop at 4 Rod-Point Champs-Élysées. Her first scent 'My Sin' was considered unique, but it wasn't until the legendary 'Arpège' scent was born in 1927 that Lanvin Perfumes was hurled into the international spotlight. Notes of Bulgarian rose, Grasse jasmine, honeysuckle and lily of the valley led her daughter to exclaim "It's like an arpeggio!", hence the name.
When Lanvin died in 1946, the company was handed down to her daughter who managed it until her death in 1958. In the years following, cousin Bernand Lanvin managed the company until its acquisition by cosmetics conglomerate L'Oreal in the 1990's.
B: 21 December 1948, Strasbourg, Alsace
Mugler, founded: 1973
Stand Out Piece(s): risqué late 80s and 90s collections, the corset, Angel perfume
Pronunciation: tee-air-ree mu-glare
Chances are you know Mugler's designs even if you've not heard the name before. The famous black dress worn by Demi Moore in the 1993 American drama, Indecent Proposal was designed by him, he directed the music video for George Michael's 1992 dance-pop tune, Too Funky and he worked as Beyoncé's artistic advisor during her 2009 "I am... World Tour".
Born in Strasbourg in the post-war years, Mugler was never much of an academic and didn't pay attention at school, focusing more on his drawing skills. Aged 9, he began to study classical dance and by 14 he had joined the ballet corps for the Opéra National du Rhin whilst also studying interior design at the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts.
After he had graduated from his interior design studies, Mugler relocated to Paris. By the age of 26, he was working as a freelance fashion designer, having learned from his experience working at Gudule - a Parisian fashion boutique.
1973 was a significant year for Mugler, he launched his first collection named "Café de Paris" which was described as both sophisticated and urban, taking inspiration from the punk scene and mixing it with the classic broad-shouldered suits worn by the French military. In 1978 he opened his first boutique at the Place des Victories and with the help of Melka Tréanton, a high-powered fashion editor at ELLE, he launched his career in fashion. Following on from this success he launched his first men's collection which he described as "reworked classical masculinity, a definitively modern style, clean, precise, structured cut which outlined a highly recognisable silhouette".
The following decades saw Mugler rise to international fame. He became known around the world for his extreme and sometimes controversial designs but nonetheless his collections garnered much commercial success.
The 90s saw Mugler's career peak; 1992 saw the launch of the popular Angel fragrance, he also directed George Michael's Too Funky music video and later in the year launched his first haute couture collection, he designed the famous but controversial black dress worn by Demi Moore in 1993 film classic, Indecent Proposal, his runway shows were (super)modelled to the max with the likes of Naomi Cambell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Eva Herzigova. His designs were influenced by themes of bondage and nature and mixed with his love of vampy film noir silhouettes. He used unconventional materials such as steel and PVC, and remodelled the female body, emphasising wide shoulders and squeezing in the waist. At the heart of it all was his love of the corset; a symbol, for many, of repression.
“Mugler’s designs became works of art, sculptures to be donned by divas, goddesses, and primadonnas who could transform into exotic creatures, erotic enigmas, and fantastical archetypes”
B: 24 April 1952, Paris
Jean-Paul Gaultier, founded: 1976
Stand Out Piece(s): Cone Bra (Madonna), Sailor outfits/Breton stripe
Pronunciation: zhawn pohl GOH-teeay
Born and raised in Paris, Gaultier was introduced to fashion by his grandmother. In fact, he kickstarted his career by submitting fashion sketches to famous couturiers. Pierre Cardin was the first to spot his undeniable talent and hired him as his assistant when Gaultier was just 18.
He launched his first collection in 1976 just months after his 24th birthday. His designs were considered decadent at a time when high fashion collections were, by today's standards, a little tacky.
The eighties was a time of both immense criticism and enormous popularity, and latterly of personal loss. He introduced the man-skirt and played around with traditional gender roles by using older men, larger women and pierced and tattooed models in his runway shows. But the decade came crashing down when his longterm boyfriend and business partner Francis Menuge died in 1990 of AIDS.
His successes continued into the nineties when he became internationally recognised for designing costumes for Madonna, in particular, the infamous cone bra for her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. He also created costumes for Marilyn Manson and Canadian-French singer Mylène Farmer.
During the 2000s, he continued designing for celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Fergie, Dita von Teese, and Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor.
In 2013, he designed a controversial couture dress piece that Rihanna wore to the American Music Awards. Kim Kardashian wore one of his designs to the Grammys in 2015, Katy Perry wore another of his pieces at the Vanity Fair after-party in 2017 and Solange Knowles, Sister of Beyoncé wore a dress from his Autumn/Winter 2017 collection to the Glamour Women of the Year Awards in 2017.
In recent years, the 'granny grey' hair trend has been attributed to him after his 2015 Paris Fashion Week runway show featured models wearing grey beehives. The trend was also seen on the Chanel runway show and trickled down into mainstream fashion among celebrities and the public. He also announced in that same year that he would cease to design ready-to-wear collections to instead focus on his haute couture designs.
B: 10 January 1801, Krefeld, French First Republic (now part of Germany)
D: 10 January 1878, Paris
Hermès, founded: 1837
Originally manufactured horse harnesses
Image (to right): Thierry Hermès by an Unidentified 19th-century photographer, Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/...
The current holder of the 'oldest fashion house in France' title, Hermès was established as a horse harness manufacturer in 1837. It didn't become the grand fashion house that it is today until the 1920s when Thierry's grandson Émile-Maurice Hermès, then director of the company, introduced accessories and clothing lines to compete with other fashion houses at the time.
Prior to this expansion, the firm designed and manufactured horse harnesses, saddles and other equestrian accessories using quality leather for the carriage trade and European noblemen.
The early 1900's hit the Hermès business hard with the arrival of the motorcar wiping out the carriage trade. A new plan was needed.
Émile-Maurice, Thierry's grandson and new director of the firm, was granted exclusive rights to use the zipper with leather goods and became the first to introduce the device in France. In 1918, Hermès designed a leather golf jacket for Edward, Prince of Wales. Four years later, a collection of leather handbags were introduced - the first modern fashion accessories produced by the fashion house. In the late-20s, Émile-Maurice launched the company's first women's couture collection which enjoyed moderate success.
The thirties saw Hermès launch some of its most internationally recognised goods and an exclusive collaboration between Hermès and Swiss watchmaker Universal Genève which lasted through the forties and into the early fifties.
The 1950s marked a new era for the company, Émile-Maurice died in 1951 and his son-in-law Robert Dumas-Hermès stepped in as the director thus becoming the first man not directly related to the firm's original founder to run the company.
The company's current Duc-carriage-with-horse logo and signature orange paper boxes were acquired in the early 1950s and Dumas began introducing more fashion accessories and apparel as the decade progressed. The spotlight was shined on the fashion house when LIFE magazine featured Grace Kelly - who had recently married into royalty to become the Princess of Monaco - carrying a "Sac à dépêches" bag.
Like other fashion houses at the time, Hermès released its first perfume in the early sixties. But the ageing business was to hit hard times as the seventies swept in. Declining sales and lost interest in the fashion house plagued its reputation. However, in the late 70s, the company acquired failing glassware and silverware manufacturers and introduced its own line of tableware products which ultimately saved it from collapse and saw sales rise during the following decade, so much so that the family was included in the Forbes list of Billionaires in the mid-nineties.
The company headed into the 21st century in a strong position. Jean-Paul Gaultier joined the fashion house in 2003 as head designer and after nearly 30 years as director Jean-Louis Dumas retired in 2006. He was replaced by Patrick Thomas who was in turn replaced by Axel Dumas in 2014. Both Thomas and Dumas are the first non-Hermès family member to run the company since its founding.
B: 2 July 1922, Italy
The House of Cardin, founded: 1950
Pronunciation: pee-air car-dahn
Known for his avant-garde style and designs often influenced by space exploration, futurism, and geometric pattern, Cardin was an innovator of his time. He led the way in unisex fashion which, at the time, was a novel idea and was somewhat experimental. He established his own fashion label in 1950 while subsequently designing 30 costumes for what was billed "party of the century", a masquerade ball at Palazzo Labia in Venice.
He was a man of firsts. He was the first to bring haute couture to Japan, the first to display his logo on a garment, the first to combine the "mini" and "maxi" skirt formats of the seventies. He was also the only man in history to have tried on the original space suit worn by the first human to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong.
He and architect Antti Lovag designed the famous Palais Bulles (Bubble House) near Cannes, France. He used the house as a holiday residence until 2017 when it was listed for sale for a staggering €350 million.
B: 7 January 1964, Paris
Christian Louboutin, founded: 1991
Pronunciation: KREEST-yahn loo-boo-TAAN
Image (to right): Christian Louboutin at Nordstrom Pacific Centre by David Strongman
After dropping out of school and largely ignoring his academic studies through his teen years, Louboutin began working as a freelance designer for the likes of Chanel and YSL and after a brief break from fashion, he returned in 1991, setting up his own label with the help of two generous backers. Princess Caroline of Monaco was his first customer and other clients have included Christina Aguilera, Shirley Coates, Joan Collins, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Tina Turner, Marion Cotillard, Nicki Minaj, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Brittney Spears.
It is thought that Louboutin helped bring stilettos back into fashion in the 90s and 00s. The first pair of signature shoes to feature the red-lacquered soles were released in 1993.
B: 18 May 1914, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, France
D: 29 June 1982, Paris
Balmain, founded: 1945
Pronunciation: pee-air bahl-mahn
Born in 1914 in a town in the Rhône-Alpes, it was almost inevitable from the day he was born that he would lead a career in fashion. His father owned a drapery business and his mother ran a fashion boutique, although neither could've predicted quite how successful he would become.
Aged 19, Balmain began studying architecture whilst also designing freelance for fashion designer Robert Piguet - known for training Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy.
During the ten or so years prior to the founding of his fashion label, he was offered a job with designer Edward Molyneux, subsequently leaving his studies. In 1945, at the age of 31, he established the House of Balmain. The collection was debuted in Vogue later on in the year, critics describing the collection as: "beautiful clothes that you really want to wear". He became known very quickly as "the king of French fashion" and designed for big names including Ava Gardner, Brigitte Bardot, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn.
He also designed the outfits worn by athletes during the 1968 Winter Olympics held in Grenoble and the cabin crew uniform for Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (which later became Singapore Airlines) during the 1960's and 70's.
B: 19 August 1880, Normandy
D: 8 March 1936, Paris
Jean Patou, founded: 1912 | Haute couture business closed in 1987, perfumes continued
Pronunciation: zhawn pa-toh
Hailing from a family of tanners and furriers, Patou moved to Paris at the age of 30 with the intent of becoming a couturier. He opened his dressmaking salon just 4 years later and launched an haute couture collection not long after - the whole collection was purchased by a single buyer.
Although his work was interrupted by the war, the brand became a dominant force in the Parisian and American fashion scenes after 1918.
In the early 1920's he lengthened the flapper dress, effectively eradicating the style of wearing short skirts. He is also known for being the first to design sportswear for women and the inventor of the knitted swimsuit and the tennis skirt. He also popularised the cardigan and moved fashion, along with Coco Chanel, his greatest rival, towards the idea of comfort rather than tradition. The French press criticised the move, accusing him of lacking national pride.
He also was also credited, posthumously, with creating "scent of the century" with his fragrance "Joy", beating Chanel No 5.
The House of Jean Patou was closed in the late 1980's but the perfume business continued and ultimately was acquired by the LVMH group which announced this week that it would be resurrecting the Jean Patou clothing brand in 2019.
B: 1853, Paris | D: 1929
Jacques Doucet, founded: 1871
Pronunciation: zhack do-say
The Doucet name was already established prior to Jacques birth. His paternal grandparents were bonnet sellers and lace merchants and his father ran a lingerie and linens business so it was expected that Jacques would either take on the family business or go into a career in fashion.
He did just that and opened his own salon in 1871 selling ladies' apparel. At the time fashion was a man's domain, female designers were unheard of and what women wore was very much regulated by men. But, as the 20th century rolled in, times changed and Doucet's traditional designs began to fade.
B: 2 July 1904, Paris
D: 12 October 1996, Saint-Jean-de-Luz
Lacoste, founded: 1933
Having become a household name in tennis during the twenties, Lacoste, more than anyone, knew what sportsmen and women needed and wanted. They wanted comfort but also style, they wanted to make an impression, not just in how they played but in what they wore, they wanted to be an icon and wear one too.
In 1933 Lacoste founded his own label and launched his revolutionary tennis shirt with the crocodile emblem embroidered on the chest. It was an instant success.
Season after season, Lacoste launched new lines of polos, each had its own style. In the fifties, he launched his first fashion line for children and in the sixties, he kitted out the French ski team.
But alongside his work, he continued to revisit his past and bring innovation to the sport he loved.