WORDS BY STEPHEN YU & HOLLIE MOAT
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, in honour of Britain’s long standing tradition and contributions to the world of fashion, we thought we’d also take a look at some of the most influential fashion designers the United Kingdom has ever produced…
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.
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.
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, the 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. Now, with Ricardo Tisci at its helm, Burberry has taken on a more distinctly youthful feel with its monogrammed logo and check print at the heart of its street-inspired rebrand.
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 the Royal Wedding.
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 embossed leather, rainbow hued tulle and applique, and minimal metallics.
Along with Frenchman André Courrèges, Quant is one of the Sixties designers who takes credit for the mini-skirt, a garment that literally revolutionised the fashion world. 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 until 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.
Katharine 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.
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.
While McQueen may be seen as British fashion’s bad boy, John Galliano comes a close second. Gibraltar-born Galliano is just as well known for his antics off the catwalk, as his flamboyant end-of-show outfits and the dazzling haute couture fashion he showcases on it. Ill behaviour aside, Galliano changed the face of fashion with his contemporary interpretation of historical period silhouettes, with bygone eras, events and movements like the French Revolution, Edwardian times, Surrealism and China’s Red Guards all serving as inspiration for his eponymous label. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the reinvention of the bias cut dress which came to define 90s femininity. Forever remembered for his tenure at French house Dior, during which he made a dress for Princess Diana, Galliano has recently extended his contract at Martin Margiela.
From Posh Spice to revered fashion designer, Victoria Beckham has masterfully rebranded herself from an averagely dressed member of Britain’s best girl band to become a commercially and critically acclaimed designer and businesswoman. Her debut collection of just ten dresses was introduced to the world in an intimate presentation, and was unanimously agreed to be flawless. For a WAG who was famously caught wearing fake Louis Vuitton, VB has proven to her naysayers that she is more than just a footballer's wife. Now, 10 years later Beckham has set up a thriving and respected business that few designers, let alone celebrities can dream of. Her roll neck cashmere knitwear and separates are a perennial must-have.
Okay, so Erdem Moralıoğlu was born in Canada, but the Turkish designer’s label is based in London so we’re taking him as one of his own. After studying at London’s Royal College of Art, and time working with Diane von Fürstenberg, Edrdem decided to found his own label. As part of the post-recession wave of London-based designers that would take the fashion world by storm, Erdem remains alone in the fact his business is still completely independent. What this means, is that his image remains singular and unwavering in it’s vision of old world elegance. His luxurious clothing line focuses on the use of exquisite fabrics to create beautiful silhouettes and he’s known as the master of print for good reason. By mixing these bold elements with more delicate details like lace and tulle, Erdem presents a very powerful image of modern femininity. It’s for this reason that Erdem is worn by some of the most iconic women the world over – Alexa Chung, Kierea Knightley and Meghan Markle are all fans.
As with many designers, Northern Irish Anderson wears two hats as he splits his time between being JW Anderson of his eponymous label, and Jonathan Anderson of Loewe. Through his own line, he collaborated with Topshop, before being snapped up by Donatella Versace for her Versus line, and getting investment from LVMH group. Meanwhile, his overhauling of the ultimate Spanish luxury brand is one of modern day fashion’s greatest triumphs, up there with Philo’s Celine, and Michele’s Gucci. Rather than resting on its laurels as the clothier of Spanish royalty, modern day Loewe under Anderson has become about embodying culture, with each store becoming a destination in its own right with its masterfully curated artwork, interior design, fashion and music. More importantly, Anderson has imbued Loewe’s heritage – it’s known as the Spanish Hermès after all – with his own personal aesthetic. His gender-blurring designs which saw men walk the catwalks in lace and skirts have come to define the current fashion zeitgeist.
Famous Parent Syndrome can be a hell of a curse, but just like Stella McCartney, Simone Rocha has turned it into a superpower. Her father is famous Hong Kong-born Ireland-based fashion designer John Rocha, and it was in his studio where a young Simone would cut her teeth as an intern from the ages of 13-18. It was clear that fashion was in her blood. Now, a mother with a fully fledged fashion label, Simone Rocha’s design approach is typified by its contemporary spin on traditional femininity, taking romantic details like lace, pearls and veils and injecting them with a modern energy and masculine overtones. The ruffled and puff sleeved dresses you see on the streets? That’s totally Simone’s doing.
Craig Green’s career started with a bang. His introduction to the fashion world, was an AW13 collection complete with wooden sculptures as masks, that was adored by the fashion press yet mocked by the Daily Mail and fashion week regular David Gandy. Nevertheless, it would be the industry insiders who would matter the most, his next show would drive fashion editors to tears, whilst Comme des Garçons were so impressed with his debut show they would display his 2015 collection at their legendary Dover Street Market location, a move practically unprecedented for a fresh graduate of fashion. Today, Green continues to change the face of menswear with his unisex and gender neutral designs that fuse utilitarian workwear with exotic fabrics and a conceptual approach.
In a parallel universe, Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall would be working a regular 9-5 somewhere in the midlands. But we’re so glad he isn’t. After reaching out to Virgil Abloh, Ross was given an assistant role at Off-White which would bring him back to his birthplace of London. It would be here that he would start A-Cold-Wall, a brand many are quick to categorise as ‘streetwear’ when it is so much more. With ACW, Ross effortlessly fuses functionality and utilitarian pieces with a concept driven approach. Garments are constructed from durable fabrics like wool in combination with more aesthetic materials like transparent polymers, while zipped pockets and openings are found next to sculptural shapes and cutouts. One to watch for the future, definitely.
Martine Rose is the designer behind the shift in silhouettes that’s overtaken the fashion world in recent years. She’s the reason everyone has swapped their skinny jeans for something more slouchy. Yes, after her 2007 debut with a shirting line, Rose was snapped up by Kanye West to work on his Yeezy collection. Following this, her work would capture the eye of fellow Yeezy collaborator Demna Gvasalia, who would take her on-board when he took the helm at Balenciaga. It’s Rose’s distinctive proportions that would be behind both brands shared vision for the future of fashion – the oversized aesthetic that prevails today. Since 2017, Rose has focused on her own line which is loved for its references to British subculture and its unconventional runway locations like rock climbing centres and real east-end markets.
The most hyped designer of the minute and the mastermind behind the it brand of 2019, Daniel Lee rose from relative obscurity in 2018 to become the head designer at Bottega Veneta. His transformation of the luxury leather goods brands have seen their directional yet easy wearing RTW become the most sought after in the world of fashion, and given Lee’s background we can see why. Daniel was Phoebe Philo’s RTW design director at Celine, so fans of ‘old Celine’ rather than Hedi Slimane’s recreation in his own image, are rejoicing as Bottega Veneta is hotly tipped to become Celine 2.0. His reinterpretations of Bottega Veneta’s signature woven handbag, slip-on leather heels and hobo bag are this season’s must-have items, and we look forward to what he comes up with next.