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Best of British: Fashion Designers

The first ever couturier was British. Granted, Charles Frederick Worth worked in Paris, but he was born in Bourne, England in 1825 before heading to the French capital to become the favoured designer of Napoleon III’s court, where he drew upon the history of costume to create elaborate, lavish gowns. Over the past 150 years fashion has moved way beyond Worth’s spangled silk tulle and corsets, and some of the most progressive style movements have been down to British designers. They were responsible for the Swinging Sixties and Punk after all.

So as we celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, we thought we’d also take a look at some of the most influential fashion designers her United Kingdom has produced…

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood

Let’s begin with arguably the most influential, not only has Dame Viv had a career that’s spanned five decades (so far) but she was also, along with her one time partner Malcolm McLaren responsible for a whole fashion genre – punk. In the Seventies, inspired by S&M, bondage and bikers she began designing pieces that incorporated tartan, chains and safety pins, sold at her infamous Kings Road store and worn by the likes of the Sex Pistols. In her later years Westwood has become more known for her curve-hugging, corseted dresses.

Westwood in her punk days and Vivienne Westwood Red Label S/S 12

Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney

McCartney had a rocky start to her career (and the shouts of nepotism weren’t helped by the fact she roped in Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell to model in her graduate show) but a few seasons into her position as Creative Director at French label Chloé she hit her stride with quirky designs that were both sexy and girlish. Upon launching her own eponymous label in 2001 she undertook a more grown-up, tailored aesthetic, attracting a high-profile celebrity clientele which has meant her dresses tend to be ubiquitous red carpet staples. One thing that has always remained constant, as a lifelong vegetarian, is her refusal to work with leather or fur.

Stella McCartney S/S 12 and Chloe S/S 01

Burberry

Thomas Burberry

One of Britain’s oldest labels, Burberry didn’t start out as a fashion company, but became famous for a type of hardwearing, waterproof fabric called gabardine, created by founder Thomas Burberry in 1870. It was used by Army officers for their uniforms and Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole. As the 20th century progressed, popularity of their Trench coats soared and their trademark check was unfortunately adopted by Seventies football hooligans. The name of their catwalk collection, Prorsum, is the Latin word for ‘forward’ and that only really happened for the label in 2001 when Yorkshire born designer Christopher Bailey took the creative reigns – his modern and directional take on classic English style wowed the critics and turned the label into one of the industry’s biggest hitters.

Burberry Prorsum S/S 12 and an original Burberry advert

Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen

Right from the word go, whilst cutting his sartorial teeth as a tailor on Savile Row, London born Lee McQueen really earned his reputation as the ‘hooligan of fashion’, famously chalking obscenities into the lining of a blazer for the Prince of Wales. After studying at Central Saint Martins School of Art he was discovered by the iconic late stylist Isabella Blow, who fell in love with the mix of exquisite tailoring and delicate beauty of his designs. In a controversial career he went on to popularise low cut trousers nicknamed ‘bumsters’, debut a collection called ‘Highland Rape’ and had a spell at Givenchy before launching his own line at the start of the 21st century. McQueen took his own life in February 2010 and was succeeded at his label by his former assistant Sarah Burton, whose collections since have earned rave reviews, and was responsible for Kate Middleton’s dress at last Summer’s Royal Wedding.

Alexander McQueen S/S 12 and the Alexander McQueen 'bumsters't

Christopher Kane

Christopher Kane

Scottish designer Kane’s rise to fame was rapid, thanks to his Spring/Summer 07 collection, which showcased body sculpting dresses in bright neon shades with glittering details, and the space age couture aesthetic was an instant hit. Kane was snapped up by Versace to design their Versus line, whilst continuing his own eponymous label which he runs with sister and muse Tammy. What’s interesting about Kane is that he refused to rest on the successful look he’d already established and instead each season sees a new style, with the past few seasons seeing the designer experiment with gothic, floral embosses leather, rainbow hued tulle and applique, and minimal metallics.

Christopher Kane S/S 07 and Christopher Kane S/S 12

Mary Quant

Mary Quant

Along with Frenchman André Courrèges, Quant is one of the Sixties designers who takes credit for the mini-skirt, a garment which literally revolutionised world fashion. Bringing fun and fantasy to fashion, Welsh/English Quant was ideal for the youthquake rocking Britain (though she set up her store in 1955, her designs didn’t take off till several years later). She also brought hotpants to the style table and was one of the first models of Vidal Sassoon’s directional ‘five-point’ haircut.

Jean Shrimpton posing with The Rolling Stones in a Mary Quant dress and a Mary Quant mini-dress

Matthew Williamson

Matthew Williamson

The king of ‘boho chic’, this somewhat outdated term now refers back to when Manchester born Matthew Williamson resurrected the hippy luxe aesthetic to huge popularity at the start of the 21st century. Using bright jewel tones and tactile luxurious fabrics, his pieces took influence from the Far East and Seventies bohemia and were championed by the likes of Helena Christianson, Sienna Miller and Plum Sykes. Since moving back to London Fashion Week after showing in New York for several years, Williamson’s collections have taken on a more traditionally girlish, pretty look.

Matthew Williamson S/S 00 and Matthew Williamson S/S 12

Katharine Hamnett

Katherine Hamnett meeting Margaret Thatcher

Hamnett founded her label in 1979, but it was in the early Eighties that she really rose to prominence, as one of the first designers to use fashion as a political and ethical tool. Her slogan t-shirts (later adopted by the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood with a more playful message), which expressed mantras such as ‘ Choose Life’ and ‘ 58% Don’t Want Pershing’, the latter of which she wore to meet then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Hamnett has continued to have strong political views about the fashion industry, declaring in 2008 that designers at London Fashion Week were racist for not including enough black models, and her t-shirts have continued to spawn hundreds of imitations.

Katherine Hamnett slogan t-shirts

Jonathan Saunders

Jonathan Saunders

An example of a British designer at the start of his career, Spring/Summer 12 has been the Scottish designer’s most successful season yet, with an eye-catching collection that included many of the year’s must-have pieces. A print specialist, Saunders debuted at London Fashion Week in 2003 and his aesthetic has since matured into bright and cheery tailoring with a feminine twist and he has taken up a post at Italian luxury label Pollini as well as collaborating with Topshop on a line.

Jonathan Saunders A/W 04 and Jonathan Saunders S/S 12

Paul Smith

Paul Smith

Nottingham born Smith is one of Britain’s most famous modern tailors, whose contributions to menswear earned him a Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. Smith started his business in his hometown in 1970, opening up his own shop. His bright and inventive approach to shirts and suits saw the business expand to London and eventually become a global brand, with twelve different collections all celebrating his mixture of the classic with the quirky.

Paul Smith S/S 12 and Paul Smith S/S 04

by Hollie Moat