Authors: Brenda Polan
BRENDA POLAN AND ROGER TREDRE
There are 50 designers in this book. Are they really the greatest designers of all time? Your call! Our selection was achieved only through much debate, sometimes learned and courteous, sometimes outrageous and alcohol-fuelled. We acknowledge the impossibility of achieving consensus for such a list. Creating a list of fashion designer all-time greats is a wonderful parlour game that we hope all our readers can enjoy playing. Our choices reflect our careers and our personal interests, although not too much (we hope) our British nationality.
We began on this project modestly enough by simply planning to bring together in book form our collected interviews with designers over the years, published mostly in British newspapers and magazines. It was a comprehensive list, we thought, dating right back to Brenda Polan's interview with AndrÃ© CourrÃ¨ges in August 1979 for
. They ranged from the detailed and in-depth (four interviews with John Galliano over a period of four months leading up to his spring/summer 1991 show in Paris) to the on the fly and brief (twenty minutes with Tom Ford backstage after a YSL menswear show in January 2001). In total, we have interviewed eighteen of the designers in this book (and many more who are not).
In his witty and insightful book,
The Glass of Fashion
, Cecil Beaton wrote: âDressmakers â¦ are apt to hate their
and seldom meet one another, for jealousy, envy and rivalry consume them. With few exceptions they are a tiresome, unreliable brood. Almost all inarticulate, they have never invented their own vocabulary, and their abuse of the French words
have almost robbed these adjectives of their significance.' Although we regretfully note that some designers do indeed live down to Beaton's critique, we found the names we've spoken to over the years were often articulateâparticularly if you caught them away from the frenzy of the show season. But our plan to turn our collected interviews into a book was abandoned after thoroughly rereading them. Although these interviews provide valuable insights into designers' thought processes and work methods, they are moments in time. Many of them read to us as outdated. The designers had moved on, and so had we. How much better, we thought, to write essays that summed up these designers' careers, drawing on our personal insights into their work and all those valuable transcripts gathered over the years. We also read widely, including the available books and academic literature and the wealth of interviews in newspapers and magazines (mostly in Britain and America) by our journalistic colleagues. We have endeavoured to cite all our sources accurately: if we have overlooked any reference, we will rectify it in future editions of this book.
The book evolved into a broader project as we discussed who were suitable subjects for inclusion. As we both segued in our respective careers during the early noughties from the arena of journalism to the world of teaching at University of the Arts London, our interests broadened and deepened. Exploring the career of Karl Lagerfeld naturally led us to revisit the career of Chanel; likewise Nicolas GhesquiÃ¨re prompted a rediscovery of Balenciaga.
We have endeavoured to produce the book we wish we had in our hands when we were feeling our way into fashion: a comprehensive introduction to the most important designers, with guidance for further reading, written in an accessible but authoritative style. The personalities of the designers
are as interesting to us as their designsâthe two often intertwine, most notably in the career and life of Chanel. Our book complete, we marvel at the constant capacity of fashion to renew itself and stay fresh. And we hope that you, the reader, enjoy sharing this with us.
In 2001 American fashion trade newspaper
Women's Wear Daily (WWD)
marked its ninetieth anniversary by asking fifty-three leading designers who were the three most important designers of the past ninety years. The results were fascinating, not perhaps for the runaway âwinners' (Coco Chanel with thirty-four votes and Yves Saint Laurent with twenty-nine), but for the other names cited and the explanations offered. Giorgio Armani cited Jean Paul Gaultier among his top three (âfor his ability to make fashion ironic'). Nicolas GhesquiÃ¨re included Issey Miyake (âhe gave the Japanese concept of deconstruction a European femininity and sensibility'). More unpredictable names who are featured in this book included Adrian and Rudi Gernreich. The ever-prolific Karl Lagerfeld, who received three citations himself, sent a five-page fax dividing the twentieth century into three distinct periods: 1905â1939 (Poiret, Vionnet and Chanel); 1945â1960 (Dior, Balenciaga and Chanel); and 1960â1970 (CourrÃ¨ges, Saint Laurent, Vionnet, Chanel and Balenciaga).
The very earliest couturiers received barely a look-in, perhaps reflecting the short-term memory of fashion (although Alexander McQueen voted for Charles Frederick Worth). The constant interaction between craft and commerce was highlighted, and designers were quick to applaud fellow designers who were skilled at business and marketing as much as creativity. Influence was paramount. âWho has the biggest influence?' declared Karl Lagerfeld. âIt's unimportant who is the most gifted.'
One means of determining influence is to ask the question: who is the most copied? Designers have had an equivocal attitude towards this issue from the very early days of couture, on the one hand threatening legal action against copyists, and on the other hand happy to sell models to upmarket stores for copying. Few have been as relaxed about the issue as Coco Chanelâor American designer Norman Norell, who provided working sketches of his 1960 culotte suit to the trade free of charge to ensure that his design would be copied properly. These days, many designers work directly with their biggest copyists, the fast fashion chain stores, in effect copying themselves by creating low-priced collections in short- or long-term retail linkups.
survey, the designers were also asked to decide who were the three most important designers since 1980: Karl Lagerfeld won the most votes, followed closely by Giorgio Armani, Rei Kawakubo, Jean Paul Gaultier and Tom Ford. Lagerfeld noted Chanel, Gucci and Prada but put fashion designers firmly in their place by referencing Nike, Levi's and Adidas. âThey are fashion for today, too, and worn by more people than the fashion of the fashion world we talk about.' Marc Jacobs brought the designers down to earth by recalling the celebrated comment from fellow American designer Bill Blass that the words âdress' and âimportant' should never be mentioned in the same sentence. âI'm going to paraphrase,' said Jacobs. âThe words âdesigner' and âimportant' should never be mentioned in the same sentence.'
Over the past two decades, the meaning of the term âdesigner' in relation to fashion has become a free-for-all, inviting a wide variety of interpretations. From business moguls to celebrities to genuine creative geniuses, everyone and anyone can claim designer status. The industry was dominated by couturiers until the 1960s when the ready-to-wear
came to the fore. In more recent years, the broader interpretation of designer has made it challenging to define true greatnessâmany designers
are only as good as the team behind them. Is the product manager a designer? Can the famous personality behind a celebrity brand be considered a designer? For the purposes of this book, we have accepted an all-embracing interpretation of the word, covering skill sets ranging from pure design to brand management and marketing to pure business. In the final analysis, though, it is the
of each individual designer that has driven our selection. Echoing Karl Lagerfeld's point to
, talent is not enough.
We have acknowledged the significance of commercial achievements in compiling our list. British designer Paul Smith may strike some readers as a surprise choice, but his success as an Englishman in creating an international fashion brand without the backing of a major luxury group gives him a unique status. Success is founded, he says, on being â90 per cent businessman and 10 per cent designer'.
Many great designers have also been great business people, and others have succeeded through long-lasting linkups with business-minded partners, such as Yves Saint Laurent with Pierre BergÃ©. We were inspired by the ground-breaking research of Nancy J. Troy, the American fashion historian, in
Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion
(2003). She explored the links between fashion and commerce, particularly through the work of early twentieth-century couturier Paul Poiret. Designers have always understood the importance of a creative image for driving forward their businesses. An observant reporter for
The New York Times
, writing back in 1913, said of Jeanne Paquin: âShe maintains the attitude of an artist, but we know she is the most commercial artist alive.'