WORDS BY STEPHEN YU
The United States of America isn’t called the land of the free for nothing. After hundreds of years of fashion dominance from the Europeans across the pond, the USA introduced an alien concept to the world of fashion –– democracy. In comparison to France’s haute couture and Great Britain’s Savile Row, what America brought to the table with its workwear and sportswear was fashion for the people, by the people. Functionality and comfort with a heavy dose of counterculture is what started America on its journey to becoming a fashion superpower. Think Levi’s denims and Nike sportswear mixed with NYC skateboarding. By the 20th century, driven by a fashion-savvy celebrity culture hungry for homegrown talent, American fashion designers became some of the most in-demand on the global stage. Here’s just a few of the most legendary American fashion houses, as well as some of the new breed of US designers redefining modern style.
Kickstarting our American fashion designers list is none other than Tommy Hilfiger who’s red, white and blue logo is as synonymous with all things America as the Star-Spangled Banner. Born in 1951, Thomas Jacob Hilfiger started creating clothing as a teenager before opening his own shop, the ‘People’s Place’, which specialised in selling hippie gear like bell-bottom jeans sourced from London and New York. By 1985, he’d moved onto creating preppy clothes with his eponymous menswear label which launched with a PR stunt in the middle of Times Square — much to the ire of his contemporaries. Renowned for its denim and sportswear, what made Tommy Hilfiger such a hit during the 1990s was the designer’s ability to reinvent classic Americana through the lens of pop culture, particularly by tapping into the subculture of music: Tommy became the brand of choice for hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg and the Wu Tang Clan, with R&B star Aaliyah even featuring in one of their campaigns. The connection with music only grew stronger, with Tommy Hilfiger sponsoring the music tours of pop and rock legends like Britney Spears, The Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow and Lenny Kravitz. In recent years, the brand has retained this youth-centric focal point through collaborations with Gigi Hadid and collections focusing on sustainable materials and recycled denim, as well as some of the most creative all-American runway shows of all time.
From humble beginnings as a family-run leather workshop in New York’s Manhattan garment district, Coach has gone on to become the most luxurious of American fashion houses. Entering the women's handbag market in 1941 at a time when most of their competitors were still constructing their bags from cardboard, Coach’s innovative idea of using the same leather as baseball gloves to craft its products seemed truly revolutionary. Strong, soft, flexible and in a variety of classic dyed colourways, the NYC-based American bag designer quickly established itself as an affordable alternative to European luxury brands such as Hermès or Louis Vuitton. By the Noughties, more youthful colourways and new sporty silhouettes followed, making Coach’s range of bags, wallets and accessories like watch straps and phone cases essential for any style-conscious New Yorker or anyone looking for a piece of all-American luxury. Their recent collaboration with Jean Michel Basquiat was a true meeting of New York icons.
Before becoming one of the most celebrated US designers, Virgil Abloh cut his teeth as the man behind some of Kanye West’s most iconic album artwork, as an intern at Fendi, and as one third of DJ collective and fashion label BEEN TRILL. With his first solo brand Pyrex Vision, Abloh introduced the world to his concept of fashion as an art form –– in a move that echoes the Chicago native’s spiritual mentor, artist Marcel Duchamp and his readymades, the first collection was screen printed on discounted Ralph Lauren flannels yet sold for $550. By 2013, the DIY approach of Pyrex had been retired for something much more polished: the multi-disciplinary creative project known as Off-White. Though fashion is its main medium, Off-White exists in the space between streetwear, luxury, art, music and travel — or as Abloh likes to put it, occupying ‘the gray area between black and white as the colour Off-White’. From its Milan HQ, Off-White somehow manages to turn its satirical take on pop culture into well-designed luxury streetwear pieces that everyone wants to wear. Whether it’s industrial belts, random words in air quotes, sold-out Nike collabs or tees adorned with diagonal lines and crosses, Off-White is proof that whatever Virgil touches turns to gold.
Who knew that a small collection of neckwear sold out of a desk drawer in the Empire State Building would go on to become one of America's greatest fashion empires. What Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Reuben Lifshitz) does best with his namesake brand is capture not only the aesthetic but the aspirational lifestyles of America’s elite, before repackaging it and selling it back to them – and us. His romantic love letter to American culture has birthed some of the finest tailoring found stateside, along with America’s answer to the Fred Perry or Lacoste polo shirt, as well as some of the most memorable collections ode to classic Americana like cowboys or safari trips. Its trademark polo player emblem is now an internationally recognised status symbol, while revivals of their 1990s Polo Sport range and collaborations with London skate brand Palace shows Ralph still knows how to move with the times.
As an experienced fashion PR and advertising professional for brands such as Vera Wang and Loewe, and with a very unique sense of style, Tory Burch had everything necessary to create her own fashion brand. So in 2004 that’s exactly what she did. Launching in a dedicated retail space in New York’s trendy Nolita district, ‘TRB by Tory Burch’ – which was designed on Tory’s kitchen table – brought its founders unique vision of American bohemian-preppy sportswear to the masses, and was practically sold out from day one. Since then, co-signs from Oprah Winfrey as well as being featured in TV series Gossip Girl have turned this darling of the NYFW calendar into an internationally recognised superbrand. From high-end handbags to ballet flats and sunglasses, anything adorned with Tory’s iconic T-logo is bound to become the accessory du jour.
What Telfar Clemens has achieved with his eponymous label is proof that good things come to those who wait. As a Queens native and part-time DJ, Clemens runs in the same circles as Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air yet it took over a decade for his work as a fashion designer to gain recognition in the industry. When the vegan leather Telfar bag (dubbed the ‘Bushwick Birkin’) with its affordable price point unexpectedly became the It bag of 2020, it signalled acceptance of Clemens’ vision of the future of fashion at both a consumer and industry level. On the surface, Telfar is a unisex brand putting its own subversive twist on classic Americana, but underneath is a deeper purpose – that of a black-owned, non-gendered fashion project that seeks to democratise fashion and make luxury accessible to all.
Proenza Schouler began life as a senior thesis partnership between Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, who met at legendary American college Parsons School of Design. With its name derived from the maiden names of the two designers' mothers, the graduate collection was immediately picked up by one of America’s biggest department stores –– Barneys –– immediately catapulting the duo to the top of the New York fashion scene. Initially a reaction against the deconstructed fashion that defined the fashion of the early Noughties, Hernandez and McCollough brought couture-level craftsmanship back to American fashion with the belief that the most luxurious objects in the world were handmade. Today, they combine this artisanal approach with custom fabrics and a variety of contemporary art and architecture references, resulting in a cosmopolitan clothing and footwear brand geared towards the modern women. Best known for its iconic PS1 bag, the Proenza Schouler universe has grown to encompass fragrances as well as a range of casual T-shirts, chunky boots, sculptural dresses and sharp tailoring.
When Brits Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig met at a life-drawing class at London’s prestigious Chelsea College of Art & Design, little did they know that their friendship would blossom into a design partnership that would see their brand Marchesa dominate the red carpets for the decade to come. Named after the eccentric Italian Marchesa Luisa Casati, Marchesa has established itself as the go-to for Hollywood A-listers seeking that unforgettable dress for film premieres and award shows. Marchesa Notte is the more approachable sister brand to the mainline, yet don’t think for a second that it’s any less dazzling. Expect the same cocktail dresses, floor-sweeping evening dresses and chic mini dresses, with the same ruffles, asymmetric cuts, floral embroideries and attention to detail that have become somewhat of a hallmark of the brand.
A relative newcomer to American fashion, Catherine Holstein only founded Khaite (pronounced “Kate”) in 2016, but it has quickly established itself as a firm favourite for industry insiders, receiving a huge popularity boost when American actress Katie Holmes was spotted wearing its cashmere cardigan and bra set in 2019. Though the NYC-based brand evolves every season, what never changes is Holstein’s knack for balancing wearability with sensuality-creating wardrobe staples. Denim and oversized knitwear is comfortable yet still feel sophisticated in their detailing and craftsmanship. Ultimately, what defines Khaite’s 21st century reimagination of classic American sportswear is contrast –– the ability to perfectly meld the old and new, masculine and feminine, or the subtle and striking.
Most famed for dressing presidential wives like Jackie Kennedy, Oscar de la Renta was America’s master couturier. While studying art in Spain as a teenager, a young de la Renta was commissioned to design a gown for the daughter of the US Ambassador. The dress would eventually end up gracing the cover of LIFE magazine, driving the young Dominican to leave the art world behind for fashion. His sketches would gain him an apprenticeship with his future mentor and Spain’s most renowned couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga. Stints at Lanvin and Elizabeth Arden would follow before de la Renta would set up his own RTW brand at the advice of then Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland. Though Oscar de la Renta sadly passed away in 2014, co-creative directors Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia continue to bring a fresh vision to the founder’s sophisticated and modern eveningwear and accessories range adored for its vivid colours, vibrant prints and romantic European silhouettes.
Anyone who handcrafts stage pieces for rock legends like Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses or Steven Tyler of Aerosmith seems destined to become one of America’s top designers. Enter Mike Amiri. After doing exactly this, the LA native set up his namesake brand Amiri, which took the fashion world by storm with its achingly cool distressed denims, leather biker jackets and grungy flannel shirting. By combining his signature DIY aesthetic, honed over years of styling some of the gods of rock with hand-finished details and luxury fabrics, Amiri has established itself as a modern luxury brand. Add meticulous tailoring and hints of LA street and skate culture and it’s clear that Mike Amiri is America’s answer to Hedi Slimane.