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Female Designers Who Have Shaped the Fashion Industry

By Madison Thomas

March is Women’s History Month which means right now is the perfect time to recognize women from all over the world for their hard work, persistence, and amazing accomplishments. 

There is certainly no shortage of women trying to break into the fashion industry, as women make up over 70% of student enrollment across top American design schools.

But the fashion design industry still remains heavily male dominated. During 2017 fashion weeks in New York, London, Paris, and Milan, Business of Fashion (BOF) conducted a survey that found only 40.2% of the designers were women. Results from another BOF survey revealed that only 14% of major fashion brands were run by women. 

However, female designers have still made a huge impact in the industry and deserve to be recognized. Below is a list featuring five of the women who helped shape the world of fashion into what it is today.

Coco Chanel 

Coco Chanel’s name remains as well recognized as ever. Her simple and classic designs have withstood the test of time and continue to be timeless staples in many women’s wardrobes. 

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in Samuar, France in 1883. At only 12 years old, the designer’s mother passed away and Chanel was placed in an orphanage by her father. While in the orphanage Chanel was taught a skill that would prove to be extremely valuable, how to sew. 

Chanel drew much of her design inspiration from menswear and sportswear. She stayed away from the tight garments and corsets that were typical for women to wear during the early 20th-century, and instead created pieces with comfortable and boxy designs. The designer is most known for her little black dress and tweed suit.

Her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, was released in 1921 and is still one of the most recognized perfumes in the world.

In a 1960 radio interview, Marilyn Monroe spoke on what she wore to bed, “Chanel No. 5 because it’s the truth. And yet, I don’t want to say ‘nude.’ But it’s the truth!” 

Valentina

One of the first designers to go by only her first name, Valentina is known for her glamorous gowns and exclusive Hollywood clientele. Valentina designed for actresses such as Katharine Hepburn, Lynn Fontanne, and Greta Garbo.

Valentina Sanina Nicholaevna Schlée was born in 1904 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Valentina and her partner, George Schlée, moved to New York City in 1923 and quickly became café society members. Café society members consisted of celebrities and sports stars who hosted and attended grand dinner parties and took elaborate vacations together.

 In 1928 Valentina opened Valentina’s Gowns on Madison Ave. While Valentina dressed some of the biggest stars of her time, she was still the best at modeling her own designs. Her long and conservative dresses made her stand out during a time when flapper fashion was in full swing.

She primarily stuck to subtle and neutral color palettes and simple designs. “Simplicity survives the changes in fashion. Women of chic are wearing now dresses they bought from me in 1936. Fit the century, forget the year,” Valentina said.

While Valentina’s made to order pieces could only be afforded by a small group of high-class individuals, her styles were imitated by other brands and sold to the masses at much lower price points. 

Claire McCardell

American fashion designer, Claire McCardell is credited as the inventor of American sportswear. 

Born in Frederick, Maryland in 1905, McCardell is the only American-born designer to make the list.

McCardell first began her schooling in a home economics program at Hood College, but after two years at the school she moved to New York City to attend Parsons. After graduation she got her first job as a fit model for B. Altman and Company, followed by a position as a design assistant for Emmet Joyce, then landed a job overseeing a cutting room. In 1929 McCardell met designer Robert Turk whom she then began working for. 

Unlike most designers of her time, McCardell looked to the typical American woman for design inspiration. She wanted to design clothing that was practical and inexpensive. In 1938 McCardell had her first big hit, the monastic dress.

The monastic dress was a loose-fitting shift that could be synched at the waist with a belt. A few years later McCardell released a line of separates that could be mixed-and-matched by women who were looking for easy, yet fashionable outfits.

During WWII women’s roles began to change and McCardell’s designs offered the practicality and comfort that women needed.

Mary Quant

English fashion designer, Mary Quant is largely credited with popularizing the miniskirt and hotpants. The designer also played a key role in the mod fashion movement with her bright and bold designs.

Dame Mary Barbara Quant was born in 1934 in London, England. Quant began designing and manufacturing clothing after graduating from Goldsmiths, University of London while she was working as a hat maker.

With the help of her husband, Alexander Plunkett-Greene, Quant opened her first boutique in 1955. She strived to be fun and trendy, but also affordable for young customers.

The mini skirt perfectly represents the changing times of the 1960s. The youthful design served as a symbol of sexual liberation for young women. Quant also believed that the short hemline made it easier to catch the bus.

But the designer credits the girls on the street as inventing the mini skirt, as they kept wanting shorter and shorter hemlines. Quant named the skirt after her favorite car, the Mini Cooper. 

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood is seen as the backbone of the punk fashion movement in England during the 70s and 80s. 

Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood, 78, was born in Derbyshire, England in 1941. Westwood’s first career path began in teaching, but everything changed after a divorce from her first husband.

After meeting Malcolm Mclaren, who eventually became the manager of the Sex Pistols, Westwood became immersed in the creative world. 

In 1971 Mclaren opened the boutique, Let it Rock, where Westwood began selling her pieces. The boutique underwent several name changes before ultimately being named Seditionaries. After Mclaren became the Sex Pistol’s manager, Westwood began dressing the band’s members which greatly helped shape their identity.

The designer debuted her first collection, Pirates, in 1981, which proved to be a big success and helped in growing her platform. In the last two decades, Westwood has remained a prominent designer while explicitly conveying political messages through her designs and also creating androgynous looks.

Even if  you are more of a fan of Chanel’s little black dress, or are drawn to Westwood’s bold prints and colors, I think it can be agreed that all five of these women continue to have such a strong influence in the fashion world. Reading stories about women like them serve as powerful reminders that if you put in the hard work there is no goal that is too big to achieve. 

Happy Women’s History Month!


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