Fashion Innovators

I was on the Style.com home page, looking around at their headlines, when the runway photo in the upper left hand corner suddenly came to life like the paintings in a Harry Potter movie. I did a double-take. After refreshing the page, it looks like their runway picture transforms into a video feed of the same ensemble after a few seconds. Very cool!

It made me smile, because I’ve been online long enough to remember when most of the major designers refused to put up websites because they didn’t feel the web showcased their designs well enough without using flash-heavy graphics that took forever to load. Then, when they finally got around to putting up websites, no one did ecommerce because they couldn’t believe any legitimate customer would buy high end apparel online. They let the luxury conglomerates like Yoox and Net-a-Porter or department stores like Macy’s and Neiman Marcus take all the risks. Many still do.

Ralph LaurenOne of the few who handles his own ecommerce is Ralph Lauren. His site is very comprehensive, offering clothes, home goods, style guides, runway clips, and more. Small wonder he’s one of the richest designers in the world!

I mention this, because while the fashion industry is full of creative trendsetters who can create couture confections and fantasy runway shows, there are only a handful who also understand the business side of fashion and seek new and different ways to add to their bottom line Ralph Lauren’s one of them. He created the whole “country gentleman” aesthetic – the “preppy look” – in the late 70’s, and segued into housewares, linens, and décor shortly thereafter.

Pierre CardinPierre Cardin is another. He trained briefly under Christian Dior before opening his own atelier in 1950, and he was the first western designer to introduce high fashion to Japan after visiting there in 1959. But he was expelled from the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in the early 60’s for producing ready-to-wear clothes for a French department store. Most of his peers thought is was vulgar, allowing “average people” access to high fashion. With all the money he was making, Cardin didn’t really care. Same with all his licensing deals, which put his name on everything from hosiery to luggage and made him one of the richest men in the world. Envious of his success, many of his fellow designers reluctantly added a ready-to-wear line, and Cardin was reinstated to the Chambre Syndicale in 1966.

Coco ChanelCoco Chanel was another fashion industry innovator. She started out with hats, then moved to clothes, then on to perfume, makeup, jewelry, and other accessories. While many of her early contemporaries like Schiaparelli, Madame Grès, and the Callot Sisters eventually went out of business, the House of Chanel recently celebrated its centennial. Few others can say the same (Hermès started as a saddle shop in 1837; Louis Vuitton began making luggage in 1854).

But perhaps the biggest innovator of all was Charles Frederick Worth, the “Father of Haute Couture.”

I’ve written about Worth before, but here’s how he turned the dressmaking business into the fashion industry that we know, starting in the 1850’s.

House of Worth c. 1888He:

  • Put full size samples on live models
  • Held runway shows
  • Introduced seasonal collections
  • Started the Chambre Syndicale
  • Created a brand that was SO strong, his clients came TO HIM in Paris – no small feat in the days before planes and automobiles.

Now this may not seem like a big deal, but remember, Worth became world renowned with no television, no web, no glossy magazines, no red carpet reviews, no movie reels, no radio announcements, nothing – except newspaper reports and sketches from periodic fashion magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book. He started with a big talent, a big ambition, and one royal client (the Princess Pauline von Metternich), and went on to dictate western fashion for nearly half a century from his shop in Paris.

Why do I mention this?

Well, remember the original Star Wars movie back in 1977?  After being given the green light for Star Wars, George Lucas tried to set up a meeting with the special effects department at 20th Century Fox — only to learn it had been shut down.  How in the heck was he supposed to make his movie?  Undaunted, he formed a company called Industrial Light and Magic for the sole purpose of creating special effects for Star Wars, and exceeded anything he might have been able to do at 20th Century Fox.   They really started honing their techniques with the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back.  Today, ILM is the place to go to for special effects and has been a part of most of the blockbuster movies of the last 30 years, from Indiana Jones and The Abyss to Harry Potter and the Pirates of the Caribbean.  It was born out of frustration, but Lucas pushed the special effects industry to a higher standard because of it.

That’s what Worth, Chanel, Cardin, and Lauren have done for the fashion industry.  From runway shows and signature looks to ready-to-wear and home fashions, their vision set the standard for viewing and consuming apparel that’s so much a part of our lives today.

So the next time you’re flipping through a fashion magazine or watching a runway show online, think about the handful of fashion innovators who brought these tools to fruition. It will make you appreciate them more!


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2 Comments

  • Shel

    Reply Reply March 14, 2011

    The same “out of the box” thinking is what makes for innovators in many industries. It’s usually the outcasts with good ideas that reap rewards and end up with a following. Now, if only I could do that….

    • Diana

      Reply Reply March 23, 2011

      True enough! Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, the DuPont brothers, Thomas Edison, Oprah – a dream + persistence = success.

      You can do it, Shel! If you feel the need, embrace it!

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