Whether you’re an FIT student or not, you’re probably familiar with the names Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Louis Vuitton. While these iconic fashion designers shaped the industry into what it is today, there are so many more throughout history that deserve the same recognition. A designer can create pieces that everyone recognizes, and still be virtually unknown. Fame in the fashion world is measured by name recognition and longevity. Here is a short list of lesser known historic fashion designers that have had a long standing impact on the fashion industry.
Jacques Heim (1899-1967) & Louis Réard (1897-1984)
While putting their names together makes them seem like partners, they were quite the opposite. Heim and Réard actually competed with each other to make what is known as the modern day bikini. In 1946, Heim designed a two-piece bathing suit named the “atome” as it was the world’s smallest swimsuit at the time. His rival, Réard revealed an even smaller swimsuit just three weeks later. His version was just 30 square inches of fabric and was called the bikini.
Gaby Aghion (1921-2014)
Born in Egypt, Aghion got her start in fashion when she launched the French fashion house, Chloé in 1952. She rejected the stiff fashion of the 50s and instead made flowing, feminine clothing. In addition to creating a brand that still exists today, she is credited with coining the phrase “prêt-à-porter” meaning ready-to-wear. She also hired one of fashion’s most iconic figures, Karl Lagerfeld, when he was just starting out in the industry.
Jean Patou (1880-1936)
Patou worked as a designer in the early 20th century. He was one of the first designers to make sportswear for women in the 1920’s, even being considered the inventor of the tennis skirt. His main goal was to emphasize fashion being natural and comfortable, which involved popularizing cardigans. Patou is also credited with inventing the designer tie, in which men’s ties were made in the same fabric as women’s dresses.
Lady Duff-Gordon (1863-1935)
Duff-Gordon is most well known for being a survivor of the Titanic—and the rumors surrounding her husband’s alleged bribery. Supposedly, he gave the crew members aboard the lifeboat with them checks to last them until their next assignment, but onlookers spread rumors that he was bribing them not to return to save swimmers. However, her fashion line Lucile is also a great topic of conversation. Mostly known for tea gowns, her hallmark was adding handmade silk flowers to her gowns for a delicate feminine finish. Her other signature was giving her gowns long, descriptive names calling them “gowns of emotion”. These names were inspired by popular culture, literature, history and even the personality of the client. Aside from the clothes themselves, Duff-Gordon is credited with training the first fashion models and being the first to present collections in a runway style.
Geoffrey Beene (1924-2004)
Beene’s signature style of clean lines and minimalistic silhouettes have influenced many fashion designers today. However his most notable looks came in the 1970s when he showed gowns made of inexpensive materials such as denim and sweatshirt fabric. These looks combined the comfort of casual clothes with the elegance of evening gowns. One of his most referenced pieces is a sequinned football jersey gown that modern designers including Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford have taken inspiration from.
Jacques Fath (1912-1954)
While Fath was a highly skilled designer, he was often overshadowed by his peers, Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. Fath was an haute couture designer who had hired many well-known designers, including Hubert de Givenchy and Valentino Garavan, as assistants and apprentices. Though his untimely death cut his career short, he was well known in the United States due to his smart marketing strategies. He provided large department stores with two collections of twenty looks. This exposure led to his loyal following in Hollywood, eventually giving him the opportunity to design the costumes for the 1948 film The Red Shoes.
Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949)
Italian designer Mariano Fortuny’s talents stretched beyond clothing. He was an inventor, a photographer, an architect and a lighting engineer. However his biggest achievements were in fashion, including his most famous piece, the “Delphos gown.” These gowns rebelled against the silhouettes of the time period and instead drew inspiration from ancient Greece. The Delphos gowns were hand-pleated using a top-secret method that has not been recreated to this day. Additionally, the dresses featured strands of Murano beads on each side seam that helped the dress fit close to the body.
Gilbert Adrian (1903-1959)
While Gilbert Adrian was a big name in Hollywood at the time, his name is not very familiar to most. Adrian worked on many movies as a costume designer for MGM. Adrian’s signature was making beautiful evening gowns for movies such as Romeo & Juliet (1936), The Women (1939) and Marie Antoinette (1938). However his most famous piece was the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Anne Lowe (1898-1981)
Anne Lowe was the first African-American woman to be noted as a fashion designer. She sold dresses to many high society women, however, she was rarely credited for her work. Her most famous piece is the wedding dress she created for Jacqueline Bouvier as she married then-Senator John F. Kennedy. While this wedding was a highly publicized event, Lowe received no public credit for her work. Continuously taken advantage of, even at the height of her career, Lowe was virtually broke. After losing her store, suffering health issues and reopening, she retired in 1972.
Stephen Sprouse (1953-2004)
If any name on this list sounds familiar to you, it might be this one. Stephen Spouse was an American designer who collaborated with some of the biggest artists of his time. His signature “couture punk” style, often featuring graffiti prints and neon colors, led to all around eye-catching collections. His work grabbed the attention of artists Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, who both collaborated with him to make uniquely printed clothes. Sprouse also collaborated with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 2001 to create limited edition graffiti print bags. Though Sprouse has sadly passed away, his legacy lives on. In 2018, Raf Simons for Calvin Klein sold many different styles of clothing featuring a print of Sprouse’s portrait.
The fashion industry is filled with so many incredibly talented people that it’s nearly impossible to know everything about everyone. Hopefully at least one person on this list has piqued your interest. They’ve all made a significant impact on the fashion industry today, deserving of a spot among the greats.