It’s curious to wonder why some designer’s legacies are preserved and others fall to the wayside. Is it the lack of PR, no heir to the design house or were they just bad designers?
While certain designers of the past are remembered today for their ingenuity or are attributed with the "invention" of a particular garment, such as Mary Quant and the miniskirt, scores of designers--like Redfern, Lucile or Mainbocher--who were widely influential in their time have seemingly been forgotten.
The task of resurrecting these legacies thus falls upon the fashion historian, so sit back for a mini fashion history lesson of 10 fashion designers you've probably never heard of but should definitely know.
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John Redfern - The Tailor Designer
English designer John Redfern, operating predominately under the name John Redfern and Sons, was a widely influential designer in the late 19th century. Redfern was one of the first designers to produce tailor-made, two-piece jacket and skirt ensembles constructed in sturdier textiles such as serge and jersey, for the increasingly active women of the late 1800s who yachted and golfed. John Redfern and Sons would reach a wide audience; the house expanded to Paris in 1891, New York in 1884 and ran a successful catalogue-style mail order business. Upon John Redfern’s death, his business partner Charles Poynter, who would go by Charles Poytner Redfern, continued designing for the brand, bringing it well into the 1920s. Some argue that the House of Redfern was most successful under Poynter who became the premier couturier in Paris until Poiret’s debut in 1908. In a period when restrictive and extravagant ensembles were worn throughout the day, Redfern's tailor-mades aided in the dress reform movement of the late nineteenth-century and these designs served as a precursor to the increasingly relaxed clothing styles of the 20th century.
Jacques Doucet - The Art Collector Designer
As a connoisseur of art, Jacques Doucet admitted he merely designed clothing to finance his true passion of art collecting. Nonetheless, Doucet was a world-renowned designer who dressed members of elite society, royalty and actresses. The House of Doucet was originally founded by Jacque’s parents in 1817 and specialized in women's lingerie and laces. In the 1870s, Jacques Doucet inherited the family business, expanding the label with the addition of a couture department that became known for extravagant gowns and tailored suits. Doucet’s taste for art resulted in meticulous quality, unusual color combinations and a reappropriation of artistic elements and motifs. The House of Doucet was one of the most highly regarded couturiers throughout the Belle Époque and into the first quarter of the 20th century and was home to both Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret before they began their own labels.
Lucile – The Lady’s Designer
Titanic survivor and fashion designer Lady Duff-Gordon had a somewhat questionable reputation (her husband reportedly paid off a Titanic crewmember to board a half-empty women and children-only lifeboat with his wife). Regardless, she was a widely influential fashion designer at the turn of the 20th century and throughout the 1920s under the label Lucile. The Lucile aesthetic was ultra-feminine, showcasing the wearer’s sensuality and hinting at the nude body underneath; Duff-Gordon would construct semi-transparent dresses over a nude foundation fabric. Duff-Gordon is most known for promoting the tea-gown, her lavish fashion shows and for assigning poetic names to each of her gowns.
Mariano Fortuny - The Avant-Garde Designer
Coming from a long line of creatives, Mariano Fortuny dabbled in painting, lighting and textile design; however, he's best known for his work as a fashion designer. The Spanish designer dressed avant-garde women at the beginning of the 20th century almost exclusively in his Delphos gown. Unlike most designers whose collections evolve over time, Fortuny’s classically-inspired Delphos gown became his unwavering signature, only slightly varying in color with an added peplum or belt. Fortuny’s Delphos gowns were constructed of finely pleated silk and weighed down by tiny glass beads. At a time when the rigid s-curve corset was in fashion, the body conscious Delphos gown was worn only by the most daring of women, and it took years before women would wear the slinky dress outside of the home.
Jean Patou – The Sporty Designer
The looser, waist-less silhouette of the 1920s was a result of the public’s increasing participation in sports as a leisure activity. Jean Patou, a contemporary of Gabrielle Chanel, would capitalize on this fashionable new pastime, promoting sportswear and even designing activewear for well-known athletes of the period. Patou would insert elements of activewear into his designs, which often consisted of knitted jersey separates with raised hemlines in the androgynous “garçonne” style. Patou is most known for the costume he designed for tennis champ Suzanne Lenglen in 1921. With a wide bandeau tied around her head and a pleated dress falling just below the knee, Lenglen caused a sensation on the court.
Mainbocher - The American in Paris Designer
After serving in WWI, Chicago-born Main Rousseau Bocher moved to Paris and became the Fashion Editor, and later Editor-in-Chief, of Vogue Paris before opening his couture house in 1929. Combining his first and last names, the house of Mainbocher would dress elite society of the interwar period from his salon on Avenue George V, only relocating his atelier to New York City upon the start of the Second World War. Described as startlingly simple, Mainbocher designs were refined, reduced and subtle. Mainbocher’s severe aesthetic appealed to the increasingly modern woman of the period including Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt and most notably, Wallis Simpson. Today, Mainbocher is most remembered for the “Wallis Blue” wedding dress he designed for the Duchess of Windsor in her 1937 marriage to Prince Edward.
Gilbert Adrian – The Hollywood Designer
As lead costume designer for MGM, Gilbert Adrian outfitted stars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow among others in many Hollywood classics. Credited as “Gowns by Adrian,” Adrian is widely responsible for glamour associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood. At a time when French couturiers marginalized American fashion designers, especially costume designers, Adrian was not credited for many of his sartorial contributions to the period. The Adrian aesthetic consisted of draped, bias cut gowns and high-contrast black and white color schemes on a silhouette of wide shoulders and narrow hips. Today, Adrian is most remembered for designing the blue gingham pinafore and ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
Claire McCardell - The All-American Designer
At a period when American designers unabashedly copied dress models by Parisian couturiers, Claire McCardell would soon make a name for herself and help to define the “American Look.” Working as a dressmaker for American labels like Hattie Carnegie, McCardell was often sent to Paris to view the collections in order to later remake them for American markets. However, McCardell found her own sartorial needs when traveling more valuable than the insight provided by the Parisian designs. At the onset of WWII, Parisian designs were no longer available to the American market, providing McCardell with the opportunity to employ her own design philosophies. McCardell rejected the rigid formality of couture in favor of functional, practical clothing that eliminated the girdle and promoted a sense of American ease. McCardell designs were typically constructed in ribbed jersey or denim and her signature design elements include top-stitching, metal closures and decorative buttons.
Norman Norell – The Mermaid Designer
Like Claire McCardell, Norman Norell also designed for Hattie Carnegie; however, when Norell left Carnegie in 1940 to focus on his own label under the name Traina-Norell, his clothing would greatly differ from McCardell’s All-American look. Norell would produce ready-to-wear complete with couture finishes in an overall understated yet impossibly chic look. Norell often employed simple lines, in sharply tailored, collarless suits and wool day dresses. For evening or cocktail hour, Norell’s mermaid dress became the designer’s signature and would highlight every Norell collection until his last in 1972. The mermaid dress consisted of a sleek, sheath dress entirely embellished with hand-sewn sequins and paillettes that glimmered with every movement of the body.
Jacques Fath – The Other New Look Designer
In recalling the great couturiers of Post WWII Paris, Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga and Pierre Balmain come to mind while Jacques Fath is often unremembered. Perhaps attributed to his premature death at the age of 42 in 1954, and the subsequent closure of Maison Jacques Fath three years later, today Fath’s legacy is seemingly unknown to those outside fashion academia. Fath participated in the New Look fashions coming out of Paris after WWII and was a leading force in what is now considered the golden age of couture. With an affinity for tall, slender women, Jacques Fath is most remembered for his form-fitting sheath dresses. His aesthetic promoted an overt femininity and uncompromising glamour, and his designs were often described as fusing Hollywood glamour with Parisian chic.