Fashion week is a big deal, but only the finest haute couture designers ever get to show their most intricate and beautiful designs on the couture runways. The French term ‘haute couture’ means ‘high’ or ‘elegant,’ and has come to describe the most intricate and glamorous of fashion creations.
Haute couture designers are few and far between, but if you’re invited into this exclusive club it’s because your clothes are nothing short of walking artwork. Here are some of the most iconic haute couture designers and fashion houses in history, and the designs that made them legends.
Gianni Versace showed his first Atelier Versace couture collection in 1989, and for his AW 1991-92 collection he sent all of the top models of the time down the runway in his designs, heralding in the age of the supermodel. In 1994, actress Elizabeth Hurley wore “that dress,” a plunging black Versace creation with a bodice held together by oversized gold safety pins, and became the poster child for the fashion house’s decadent ‘90s aesthetic.
When Gianni Versace died in 1997, his sister, Donatella, took over creative direction, and Versace has continued to be a go-to brand for the woman who is confident and sexy in equal measure. For the Fall 2016 couture collection, Donatella took the show in a new direction, focusing on draping and structure rather than her usual embellishment and self-proclaimed “super sexy” aesthetic.
Viktor & Rolf
Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren met while they were students at the Arnhem Academy of Art in the Netherlands in 1988 and bonded over their shared love of glamour and mutual criticism of the hype surrounding the fashion industry. The clever and artistic pair formed Viktor & Rolf, and in the Fall of 1998 debuted their now-iconic atomic bomb silhouette, which was based on the shape of a mushroom cloud created by an atomic bomb.
The next year, the entire Fall/Winter collection, titled Russian Doll, was shown on one model, who stood on a rotating platform, while the designers layered dresses on her. Viktor & Rolf have become some of the best haute couture designers around, and continue to push boundaries, dressing models in literal red carpets, and pieces that transform into works of art, and then back into dresses.
Since Valentino Garavani opened his eponymous fashion house in the 1960s, it has become famous for its couture designs and signature red dresses in a shade that is now known as Valentino Red.
Valentino worked for many high profile clients, including Jacqueline Kennedy, for whom he designed the wedding dress she wore when she married Aristotle Onassis. Valentino held his final haute couture show as head of the brand in 2007, and famous models who had worked with him for years, such as Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, walked the runway. The fashion house’s couture shows continue to be known for its exquisite gowns that are so sought-after by the Hollywood elite.
Elie Saab is a Lebanese fashion designer who came to prominence in 2002 after Halle Berry wore one of his gowns when she became the first African American woman to win an Oscar. His first couture show was characterized by glittering, sexy gowns that were made for red carpets. One of the closing looks was an unforgettable golden gown worn by Karolina Kurkova, who looked very bridal with a matching gold veil draped over her head and shoulders.
For his Fall 2016 couture collection, Saab sent some of the models that walked his catwalk down the runway with young girls in complimentary designs, which the public called his “mommy-and-me” dresses.
Martin Margiela is a designer who has always been a bit mysterious and stayed out of the public eye. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1979, and is now considered an honorary member of the 'Antwerp Six' designers who emerged from the academy in 1980, including Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten.
Maison Margiela is known for his deconstructed work and radical choices. For his Spring 2006 collection, models were wheeled out on trolleys, their bodies slicked with oil, and some plastered with signs that read “Caution: Wet.” The fall of the same year, he created his designs from cast-off fabrics. In 2009 Margiela stepped down from the fashion house, and it was not run by one single director until John Galliano was appointed in 2014.
Perhaps the one of the most iconic haute couture designers, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel opened her first couture fashion house in 1915. Chanel is known for the little black dress, bouclé suits, pearls, and so much more. Forced to close her couture house due to World War II, Chanel reopened it in the 1950s and brought back her original designs, which were just as crowd-pleasing as they had been in the 1920s.
Since 1983, the fashion house has been run by Karl Lagerfeld. Lagerfeld continues to dress the biggest celebrities in the world, just as Chanel herself did. Chanel’s couture collections are always hyper-aware of the brand’s roots and constantly reinvent structured, ladylike suits, demure dresses, and gorgeous details. It’s no wonder this fashion house remains one of the finest haute couture designers ever.